Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A taste of Cowes

Last week end I went sailing in Cowes (see below pic) for the infamous regatta. It’s not really my scene, mingling with the yachties, but the Isle of Wight is somewhere I spent a large amount of my childhood. It is not, however, the people I go for, it is the freedom of taking to the water and throwing yourself at the mercy of the wind and salty sea.

Cowes is an experience which has to be seen to be believed; thousands of sails of all shapes and sizes glistening amongst the waves. The streets of this, normally sleepy town, are filled with sailing types and tourists. There is an atmosphere of carnival with stilted performers walking the winding streets and towering above the stag parties who sport French knickers on the backs of their T shirts.

Once on the water the atmosphere changes, the joviality is swallowed up by fiercely competitive natures. Some manifest their tension with silence, others with cursing which bounces off the surface of the ocean for all to hear. The boats start at 15 minute intervals, segmented by their shapes and sizes, known as ‘classes’ in the trade. From the jumble, a gaggle of identical boats gradually emerges in front of the Royal Yacht Squadron. As they traverse to and fro across the imaginary line, they are timing the distances, working out where they need to be when the 5 minute gun goes off. You start on the move, the faster the better, you have to time it to the second, as if you are over you have to go back.

They start into the wind which means zig zagging and swearing. Your right of way is defined by the angle of the wind relative to your direction of travel. If you have the advantage when a collision is imminent you holler at your opponent to ensure he understands that he has no choice but to scarper. If he doesn’t, you must avoid him, raise a red flag in protest and sit in a sweaty committee room for the rest of the afternoon debating the incident as if in a court of law. It is a serious business this competitive sailing.

I have always thought of myself as more of a cruiser, a fair weather sailor, travelling from port to port in sunny climes and savouring the local liquor on arrival. This week end, however, I found my competitive edge again. I revelled in the proximity of the other boats, the choppy water sluicing down my neck & the frenetic flapping of sails as we rapidly tacked to avoid (or not – but that’s another story involving an overnight pit stop and a change of mast!) an oncoming boat.

I tore myself away on Sunday night, leaving my dad and my brothers to fight for the honour of the family name. I sit at my desk and avidly check the results. I gaze at the daily photographs and I can smell the sea, hear the screams and feel that joyous rush of adrenaline through my veins. Today they won and I feel as if I have too.