Sailing: In at the deep end at Ascot on water

Nick Duxbury gets sucked into the annual Sail Fest that is Cowes
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The Independent Online
Get down there, get your feet wet and find out how the Yachties get their kicks at Cowes. Simple enough and a dream ticket to boot when the sun-kissed Solent is spotted with boats of all kinds, sucked to the Isle of Wight by the annual Sailfest that is Ascot on water.

The racing does not start until Saturday, but this landlubber's pulse quickened on the quay at Southampton when the wait for the hydrofoil was accompanied by authentic seagull cries. A 20-minute scoot across the sea and everyday life disappears to be replaced by the land of a thousand masts - a clinking, jangling ocean of money. Cowes is about seeing as much as sailing and the lifestyle sellers are at fleet strength. Henri Lloyd, purveyors of clothing designed to do what King Canute could not and keep the sea at bay, put their kit to the test racing a fibre-glass arrow called "Rapid Breathing" - a Melges class boat, 20ft long which is at its happiest aqua-planing in a head up, bum down posture not unlike the Space Shuttle coming in to land.

At the helm of this Ferrari of the seas was Rob Smith, a Mancunian turned sea dog when he is not selling the company's gear around southern England.

"You won't need that," he said pointing to the fleece pullover, "but you will need this," handing over the sunscreen.

Sunburn is a danger on the water but it does not get on the same page as the boom. This is the protuberance at right angles to the mast which allows the sail to move across the boat when changing direction. In effect, it is a bit like a baseball bat swung by Jean-Claude van Damme.

At the call of "heads" the game is to duck when the boom swings over, but ducking while slithering up the other side of a tilting, heaving boat and at the same time avoiding being lassoed by wriggling ropes does not come naturally to a novice.

Neither does hanging over the side with legs trailing in the waves, but that is the way you sail a Melges. Skipper Smith has the best job as he gets to keep dry, but his trusty crew of Spencer Murray, Tom Doland and myself keep the boat from capsizing by offering ourselves to the waves, stomachs bent round the restraining wire.

With the huge, purple spinnaker billowing majestically, "Rapid Breathing" skims the sea at 20mph with little apparent effort. On our last run before heading for the dock, Smith decides to go past the King of Norway's Royal yacht, Norge, which rises Britannia-like above us as we rush by under the noses of an expert audience.

Nearly home and the only discordant note of the day is struck when a sudden turn to port brings a demand for hand signals from a following, much larger boat skippered by a weather-beaten character in a blue cap. "What a plonker," says Smith as he prepares to take on board his next guest from an inflatable rubber dingy piloted by a dark haired girl with puce lipstick.

Even a water taxi has glamour in Cowes. At pounds 30,000 a time, a Melges 24 is not cheap but a sportscar would struggle to match the acceleration.

As Smith, who will be competing against 40 other boats every day at Cowes says: "You haven't lived until you've sailed." Scenery, the sea and speed: these Yachties know what they are doing.

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