Funk sail brothers: Alex James sets sail with Fatboy Slim in Sardinia

Alex James knew he was in for a treat when DJ Norman Cook invited him onto his yacht off Sardinia. And that was before he discovered the local cheese and honey...
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The Independent Online

So Norm's the coolest man in pop and he's bought this boat, a 90ft vintage wooden spyship. It's in Olbia. It's got a Fatboy-customised B&W sound system and Mariah Carey's chef to do the cooking. Did I fancy a visit? I said yes before I knew where Olbia was. It didn't seem like it would matter that much.

Turns out Olbia is in Sardinia, in the western Mediterranean, a couple of hours out of Gatwick. It was a short drive from airport to marina, where we found quite a number of super-yachts and gin palaces. At a distance, modern boats resemble trainers, but Barracuda brings to mind an upmarket, leather walking-boot. Norm bought her a couple of years ago and had her stripped back to the ribs and completely rebuilt. She's breathtaking.

We arrived mid-morning, frazzled by the indignity of modern air travel, to be greeted with cocktails by the hostess. It was like walking right out of a student bedsit into a fully staffed, old-fashioned country house. The Barracuda is a twin-masted, ocean-going trawler. She is satisfyingly chunky and spacious, and seems to have been built to prehistoric, dinosaur-type dimensions that wouldn't be feasible today. Everything about her is big and bold and beautiful in a floating-farmhouse kind of way. There are two decks: a vast teak main floor and an upper sun-bed level above the wheelhouse, with the dining area amidships. You know you're on a boat that's big enough when you don't ever have to bend over when you go down below. In the bows, where there's a roomy "forecastle" containing the berths, galley and lounge, stooping is unthinkable.

Once we'd come to our senses we all quite fancied a shopping trip. Sardinia is beautiful: a bit like a Greek island, but without the strong smell of goats. It's Italian, so the food is stupidly good. This can't be an easy environment to grow vegetables in – it's arid and mountainous – but the supermarket was crammed to the rafters with peculiar species of tomato, cucumber and other signs of a bountiful harvest. I've grown bored of British supermarkets. Being dull is their greatest crime. There was a sense of theatre about this one. It was like going shopping at Wembley Arena. There was an aisle devoted to salami: a sausage safari. Another aisle explored and expanded the pasta theme.

We'd had a tip about where to buy seafood: a tiny place on the water's edge. The winding, cobbled street was being battered to bits by brilliant sunlight, but the shop was so dim and shady it looked like it might be closed. But the fishmonger inside was very pleased to see us, and the interior was in calm counterpoint to the crashing sunshine. It was a bit like a cave where weird stuff lived. There were creatures that would challenge the faint-hearted to touch, let alone eat: sprawling spider crabs lurking in a bath with the lobsters; nameless, eyeless monsters of the deep; a big metal bucket of periwinkles like strange pistachios. Oysters, octopus, squid and the rest of the day's catch were laid out on ice. The rear of the shop backed onto the dock and the proprietor explained, using only his hands, that the fishermen deliver their catch directly to him. We bought a bit of everything and bade him good day. He sent us down to the cheese lady, kissing his fingertips as he did so.

I'm always up for a cheese shop – or in this case, a pecorino shop/cave. I've been trying to make pecorino myself. It's a hard sheep's-milk cheese that goes very well with honey or marmalade. There were many varieties – evidently, a pecorino for every occasion. The rotund, smiling lady wouldn't let us go until we'd tried them all. Then she started on the honeys. It was a question of deciding which honey went best with which cheese and we ended up buying most of them.

So now we had a 90ft luxury cruiser, fine local seafood, a chef to the stars, the best DJ in the world and some weird cheese. We were all set. The little marina where the boat was docked suddenly seemed too good to leave, so we thought we'd stay put for the evening – but also decided to go for a swim in a cove we'd spotted a little way along the coast.

Norm is learning how to drive the semi-inflatable. It has a 250 horsepower outboard, which would be quite a biggish engine on a light aircraft. We skipped over the waves at full tilt, making a circuit of the bay before beaching the boat in the deserted cove and springing ashore. A path led through wild aromatic bush. Claire picked lavender, and it was all wonderfully quiet. I waded into the sea and floated around in the sunset.

Lights were coming on around the harbour as we re-boarded Barracuda for peanuts and champagne. The chef was having his own disco in the galley and it was Norm's playlist upstairs. It's his intention to put the boat out to charter when he's not using it himself – although the gusto with which he applies himself to learning boat skills suggests that this might not be terribly often. The boat comes with a crew of three – captain, hostess and chef. Our cabin was en suite with a double bed, and very comfy. The boat is massive and posh, and I reckon it would sleep a hundred at a push.

The chef sang as he prepared a spectacular fruits de mer. Then there was risotto, ice-cream and, ultimately, cheese. I went to bed early, but the others stayed up into the small hours telling stories.

When I awoke, we'd put to sea. I grabbed a cappuccino and went on deck. It was a fair day and we were steaming along at nine knots with the grace and purpose of a juggernaut. Hope dawns every day at sea. What will it bring? Where will we u

o go? What's for lunch? It's a bit like being on tour, only you're free. Maybe that's why so many musicians get the yacht thing.

Boating is really about small, simple pleasures, which are the best kind. It's just mucking around on a fantastic scale. On the main deck, fishing tactics were under discussion. Chef was concocting a special mix: risotto groundbait. Norm's strategy was to catch a tiddler, use it as bait to catch something bigger, and reiterate until he had something large enough to eat. There was much fiddling with fishing lines and enthusiastic debate about knots. Claire was on the sun deck with a volume of Alice Oswald's poetry. I sat in a deckchair, happy to do nothing at last. A flat sea is a big mirror and a calm day on it always leads to pleasant contemplations.

Then there was a pleasant smell to consider. The smell alone was all I needed for quite some time, but eventually I went down to the galley to be nosy. The galley is equipped with a full batterie de cuisine: microwave, dishwasher, extractor, serious oven and halogen hob. "It's better than being on tour," said Dan, the chef. "There's more kit." I asked him lots of questions and he showed me his knives.

There were whoops on deck as Norm reeled in his first catch. It might have been a sardine. It certainly wasn't going to stretch very far, so he went along with his plan to attach it to a larger hook and recast the line. He wasn't having much luck with the bigger fish, and as lunchtime cocktail hour approached, speaker cable was uncoiled from nowhere and the sound system made ready on the main deck. It felt pretty good as we ploughed through the open water, beats swinging, sun shining.

Boats really are a great escape. They were my father's passion. There is a lot to be said for learning all about how they work: how to navigate, how to sail, how to operate the radio, which ensign to raise. I know Morse code and I'm working on semaphore. But if you haven't got time for all that you could just call Norm and his crew. These guys have got it all worked out.

Dolly Parton was working surprisingly well in the Mediterranean breeze when the "Barracuda specials" arrived. Pineapple juice was involved in some way, and vodka, but the actual recipe is the ship's secret.

As lunchtime approached we headed for the nicest-looking bay we could spot. I went to the wheelhouse to observe the action. Charts of the Western Mediterranean, a very sexy GPS device and the Italian Waters Pilot guide sat alongside Norm's DJ set-up. He and Zoë have created playlists for all hours and occasions, from tea dances to discos. I cracked a grin as the opening guitar from "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" rang out across the open water. Norm says it's a great chance to play all the stuff that he loves but can't use when he's DJing.

Our cove was approaching fast and there was a fair bit of rope-wrangling and anchor-wrestling. It was as serene as a sleeping baby in there. Cliffs plunged sharply into the sea on either side, with a little empty beach in the middle. It was very cosy, so much so that there was some precarious fiddle-faddling as the 100-ton beastie came gently to rest, nose to wind, close enough to the beach that we could swim ashore. Norm was in the bowsprit net with a boathook. It wasn't clear how much he was helping, but he was enjoying himself.

Then it was lunchtime and Norm was keen for us all to try some back fat, a local speciality. I'm always up for trying something new. Lard sliced very thinly isn't as horrible as it sounds. It melts in the mouth and tastes quite similar to salty butter. It's all right with bread, actually, but chef had prepared another bean feast in any case.

I spent the afternoon jumping off the sun deck and snorkelling. The water was gin-clear. I could see the anchor chain snaking off and Norm's baited-up fishing line dangling away. There weren't many fish about, though. I think I prefer snorkelling to scuba diving. It's a bit more earthy. Climbing into all that breathing apparatus turns you into a spaceman. By the time I'd had the snorkel mask on for 10 seconds I'd been transported into another world, light years away from the wet Tuesday of 24 hours previously. I was on holiday.

I was looking for an octopus. They are intriguing creatures. Twenty minutes with one is better than any amount of yoga, as far as I'm concerned. I floated around on my back for a while staring into blue sky. I hadn't spotted a single cloud since we'd arrived. I caught sight of Captain Cook in the tender. He was quite a long way off and flying along at about 30 knots but I could clearly see the grin on his face.

Everyone had hit their holiday stride and as I climbed back aboard a barbecue was being assembled in the bows, and a small but elegant dancing crowd had formed on the main deck. The oranges of sunset were cracking in the western sky: mountains, the sea, and us, dancing, the only people for miles and miles around.

For dinner I think we ate nearly everything there is. Waves of shellfish were followed by fish courses and meat courses, climaxing with fillets mignon, before the sorbets, cheeses, biscuits, coffee and cigars were rolled out. Norm explained that the chef will always cook whatever you like, but he's found that it's best to leave it all to him as he seems to have the best ideas.

There was nothing to do, and nothing was never so wonderful. In the pale moonshine we talked about the good old days. I told my old sea dog story and Claire was quiet, which means she's happy. Norm talked about the Housemartins and recording vocals with Macy Gray, and we floated gently into the night.

When I woke up in the morning, breakfast was all laid out: pancetta, ship's biscuits, and fresh rolls and donuts that Dan had gone ashore for. We were under sail. Barracuda makes surprisingly good way without the engine. She's a very well-designed boat, a thing of great beauty. It was with heavy hearts that we put back into port to catch our flight home. Whenever a man sets sail, ther eis a part of him that wants to keep going forever.

Traveller's Guide

GETTING THERE

Olbia is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easy- Jet.com) and Meridiana (0845 355 5588; www. meridiana.it) from Gatwick. Alex says: "Instead of 'offsetting', I'm changing 22 light bulbs in my house to low-energy ones. This idea is based on a project I’m involved with at the Royal Society of Arts (www.rsa carbonlimited.org).

SAILING THERE

The Barracuda sleeps eight and is available for charter from May to September in Sardinia (01273 422373; www.barracudayacht-charter.com). Prices from £15,000 per week, including all meals, airport transfers, watersports and fuel. Long weekends are subject to availability.

MORE INFORMATION

00 39 070 606 7005; www.sardegnaturismo.it. Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk

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