When BT rang up and invited me to come along to Cowes Week – it’s rather involved in sailing sponsorship, what with the Extreme 40s, sponsoring Ellen MacArthur, and all that – the weather in London was sunny, hot, and with no wind to speak of. So, in all honesty, I expected Sunday to be a rather dull affair, drifting slowly around a racing course watching the sails flap idly in the breeze. It didn’t really turn out that way.
Instead, Sunday morning was grey and a bit ominous, and by the time my boat hit the water with an intrepid crew comprising of one skipper, one BT employee and five journalists, the wind was blowing up impressively. Within a minute of getting the mainsail up I was wrestling with the helm, which seemed determined to pull away onto a reach with the sails too far in, and the boat was tipped over at least 45 degrees going close hauled. I’ve spent enough time sailing to find this interesting rather than alarming, but I’m not sure it’d be so much fun on your first time out and with barely a few minutes’ briefing, as it was for some of the crew.
We missed the start of our race spectacularly due to unfortunate scheduling – the ten minute signal went when we were barely off the jetty and half an hour from the start line – but things were kept interesting by a fender flying off over the stern and some increasingly drastic efforts to get it back. After four passes, a couple of breakneck turns and a few very soggy crew members, myself included, we admitted defeat. Short of getting the sails in and resorting to the motor, the plastic balloon’s bid for freedom was bound to succeed.
As the afternoon went on the weather got a little rougher, with the wind gusting to around 25 knots and the tide (I assume) creating some deep, choppy waves down by the coast. As we came back, wind behind us, into Cowes alongside the main racing fleet boats were broaching wildly, a few had lost spinnakers, one appeared to have lost his forestay and was hastily re-rigging the mast with the stays pulled forward, and another was completely dismasted, floating just off the course as its crew attempted to pull the rigging up out of the water. We didn’t even attempt to fly the spinnaker – with the wind veering a little behind us on a very broad reach I was getting seriously nervous about the possibility of an unplanned gybe that would send the boom hurtling over the cockpit.
Fortunately we made it back entirely in one piece and managed to get the sails down, despite the best efforts of the red line ferry which appeared looming behind us as I attempted to hold the boat head to wind and out of the way of the other yachts. And speaking of other yachts: I’ve never seen so many. Coming into the town all you could see both ahead and behind was a mess of spinnakers and mainsails, ranging from tiny twenty-something footers hastily attempting to reattach their outboard motors to enormous racing craft built like giant dinghies hurtling along behind asymmetric kites. The whole thing really was amazing to behold.
Despite a few hairy moments the whole thing was incredibly enjoyable, and I’d certainly go back for another shot given the chance. In fact, yesterday served as a reminder of why I used to enjoy sailing in small yachts – you don’t quite get the breakneck feeling of speed that comes from hanging out of a dinghy with your head inches from the water, but there’s something very satisfying about it. Oh, and you get coffee making facilities on board, too. What more could you want.