Sailing: Power, grace and a real Errol Flynn steering wheel

Only the top yachtsmen in the world are to be found on a Whitbread yacht, so the chance for a landlubber to talk jibs and genoas with the best was too good to miss. Nick Duxbury slipped on his deck shoes and joined Toshiba for a day.
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The Independent Online
It is not often that you get to hold pounds 3m, but here I am surging down the Solent at the helm of an ocean-going yacht. And not just any old standard sea skimmer that a well-heeled sailor could buy at the Boat Show. This is Toshiba, 60ft of wave warrior, which when you add on the costs of a nine-month race around the globe will have swallowed up the best part of pounds 8m.

In truth, the Kiwi Chris Dickson, if not the world's top skipper then close to it, is at my elbow and the America's Cup legend Dennis Conner at my back, but that just adds to the responsibility for someone who learned all he knows about sailing from Rod Stewart. Right now, this would be a serious amount of kit and personnel to tip into the drink.

"Have you steered a boat before?" asks Dickson, who like most of the crew has one of those leather-tan faces that has been preserved in salt. Well, yes and no. I've held a dinghy tiller in my time, but never a real wheel of the sort that Errol Flynn would have given his best cutlass to be lashed to. "Right, drive it like a car then. Keep 50ft to the right of that red buoy and keep the angle at 27 degrees."

The first command is easy enough, for Toshiba, with mainsail and spinnaker raised, is remarkably responsive as though fitted with power steering. Avoiding the buoy is simple when you are a long way off, but a certain nervousness creeps in as the boat rapidly closes and need we have to go so near?

The degrees bit is to do with keeping the angle of lean constant. Dickson does not like it to fluctuate and soon he is ordering small adjustments. The buoy reached, it's time to tack. "That will do," says Dickson, taking control as the 20 people on board prepare to scramble from one side to the other while Toshiba turns.

With the start barely five days away, you might have expected the crew to be edgy and have little time for jolly jaunts with the press. However, they could not have been more relaxed as they use the cruise to hone their skills - going through seven sail changes in two hours, accompanied by much intent gazing upwards. Even Conner, who has a reputation for being a sometimes prickly character, is at his most affable, despite his luggage not having followed him to Southampton from a weekend regatta in Sardinia.

"I'm sorry it's not cold, foggy and wet like you're used to," was the big American's welcome as we left the dock at Ocean Village. "We've got a San Diego day for you."

A good wind and a hazy sun made conditions perfect, and as we slipped past a huge container ship being led like a puppy by a tug, Toshiba dipped her port side and gathered speed. The Solent looks vast, but it is not big enough for a thoroughbred to be given her head. Even so, she moved with power and grace.

Heading back to London, an accident on the M3 closed the motorway. Sitting in my tin can, firmly anchored amid a wash of petrol fumes by a 10-mile traffic jam south of Bracknell, a thought strikes home...if only I had pounds 3m.

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