Flying a kite for Cowes
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.skandiacowesweek.co.uk. The Spectator