Fly­ing a kite for Cowes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat - Henry Sands

IAM not a sailor, but a cou­ple of years ago I was in­vited to help crew a rac­ing yacht across the At­lantic. The voy­age home took 27 days, and I spent 26 of them hang­ing off the back of the boat throw­ing up.

I sug­gest you never set foot on a boat again, said the skip­per.

I didn’t in­tend to, un­til an old friend in­vited me to crew for him at Cowes. I reck­oned that an At­lantic cross­ing promised a cer­tain ca­chet that was bound to im­press at such a big so­cial oc­ca­sion so, be­fore my new sea legs gave out, I jumped at the chance. I imag­ined a big, ex­pen­sive, ocean-go­ing yacht. This was not the case.

I had al­ways had Cowes, like the rest of the Isle of Wight, down as a slightly el­derly place. As I joined the yachties and spectators pil­ing off the ferry from Southamp­ton, I re­alised I was wrong.

You can tell the sailors from the spectators by the clothes and the sun­tans. The young sailors are golden, the older ones have over­done it, skins baked into dark tan leather. The spectators are the paler ones in less prac­ti­cal cloth­ing.

All of sail­ing is here, from the week­end crowd crew­ing small yachts to pro­fes­sional crews in charge of ocean­go­ing crafts worth mil­lions of dol­lars. Much of the rac­ing takes place out at sea, but there is enough hap­pen­ing near the shore to get a good feel for the ex­cite­ment. It is also thrilling to watch the skill with which the crews ma­noeu­vre the stripped-down rac­ing yachts.

There is lim­ited space for boats around the har­bour, so the berths near­est the cen­tre are re­served for the smartest ones. The fur­ther down the pon­toons, the less im­pres­sive they be­come. My friend Tom’s boat was in fact the very last one you could get to. It was also ex­tremely old (not in the classical sense), had very lit­tle paint­work left, and was only 5.5m long.

I was a lit­tle wor­ried about it sink­ing in the night but I fig­ured that sleep­ing in one of the three bunks inside the cabin would at least make me less con­spic­u­ous. Then Tom men­tioned that, as I was the last to ar­rive, would I mind sleep­ing on deck, for other friends had al­ready taken the bunks.

Like other events in the English sea­son, Cowes has a finely nu­anced so­cial hi­er­ar­chy: tick­ets to the club balls or in­vi­ta­tions to the club bars are highly sought af­ter. At the Royal Yacht Squadron, the most exclusive club on the is­land, blaz­ers and ties are re­quired at all times and the eti­quette is strict. Oth­er­wise the sail­ing crowd swarms into the pubs or the mar­quee near the har­bour. It is here that the crews mix with the tourists and talk about the day’s sail­ing in be­tween danc­ing and booz­ing.

I over­heard the man next to me, kit­ted out in new sail­ing clothes with his boat’s name all over them, try­ing to im­press an at­trac­tive wo­man on his right. Yes, there was noth­ing bet­ter than fly­ing the kite across the pond.

I was not sure whether to be pleased or em­bar­rassed that I could un­der­stand he was re­fer­ring to hoist­ing the spin­naker sail on his boat while sail­ing across the At­lantic. Amaz­ingly, the wo­man looked im­pressed. Only in Cowes would a line this bad work.

I made a men­tal note to cash in on my At­lantic ex­pe­ri­ence. It had to be worth some­thing with the girls around here. But it be­came clear that, just as there are so­cial lev­els at Cowes, so there are dif­fer­ent lev­els of ex­pe­ri­ence. I found my­self talk­ing to a group of young South African sailors. They had been sail­ing all their lives and were be­ing paid a lot to crew for one of the top A-class yachts.

Af­ter hear­ing in­ter­est­ing ac­counts of their ad­ven­tures in the south­ern oceans on a re­cent race, the in­evitable ques­tion was put to me: ‘‘ So which boat are you crew­ing for?’’

‘‘ Oh just my friend’s. It’s quite small, but very com­fort­able and it sails well,’’ I replied, then wished them luck and scut­tled off be­fore they could ask any more ques­tions.

Back at the boat the rest of the crew was asleep so I snug­gled down in the cock­pit with my feet dan­gling off the edge and my head wedged against the helm. I woke an hour later not only with all my limbs twisted out of their joints but freez­ing. I no­ticed a large Skan­dia spon­sor­ship ban­ner tied to a fence. I did what any other man sleep­ing on the floor of a sink­ing boat would have done and stole it to use as a blan­ket.

When dawn broke I should have felt ter­ri­ble. But some­how the spirit of Cowes had in­fected me. We were down for only a mi­nor event, but sud­denly I couldn’t wait to head out into the So­lent.

Skan­dia Cowes Week takes place each Au­gust and is the best-known event on the Bri­tish sail­ing cal­en­dar. More: www.skan­di­a­ The Spec­ta­tor

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