What do you do with a drunken sailor?

BEING THERE : At Cowes Week, it seems there's really no choice but to join them. Andy Martin drinks it all in

I had been in Cowes for barely five minutes, and I hadn't even set sail yet, and I was already sick as a dog. And yet I had cast off from Southampton as swashbucklingly as Errol Flynn. I would have given long odds against a shipboard romance flourishing between the mainland and the Isle of Wight. But the British Rail hydrofoil the Red Jet was advertised as a "high-speed service", and it all happened on fast forward. Her name was Lucy.

Even as I strode down the gangplank, I couldn't help noticing she held a copy of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being in one hand. "I'm reading it for the second time round," she confided, as I took the seat next to her on the starboard side. "Have you read his essay on The Art of the Novel?" I countered, "or the early Laughable Loves?"

Lucy was a sailor. She had been drafted in at a late stage after her ship had lost a man overboard (they were sponsored by Bombay Sapphire gin and had been taking their responsibilities a little too seriously). She even taught sailing. I revealed that my knowledge of life on the ocean wave was limited to surfing and the occasional Sea Link ferry. So she kindly offered me Lesson 1: "Never hang on to the mainsheet. You'll capsize." I never made it to Lesson 2.

As we disembarked at West Cowes, she was shanghaied by a smooth-tanned, weather-beaten kind of cove called Justin. He was Justin and I was just out. Had a passing octopus wrapped a tentacle about Justin's neck at that precise moment, I doubt whether I would have stirred myself to hack it off. But the trouble with sea monsters is they're never there when you need them. Come to think of it, Justin was a bit of an octopus himself, the way he was wrapping himself around Lucy. I was sunk, going down with all hands on board. But it turned out to be my lucky day after all.

Over at the Yacht Haven, I hove to at the Gents. As I dumped my gear beside one of the washstands, I couldn't help noticing in the mirror a thin, weedy stubbly customer standing at the long collective urinal but looking over his shoulder at me. He kept on looking. I messed around at the sink for a while. He was still there. It seemed like a long time to be standing about with your fly open. But, hey, free country, I said to myself, working up the courage to wander over to the trough. All the same, just to be on the safe side, I parked myself up the far end.

"Hallo," he said. It wasn't actually "Hello, sailor", but it was close.

"Er, hi."

"What's your name?"

I've always wanted to write, "I made my excuses and left". I've imagined other circumstances that would justify that immortal line, but this was my best chance. Only I left in so much of a hurry I forgot the excuses bit, intent as I was on zipping at the time.

Cowes was as perilous a harbour as ever I've come across, what with steering between the Scylla of getting sand kicked in your eye and the Charybdis of an unsolicited close encounter. Thus it was that I made full steam ahead to the Skandia Life hospitality marquee for a lifesaver. Hope came on the end of a cocktail stick when someone told me that the party to be seen at was the Oceanworld Crew Ball at Northwood House. Lucy had spoken of attending a "ball" that night. How many balls could there be in Cowes on any one night? I would be there, she would be there - maybe Justin wouldn't be there.

Paul Bertie of Oceanworld kindly let me in. He promised me a five-man- high pyramid on the dance floor by the end of the night, but the most I saw was a girl horsing around on someone's shoulders, and my hopes were similarly deflated. Justin wasn't there, but neither was Lucy. Or maybe they both were, carousing unremarked among the hundreds of sailors kitted out in floppy green and yellow Viking suits. The event was billed as the "unrefined crew ball", and the only refined thing about it was the alcohol (Mount Gay gin was the co-sponsor this time).

One T-shirt (one of the many, outnumbering blazers by about a thousand to one) summarised the mood of the evening: "Revel Without A Pause". You'd think, from the sight of the immense pitchers of beer, these ceaseless revellers had all just returned from a round-the-world trip on a teetotal yacht. Towards the end of the evening, by the time bodies began to be manhandled out and flung down on the lawn - and the ones that were left upright were staggering and slobbering - another T-shirt headline began to seem more appropriate: "Mad Cowes Disease".

The next morning down at the Yacht Haven, I heard it said that the course at Cowes was not clearly marked out. Nonsense. No one I met had any difficulty navigating their way from ball to bar to beer tent. Somewhat overshadowed by her neighbours - Glenfiddich, Teachers, Young's - the woman at the Nicorette tent said what sailors really needed was a patch over their arm to stop them drinking. I suspect a breathalyser would have put paid to the hopes of many. Mystified as to why it is sailors should drink so much, I did some research at the beer tent.

Behind the bar, Wendy reckoned that the beer tent at the Yacht Haven saw more business in a week than the whole of Cowes during the rest of the year. Her theory was that the salt dries you out so you have to replenish your liquid stores regularly. Jennie, who shrewdly pointed out these old salts didn't replenish their Tropicana or their Britvic stores too frequently, maintained that the sailing was just an excuse for the drinking. Wendy thought maybe it was something to do with keeping away the scurvy or the beriberi. And maybe seasickness, too. It seemed logical: the sea is rocking and rolling all round you so you have all this liquid sloshing about inside you to maintain the equilibrium. And then after wobbling around at sea, you naturally would want to drink yourself into a stupor once you hit land so you could wobble up the street, too.

I finally put to sea on the press boat, and soon I was all at sea. I wasn't the only one, though. With hundreds of boats sailing every which way, it looked like chaos. "It is chaos," one Captain Haddock-type admitted. "Out of every 10 competitors, only five maximum have a clue what they're supposed to be doing." After a few collisions and bundles of near-misses in the high winds, the organisers wisely removed the firework barge from in front of the Royal Yacht Squadron and towed it off to East Cowes, out of harm's way, until the official start time. The barge was big and stationary but not so big and stationary that one of the more recreational of the sailors couldn't smash into it and set a premature spark to the blue touch paper.

There's no question that sailing can be pretty rugged. I wondered out loud why the Army and the RAF had yachts down at Cowes and why all these guys weren't in the Navy instead, thereby saving the taxpayer a packet. But one suave and muscular hombre assured me that it was all good training. "You can go out in tanks, but you're just pretending. But spend three consecutive days in a Force 9 swell on a J24 in the Channel - as we did a few months ago - and it's really tough."

Thus spoke Justin. For it was he. I had finally run into Lucy in the Haven. She had spent the night bunked in Justin's boat. It was all part of the training - good for team-work. I began to understand why Dr Johnson said that any man who has not been a soldier or put to sea feels a sense of regret. And I think I now know the answer to the mystery of why sailors go about under this moral imperative to get tanked up. They drink to forget the unbearable lightness of being.

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