The British Champion Of Champions Contest

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Guest post by martyn cooper

Senior Firer Star Fireworks

First appeared in Fireworks ( Magazine )

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Our 2010 winning display

As a result of our victory in 2010 we were invited to take part in the 2013 Champion of Champions competition

I woke with a start, and glanced at my watch…  ‘Great’ I thought to myself..  ‘03:30 and I’ve dozed off again!’  the laptop screen remained looking exactly as it did last time I looked at it, the small green triangle indicating the current location of this year’s pyro order sat blinking, seemingly unmoving, where I’d left it in the middle of the South China Sea. There was only 4 weeks to go!! This was going to be cutting it fine!!!

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Planning had been going well.  The competition display had been designed by Andy.  Crew was all selected and spirits had been high.  All the fireworks required had been chosen months ago, and our reliable contact in China had promised us everything would be here in ample of time for testing and prepping for what was the biggest display this year…   the British Firework Championships.  This year’s competition was special, not just a normal year, but the Champion of Champions year.  All the winners from the previous six years would be there, including us, Star had won the coveted trophy in 2010, and we were pulling out all the stops to show it wasn’t a one off.  We were going there to win it, and win it well, however, a tropical Typhoon in China was doing its best to scupper those efforts before we’d even loaded the vans!!! It’s no good….   Staring at the screen won’t make it go any faster….   I went to bed hoping our container didn’t fall off the boat. Memories of the ill-fated George Clooney in the Perfect Storm somehow forcing their way into my dreams!!

Two weeks later and all fears of sinking boats are purged from my mind, to be replaced with the agonising memories that come with unloading a 40ft container or two by hand!!!  That and the relief that pretty much everything we needed was now safely stored in our compound. However, with an unforgiving relentlessness, the clock continued to tick forward. Four weeks had been cut to two and even though all the required technical administration had been done weeks, ago the major bulk of getting this show together into a winning display was yet to be done.   Relief was soon replaced by trepidation as the enormity of the task ahead began to reveal itself as pile after pile of boxes of pyro. Two weeks….   Really??  Just 14 days??  Could we do it??  

Course we can…. We’re Star Fireworks….   This is what we do!!!

Only a couple of days left now!!  Our transport was scheduled to arrive in the next few hours, and we were almost ready!!   I reached for another box of single shot….   Just a few more boxes and we’d be finished.   Labelling every firework with its cue, its unique identifier that dictated where exactly it should be connected to the FireOne system we had chosen as our Firing System. To be frank, it really hadn’t ever been a decision to make, there was no contender other than FireOne.  It had proved itself time and time again. We had faith in it….   I didn’t need to keep my fingers crossed, but this was an important competition, so I did anyway.   I decided that applying ‘Gaffa’ tape was too difficult with crossed fingers so quickly uncrossed them before anyone noticed and thought I’d been in the prep shed for too long… cabin fever setting in maybe!  It’s not like I was the only one there either!!  It takes a special type of person to prep for a display like this… and Star had its fair share…  from the team that had spent the past few weekends engaged in a woodwork project that would be a vital component of the setup, to the full time guys that spent days maintaining hardware and doing day to day business, all the way to the sweat soaked team currently in the shed…  slowly going crazy in the heat of the summer as they marked firework after firework, and then carefully sorting them into the right box to try and make things easier on the impending big day!!   Everyone was involved in some way or another…  Employees, Crew, wives, girlfriends….  You name them, everyone had a role, and took pride in it!!  


If there was a prize for teamwork then Star had that one in the bag already!!

I tossed the last Comet back in its box!!  Put my pen down and double checked the sheet I had been following for the past few days!!  Looked like we were all present and correct, nothing missing here.  I glanced across to the others in the shed, we nodded to each other…   words weren’t necessary by this point!!   We had being doing this long enough to acknowledge the completion without actually speaking!!  Fingers sore from tape, and stained with permanent marker we left the shed and locked the last of the boxes away. Tomorrow the real hard physical work started!! So far we’d just been moving boxes about and writing numbers!  Just time to pop home, grab a couple of hours sleep and throw together a kitbag with everything I’d need for the coming days. I knew I wouldn’t be the only one.  We had an impressive crew assembled for this year, veterans of previous years and other competitions and ‘fresh meat’ eager to get involved and prove their worth in the tough competition environment.  They would all be doing the same getting ready.   It was a reassuring thought as I headed down the M4.  We’d all meet up just a short time from now at our storage facilities,  affectionately referred to as ‘Ninja HQ’ by some of the older hands on the crew…  thinking about it.., maybe cabin fever had set in long ago!!   

D-Day…  Tuesday 13th August 2013…

High spirits were certainly the order of the day!!  This was the first time the majority of the crew had been together for months, and news and gossip was being exchanged as the lorry turned into the yard.  We had decided, as in previous years, the bulk of the hardware would go on a lorry. The fireworks would be split between a couple of smaller vehicles plated and driven by our ADR qualified drivers, myself included.  Many hands make light work the saying goes, and when loading fireworks that seemed certainly true. Those vans were loaded double quick! Not sure the saying applies so well to shell racks though, and those without a shadow of a doubt, were the bulk of the hardware to be loaded onto the lorry, each of the larger ones weighing enough to require a two man lift, they all had to be manually lifted the four and a half feet to the bed of the lorry before being stacked neatly and strapped down into position. We had overcome enough worries already for this display without having to worry if our racks would end up bouncing down the M5 en route to Plymouth.  The initial adrenaline surges soon wore off and it wasn’t without a audible sigh of relief from all involved when the last of the straps was tightened off signalling the loading was over!!   Time to jump in the vehicles and head South West!!  Next stop the Naval Base in Plymouth where we could store the hazardous loads overnight. Those not headed to the Base would check in at the accommodations, we would rendezvous at the pub as was traditional for events like this!!

The journey was uneventful, the hours passed as slowly as the miles.  Thoughts of last year’s event were discussed, it had never been cancelled, but the competitive element had been removed 12 months before due to bad weather conditions and restrictions placed on some of the teams. We all hoped it wouldn’t be repeated this year. Somehow we managed to pass our equipment lorry twice on the same motorway!!  Discussions of a quantum paradox were getting heated before it was decided the ‘Matrix’ was to blame… I hate cabin fever!!    

We pulled into the Naval base and waited patiently the required time the Explosives officials from the Navy dictated we should. Ample time to make sure our vans wouldn’t burst into flame on their own.  We were familiar faces, as were they… and idle chatter about that evenings displays and the events of the previous year soon ran the clock down, we were free to leave.   We had time to relax a little, and the pub beckoned. Final team briefing and a bite to eat before we watched the shows that night.    As in previous years three teams would compete on the first night, followed by three further teams the following day.  We were a ‘Day two’ team and although I didn’t mention it, I suspect I wasn’t alone in looking forward to seeing what our competitors would demonstrate in their displays on that first night.

The assembled mass at the pub was an impressive sight.  The full crew, plus helpers and spouses and friends were gathered, all eager for the coming competition, and all wearing Star Fireworks branded clothing. There would be no mistaking who we were, and why we were in Plymouth!! Briefing and banter soon meant it was show time. We downed our drinks, then the crew and I made our way up to the viewing high up by the Citadel, it was packed.   The teams for tonight had some good conditions for their setup, so it should be a good night.   They certainly didn’t disappoint!!   When we all went to bed that night we all knew that we had a competition on our hands.   All the teams there were Champions, and those displays reinforced that fact it to anyone who may have forgotten.  Some of the first-timers on the crew were wide eyed in awe as they had watched.  Tomorrow was our turn, and we had a lot to match!!

6am alarm!!!   Bleary eyed and groggy after an uneasy night of anticipation I got up and looked out the window of my hotel room, I wished I hadn’t!!   It was raining!!   Fortune favours the brave they say…..   I wasn’t sure bravery was needed today… just waterproofs I thought as I trudged to the shower, that and the fact this was probably the warmest I would be today!!  An hour later I was scrubbed, suitably attired (shorts and t-shirt, despite the cold wet conditions it’s the staple requirement for competition and something of an expectation amongst the crew) departed from the Naval Base and at the entry to the Mountbatten Breakwater ready to make a start.  We had to let the other teams on first. We had drawn the end furthest from the Lighthouse.  This had its advantages, but also meant we were first to fire that night if the usual prevailing wind kept to its norm, still, that was a long way away. In front of us was just a long strip of concrete covered in the debris from the previous night’s impressive displays. As I watched the other two teams manoeuvre their vehicles into position I couldn’t help but wonder if the rain was settled for the day.  So much planning, and preparation to this point, was our luck so bad that we would have to contend with rain all day now??   I hoped not as my turn came to steer the van onto the breakwater.  That constant companion of the past few weeks came back to us…time.  The clock was ticking once again…   only this time when it ran out it meant only one thing… firing time!!

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We broke into teams, our first priority had to be getting the shell racks into position. We had three sites for our shells, many more for our ground based barrages and single shots, and a very confined space into which we had to fit everything.  It was the same for all the teams, but we had gone all out this year, and our shell allocation within the display was bigger this year than in previous years.  All the teams had a bigger NEQ allowance this year than before. NEQ – put simply, the actual amount of gunpowder contained in their fireworks that they could use. A whole 10% bigger than previous years in fact, but we, or rather, I should say our lead designer and Director, Andy Hubble, had spent many hours on the concept and had designed our show to allocate more shells, and so we used more space than we had before.  It dawned on all of us that this was going to be a tight squeeze, but there was no going back now.  Our other primary lead on the team, Andy’s fellow Director and Display Manager Sean Durcan, had devised a plan, and as a team we were working to it.  We rallied together and got all the equipment out in an orderly and disciplined manner.  We went right up to the limits of our allocated space but held our boundaries, and as we stood back to admire our first achievement of the day, we took delight not only in the fact that the first half of the heavy lifting for the day was done, but that in it actually seemed that the rain was starting to clear!!   This in contrast to an earlier statement from one of our crew, another Andy, who had been a student in Plymouth in years before who stated, ‘If you can see the island the weather is clearing’… only to be replied to in unison with ‘what island??’

Crew experience and a well-planned running order meant that although for some this was their first outing on a show such as this the setup went smoothly and without incident.  The weather had in fact cleared up, and although tight, we found the space we needed to fit everything in.  It was good to see familiar faces in the other crews and admiring glances at our set up as we also admired what the others were doing.  Judging by what I could see this evening shows were promising to be every bit as entertaining as the night before.

The time ticked by, and steadily the number of completed sections grew and grew.  Judges came and went, and came again, and we were joined during the day (the drier parts at least) by none other than Iwan Thomas MBE and a crew from the BBC who were filming for a segment for an upcoming episode of the One Show!!  We would be famous!!  I had to tell myself to look busy when the camera was on me!!  Only to find when watching the final edit in the following days all my best bits ended up on the cutting room floor!   In fact... in a travesty of editing, all my bits ended up on the cutting room floor!!  Bang went my chance for a life of celebrity!!

Incredibly after what seemed like an age of plugging in, waterproofing, routing and rerouting of cables the setup was complete. All that was left was a quick test of the system, identify and resolve the handful of anomalies it threw up and we’d be done!!  Dare we hope for a perfect first time test on such a large setup? We’d only ever managed it on slightly smaller shows… this would be the cream on……..  Oh... wait… a handful of failures!!  Still, not bad.  The trouble shooters were dispatched and true to form all the issues were fixed in a matter of minutes! We had our finished setup, and ahead of schedule too!! All we had to do now was wait, there was nothing else to be done.

Showtime!!!   The call came over the radio… ‘Star Fireworks….  You are cleared to begin’ that was our cue. All the anguish of the past weeks boiled down to this moment!!  We were relying now upon the skill of our designer and the skill of our crew in executing the setup to fulfil that design….   The waiting was over…  I held my breath next to the firing system….  FireOne had been live for the past 5 minutes….  Nothing could go wrong…. Could it???    ‘Star Fireworks here….  Acknowledged, over’ then the ‘FIRE’ button was pressed……..  

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Standing that close to a display of that intensity as it begins I can only describe as awesome!  Our show had been designed to have a thunderous opening sequence, and although I have been amongst many displays both as a manual and electrical firer in the past nothing really prepares you for an electrical display that large erupting into life, even at a safe distance.   As soon as it was apparent it was firing correctly it was time to retreat to safety. I not so much sprinted as engaged a gentle jog back toward the rest of the team located at the land end of the breakwater.  I would watch from there, that was plenty close enough!!  I re-joined the group, and we stood with the other two teams and Iwan to watch the results of our labours.  It looked good…   it looked very good, and various comments made were backing that up!!  Everything appeared to be going to plan…    was that a low burst???  Certainly looked like it, I wasn’t alone having a heart in mouth moment, still, everything was continuing ok, so nothing to worry about! For exactly the next ten minutes 550Kg of gunpowder spread between some two and a half tonnes of fireworks and launched from a further five tonnes of hardware was launched into the sky in a dazzling series of choreographed set pieces designed to thrill and delight the watching crowd and judges alike.  Peonies, Rings, Crossettes, Willows, Strobes, Comets, Chrysanthemum and some more exotically named varieties such as Dragon Eggs, Stained Glass, Dancing Dragons guarding golden showers with mixed egg noodles filled the sky!! (Ok… maybe not the last one, but you get the idea), then as abruptly as it had begun…our ten minutes was up!  Our show had run its course and we had nothing more to do except a quick safety/fire check and watch the other displays, then wait for the result.

The next two displays were amazing too, this was the contest everyone had hoped for, all memories of last year dispelled completely!!  I had no idea which way it would go, and although I had a shortlist in my mind I couldn’t be sure, we’d just have to wait and see!!  No point in dwelling on it, we still had a job to do, the site wasn’t going to clear itself!  The delegated party was dispatched to the Citadel for the results and the rest of us gathered ourselves together and, with the vehicles, we made our way back onto the breakwater to begin the clear up.  We pride ourselves on a quick clear up,  not only because we work so well as a team, but also because there was a well-deserved beer or two waiting at the end of it…   the question was… would it be celebratory one, or one of commiseration!!

We were a good halfway into our clear up, it appeared all three teams were making good progress but we still hadn’t heard the result, then a phone rang! A few swift words were exchanged and then the phone was passed to me, ‘Martyn, its Andy, please can you tell the team… We’ve just been awarded the title of Champion of Champions 2013!!!   We’ve done it… we’ve won!!!!’

Suddenly all those long days, late nights and hard work and effort felt worth it.  I gave the phone back, then ran to the railing along the front of the breakwater, climbed up on it and turned toward the crew… ‘Listen in Star Fireworks…..   We’ve just become the Champion of Champions...  Hip hip….’

The whole crew turned and in unison cheered back…’Hooray….   Hip Hip… Hooray!!’  The smiles on the faces and the miraculous appearance of a quality (ahem) branded bottle of 2% cider confirmed that the party had begun…..   The rest of the clear up was over in a blur and we were off site….   I had one last responsibility before I could join the party….. to get the vans back to the Naval Base. That task duly done it was time to meet up with the rest of the crew…  

We truly partied like we’d won it that night, and well into the next morning!!!  And do you know why???   It’s because we had!!

Star Fireworks…. British Firework Championships, Champion of Champions 2013!!!  Well done us!!!