Bit of a sail, got wet, didn't spill a drink: It's Cowes Week: boats and beer ahoy] Royal-spotters and socialites stay away from the water, while yachting bums work and play hard

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHATEVER you might imagine when you see yachts dipping and tipping over the roller-coaster waves that brew up in the Solent, a hangover is no problem when sailing. Which was just as well for Jay and Rob, two members of the crew of Private Lives, a 38ft yacht competing in the royally endorsed Cowes Regatta, the FA Cup of yachting, this week.

On Monday night, the pair had taken on board enough beer to require their own personal bilge pump. But there they were on Tuesday morning, scurrying around readying the boat for the race ahead with an energy that suggested they had prepared for Cowes with a month in a monastery rather than a night under the table.

'It's something to do with the sea breeze,' shouted Jay, his voice disappearing in the wind. 'Just sort of blows it away.'

Jay and Rob, who are in their early twenties, have been coming to the Isle of Wight every August for as long as they can remember, for the beer and the breezes. In their exhaustive inspection of the bars, however, they noticed that they were surrounded by fewer fellow drinkers than usual this year. According to police estimates, the number of visitors was down by 30 per cent.

'Lots of yacht owners are having a hard time,' said Peter Hall, a retired naval officer and strategic management consultant who is the owner and skipper of Private Lives. His boat is worth more than a three-bedroomed London house. 'The recession's hit everyone. I mean, if you're a Lloyd's Name you'd try to sell your boat before you sold your house.'

Yachting's financial embarrassment meant that at least one of the boatyards which line Cowes harbour had gone into receivership. On Monday night, though, despite the decline in the number of yachts, they had plenty of work. A vicious gale had ripped through the flotilla during the day, causing thousands of pounds' worth of business and, tragically, killing two sailors. Private Lives's mainsail had been torn, and before racing could begin on Tuesday it had to be picked up from the sail-makers', where it had been patched overnight.

As Mr Hall set off to collect his sail, Mike Ford, the veteran member of the boat's crew, said he would join him. He had his own itinerary. 'My motto is: when ashore, always use the loo,' he said. 'It's a damn sight more comfortable than trying to go on board ship.'

MIKE had a point. Perhaps the most uncomfortable craft known to man, a racing yacht is not the place for private ablutions. Once the crew had unfurled Private Lives's sails and racing got under way, the boat listed at an alarming angle. As it twisted to catch the wind, the deck fell into the boiling waves.

The decks themselves were an obstacle course, full of pain for the unwary. There were ropes to trip over, metal runners to bark the shins, nasty little clips and catches to bite into thighs as you scrambled about avoiding the vicious swing of the boom. Rob's legs were a medical encylopaedia of scuffs and scars.

And if that was not enough, it seemed that at any moment you would be rammed by another boat as it cut in front, jostling for advantage, bumping and jarring. During the frequent close scrapes, crews yelled abuse across the water, jabbing accusatory fingers, threatening that they would see you afterwards. As with car accidents, in sailing it is always the other boat's fault.

Not that anyone has an excuse for not knowing the rules of engagement. They are helpfully posted above the urinals in the Island Yacht Club gents. So you can check up on the finer details of what to do in the event of 'Same Tack Luffing before Clearing the Starting Line' whenever you take advantage of a land-based lavatory.

Private Lives was involved in fewer scrapes than most boats because Mr Hall had secured the services of David Allen-Williams for the day. Dave, a boat architect, professional skipper and leader of a consortium aiming to head a British challenge in the next Whitbread round-the-world yacht race, had an uncanny ability to judge the finest of gaps.

For the rest of Cowes Week he had been in charge of Ocean Leopard, a vast boat of his own design, which was chartered out for the corporate hospitality market. He had sailed into Monday's gale with a party of accountants.

'We gave them coffee and croissants, then had a bit of a sail, then the booze came out. Then we tied up for a spot of lunch, then had another bit of a sail. They enjoyed it out in the gale. Got a bit wet, didn't spill too many drinks.'

THERE are several distinct groups of people who enjoy Cowes Week, and a sort of apartheid operates to keep them apart: they drink in different bars, they wear different clothes. Even on land you can tell the yachties (as the people who actually sail call themselves) from the trippers and those enjoying the hospitality. For a start, those on company binges don't have salt tide-marks on their deck shoes.

Many of the trippers are there for the star-spotting, particularly those stars coming off the royal yacht Britannia, which anchors just outside the harbour. Up by the Royal Squadron Yacht Club (so posh you have to be invited to become a member - and if you ask, you won't be invited) on the night of the Club Ball, there were gaggles of royal watchers. One woman said she had no interest in yachts, unless skippered by princes.

'I've seen Philip already,' said another woman in a lemon-coloured cagoule, who had been at her position opposite the royal yacht for two hours. 'And we've heard Andrew and Edward are coming ashore later.'

There is another class of Cowes-goer, too, mostly spotted in the evening, and one whose appearance seemed to be recession-proof. While, after sundown, the yachties wander about in their shorts and sun-glasses, the day's war-paint of fluorescent sun-block still striped across their faces, the high street is also awash with people in full dinner dress, on their way to balls and cocktail parties.

'I have been to the Squadron Ball and it's rather fun,' said Mr Hall. 'But I haven't the time for it now. You have to put the time into that sort of thing.'

You can easily spot the boats belonging to the people who put their time into that sort of thing - they are the ones still moored to the jetties when the racing gets started. Spurning the races means that socialites can keep their gowns from creasing and ensure that their hair is not matted into comic dreadlocks by the salt spray.

THE BEER is important, but for yachties the racing is the thing. In the heat of competition, nothing is more pleasing for them than seeing another boat in difficulty. 'There is nothing more humiliating than that,' grinned Mr Hall as a boat that had come close to ramming Private Lives rammed a sand bank instead and keeled over

pathetically.

The competition is not confined to mere speed. Style is important, too. Crews eye each other up for fashion tips. Some of the fancier yachts kit out their crews in matching uniforms of gold or scarlet.

'Hah,' said Dave as Private Lives cruised past a boat whose snazzily uniformed crew was attempting to unwind a spinnaker - a huge, bra-shaped sail put up to catch a following wind - that had twisted impossibly around its mast. 'They don't look so bloody smart now.'

Uniforms or not, every boat seemed to be crewed in the same way. Occupying the vessel's least life-threatening position, handling the tiller, is a silver-haired man, usually the owner. Around him on the decks, turning handles, pulling in ropes, tripping over sails, are young, muscle-bound men and, less frequently, women. These are the sailing bums. They give the silver-haired man the benefit of their strength and courage in return for beer and a few inches of bunk space.

Bums are people like Jay, Mr Hall's stepson, who spends most of his time windsurfing and is hoping to 'do fine art next year'; and Rob, who has just graduated from Bristol University with a Desmond (student rhyming slang for a 2-2) in theology.

Rob admitted he wasn't expecting much better as he had missed an entire term of his university career because of sailing. 'I was in the Caribbean and one night I was completely plastered and dived in to swim back to my boat, and I swam straight into this American yacht. They hauled me aboard and heard my accent and offered me a job crewing. So I thought: 'Ya, I'll have some of that.' '

The next day he spent hours phrasing the fax he sent to Bristol explaining his forthcoming absence. It was such a masterpiece of the lame excuse - 'stuck in Barbados, forced to sail home' - that his tutor framed it.

The relationship between a skipper and his bums is not a democratic one. The crew does what it is told. And the commands, yelled above the fray in a volume seldom below the sergeant-majorly, are rarely complimentary.

'You bloody idiots]' screamed Mr Hall as Jay and Rob blew a critical manoeuvre. 'You've put the bloody sail on upside-down. Get it down, you cretins. God] That's bloody embarrassing.'

Nevertheless, Mr Hall had not had any mutinies. 'They go a bit quiet on you sometimes,' he said. 'Heads down, muttering, a bit sulky. But never openly mutinous.'

'It's him sitting there yelling 'pull harder' when you're pulling as hard as you can that's so bloody annoying,' said one member of the crew as Private Lives returned to harbour, after securing fourth place in its race. 'But I suppose it is his boat.'

Cowes results, all 28

(Photographs omitted)

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