YOU don’t have to know your spinnakers from your halliards to race a yacht at Cowes – but it helps.
For landlubbers seeking a thrilling seafaring experience that doesn’t cost an arm and a sea leg, a race in a regatta takes some beating.
Whether it’s among the cream of Cowes Week or a ‘taster’ sailing day, your very own Sunsail skipper will soon teach you the ropes.
The Solent, that narrow stretch between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, is an ideal nautical playground. And sailing has to be one of the few sports where seafaring virgins can compete on equal footing in races with experienced sailors. Although the top end America Cup-style racing is dominated by the wealthy our Cowes Week experience proved it’s not a snobby, exclusive or expensive sport.
Cowes likes to think of itself as the last bastion of posh, above Ascot and Henley, with lots of hot yachty totty and red trousers in evidence. The question on all the gels’ lips is: ‘how big is yours?’ I think they mean a yacht.
For the boatless there are after race parties, live music concerts and a fireworks extravaganza. The mandatory race preparation includes an evening of Pimm’s, discovering the town’s vibrant nightlife and a seasickness-defying breakfast of bacon and banger butties.
We have a thorough safety briefing which reassures us that fire, which would melt the boat, is rare. And if someone carelessly goes overboard, just chuck a horseshoe buoy. Being hit by the boom would seriously spoil you’re your day, so we become instantly adept at ducking if not diving.
We fasten lifejackets as skipper Dave Price plots a race route between beacons and assigns duties. I am on mainsail duty. Winching. I think not. I’m not fast or upper-body strong enough, so end up dangling my legs over the side and hanging onto the rail as we pitch at ridiculous angles, one moment getting bottom soaked in the waves, the next enjoying a full-frontal salt spray. Most invigorating. (You don’t need to splurge out on all the gear, as waterproofs are part of the package.)
Among the crew of 11 there are at least half a dozen wannabe skippers all ready to put their oar in, to mix my nautical metaphors. But mutiny is not an option.
We practise tacking, zigzagging to take advantage of every last puff of wind. Adrenaline pumps as the starting gun booms out and we jockey for position. It’s amazing how close we can sail to other craft without a crunch. It’s a marine version of playing chicken. We overtake a few, taking their wind, but there are no podium places.
But for the amateur sailor it’s a breathtaking experience: multi-coloured sails billowing under blue skies and scudding white clouds, yachts skimming green seas glinting in summer sunshine, craft at impossible angles as they bounce over foaming waves.
It’s as busy as the M25 at rush hour, and still the Southampton-Cowes ferries ply the shipping lanes, juggernauts among the minis darting out of their unstoppable way. The Red Funnel foot passenger service that had sped me from Southampton to Cowes in 22 minutes looked a whole lot bigger from our 40ft boat so we give her a wide berth.
The skipper keeps an eagle eye on the tide, the depth, the speed as we approach the Elephant Boatyard beacon, the last marker before the finishing line.
In our "Sunsail F40" class we come 30th of 35 yachts, clocking 3hrs 16mins 22secs – about 22 mins. behind the first yacht on a 25 mile course.
The only time the skipper has to employ the boat hook is to retrieve my sandal as I step onto the pontoon in a post-race rush to join the Pimm’s queue.
Travelling to Cowes:
Red Jet is a high-peed foot passenger service, taking about 22 minutes from Southampton to West Cowes, running every half an hour. Visit: www.redfunnel.co.uk.
Cowes Week with Sunsail Racing:
Individual Cowes Week racing packages, whatever your experience, are available and include a crew place on board a Sunsail F40 with a Sunsail skipper and first mate, race entry fees to the Sunsail F40 Class Race, breakfast on arrival, race briefing, packed lunch and soft drinks on board. Call 0844 463 6851 or visit www.sunsailracing.co.uk.
Sunsail are offering a special deal for their Autumn Racing Series Regatta on the Solent (September 22 and 23) on board the identically matched fleet of Sunsail F40s. Participants can enter just one round or more – or take part in both full days of racing with overnight accommodation on board for just £250 per person (reduced from £380 per person, based on six sharing on an individuals yacht, with Sunsail Skipper and first mate). Experienced teams can enter for just £1,160 per yacht (excluding skipper).
Sunsail, which offers packages for a range of regattas at home and abroad, also offer a one day taster course from Port Solent, giving an introduction to sailing and the basic techniques. Prices start from £100 including lunch on board.
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