Sailing: Rounding the Isle of Wight is no breeze for Robertson

"This," Shirley Robertson, reminded us, is "not a summer cruise" as, for once, that easy Scottish charm transformed into a skipper's lash of chastisement. And this was only Friday's practice session - what may have been described more of a boot camp than boat camp - before yesterday's JP Morgan Round the Island race had even got under way.

What, you speculated, would yesterday hold for us mere humble mortals, the novices among her crew, who may have believed that when she secured that second successive Olympic gold in Athens last year her desire for victory, in any event, may just have waned?

By the end of this race around the Isle of Wight, you simply understood the frustration her Olympic opponents experienced, and quite why British competitive sailing is so buoyant. I write this dispatch, having been temporarily relived of my duties for that purpose, and quite relieved to enjoy some minutes respite from the rigours of a voyage which began just after 7am at Cowes, and eventually lasted 8 hours 26.47 minutes.

But let's go back to Friday night, and our team meeting. (Yes, it was that serious). The force wouldn't be with us; only Force two or three at first; that's what our navigator, Ali Hall, told us. There would be a light south-easterly early in the morning. And mist. And fog possibly rolling over from France. It could be postponed. In any event it would be slow. And that is what the race turned out to be; an agonisingly crawl in its initial stages.

We had awoken to discover the ocean placid, totally undisturbed by the elements and the bluest of blue skies. Perfect for a Saturday's day by the sea, for cricket, tennis; virtually anything but a yacht race, one in which no fewer than 1,692 boats, including Dame Ellen MacArthur's round-the-world record-breaking multi-hull yacht, were scheduled to depart the 50 plus miles.

First it was postponed; then when the gun was eventually fired to start our class, next to nothing of a breeze could be enticed to fill the spinnaker of our Volvo RYA Keelboat Programmes Farr 45 John Merricks - named after its donator, a business benefactor. That can be the problem with this sport; starts can be nought- to-two in half an hour.

Finally, however, our search for a breeze was successful and we picked up speed. By the Needles we were moving at 10 knots. We looked back. It was an awe-inspiring scene; the sea a mass of little sailing boats In fact, we sailed so close to the Needles' lighthouse, we were in danger of scraping its paint. That was the Robertson tactic, in essence, tacking tightly to the coastline so as to avoid the capricious tides which could have impeded our progress.

"It was a real problem at the start," admitted Robertson. "In fact, I don't think they should have started the race. After that, the conditions changed all the time, so it's been really difficult. You can't really relax." I suggested that the boat's proximity with the coastline was a little unnerving at times. Robertson smiled. "If you're really racing hard, you'll always touch the bottom." She paused. "We do try not to hit the rocks, though." She added: "I've done this race and had to tack about five times. This time, it must have been about hundred!"

And don't we know it, her poor crew, who have about two seconds in which to clamber inelegantly, and with scant regard for your crew-mates, across the boat, to provide a counter-balance to the power of the wind.

Although let's be quite candid. Did I say crew? A form of human ballast would be more accurate as the experienced hands of Robertson, at the helm, took charge. The Dundee-born 36-year-old who became the first British woman to win two Olympic golds at successive Games, in any sport, when she and the "Three Blondes in a Boat" won the Yngling class, was aided by the Athens bronze medallist Nick Rogers and Paul Goodison, fourth in the Games, together with crew boss Craig Nutter, and seven sailors from the National Keelboat Programme. And then there were such "guests" as this observer, who probably cost the boat a knot an hour.

Not that you would have known from Robertson's satisfied expression when we eventually passed the finish line in sixth place. A few months ago she wouldn't have been seen near such an event. "After Athens, I didn't want to go in a boat, have anything to do with a boat," she admitted. "Then suddenly, in March, I started to miss it again."

This year, she's back sailing larger craft which has provided a new challenge. "I'm sailing with people who are better than me, which may sound odd, coming from a double Olympic gold medallist, but I'm not the best in the world in a keelboat."

Not that anyone would concur who'd witnessed yesterday's highly capable performance, even though the experience made it hell and high water for the novices among her crew.

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