Sailing: Exile on mainsheet wastes hours in mass exodus of the rule-breakers: Hugh Bateson sees the joy of messing about on the water disappear during a painful defeat at Cowes

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FORGET the Grand National, if you want to watch true chaos head for Cowes Week. Some 750 boats were racing here yesterday in 23 races, about 4,000 people starting in the same small area at five-minute intervals. A shade under two hours of total mayhem.

The six kind people who had invited me to make my racing (and very nearly sailing) debut on just under 40 feet of pride and joy called Private Lives, decided I would look after the mainsheet, an awesome- looking block and tackle used to control the angle of the mainsail to the wind. I was entrusted with this responsibility simply because it kept me where my captain could tell me exactly what to do.

His commands were suitably concise: 'pull it in a little' or 'let it out a bit'. We were organised by Sarah Hall, who has sailed across the Atlantic (with another member of our crew) and raced a leg in the Whitbread Round the World race. But could she get us to change a sail, or get a spinnaker up? 'Everyone's fast asleep today,' she muttered with all the pain of the professional being lumbered with amateurs.

We headed off to the start line, which was a hazardous enough journey involving a delicate manoeuvre between two car ferries. But we got in the general area, and then the fun really started.

The course is only revealed 10 minutes before the off, and its announcement was greeted by frantic searching for the best route, and the best spot on the start line. All this while trying to dodge around other boats, some of which were flat out at the start of their races.

Our plan was to head for the middle of the line, to be in the best tide- stream when we crossed it. Brilliant. So brilliant that everyone else wanted to do the same, which left 40 boats in an area smaller than half a football pitch. At which point everyone stopped being the great friends they were the night before.

With a little help from unco-operative boats at least half the fleet was over the line one or two seconds early. Three cannons sounded and over the radio came a squawky voice saying 'general recall', which worked about as well as Keith Brown's flag at Aintree.

After nearly quarter of an hour of trying to keep out of the following racers' way, and wondering what happened next, we studied a handy rule book, which informed us that we should have sailed back behind the line straight away, and that the restart would be in under a minute.

We stumbled back and three or four minutes later crossed the line properly. A handful of smart Alecs who had done their homework were bowling along miles in front, but most were as confused as us.

Still, we set off, trying to get the boat going as fast as possible (six knots and a bit was the best we managed) and setting our sights on the green back of another boat a couple of hundred yards ahead.

After turning around the first mark we had a long run in front of the wind to the next and on the way we found some more boats of our scattered class to race. Nip and tuck for a couple of miles, when a whole group of us tried to attack each other at the same time - chaos again but on a more local level. All I knew after hauling as fast as I could was that we were going in a new direction, and that I could not see the blasted green boat anywhere.

They had chosen a different route to the finish, hoping to find a better tide (the Solent has immensely complex tides and currents shifting around the various banks - one of which they play cricket on in September). But we kept tabs on the other competitors, tacking against the wind and trying to work out who was ahead. We even get praise from Sarah after one tack.

As we cross the line I look for the green boat and I am surprised how angry I am that it is ahead. I have, however, competed on the same water and at the same time as Dennis Conner, which is something.

Or rather I haven't. In the confusion after the start, we tried to stay out of everyone's way and went into the wrong place to do it. So we, and 26 other boats (including, yippee, the green one) were disqualified. Two and a half hours wasted.

(Photograph omitted)