'Ease the jib out, we're about to tack," barks the skipper. For those of you without the first idea about the terminology involved in sailing a yacht, rest assured that, until a few weeks ago, I was, so to speak, in the same boat. Put simply, I didn't know my aft from my mainsail. And yet, after just a few days sailing around the British Virgin Islands under the tutelage of an experienced skipper, here I am in the middle of a regatta, racing a £250,000 luxury yacht against professional crews from all over the world.
Before arriving in these idyllic Caribbean islands I had always thought you needed the bank balance of Roman Abramovich to go yacht racing. While it's true that investing in your own boatwill cost serious money, the BVI is one destination where anyone can try the sport for themselves. Numerous charter companies offer week-long packages for little more than the cost of a family holiday, and the region has a reputation for light swells and constant winds, both of which are conducive to plain sailing for those with little or no experience.
With the 60 islands of this archipelago located conveniently close together, getting from one to another means you are rarely at sea for more than a few hours. Once you can handle a boat competently, not only are you free to sail this paradise of talcum-powder beaches and spearmint-blue seas but there is also the opportunity to test your skills by entering one of the regular regattas. If you have never raced before, though, it's a good idea to hire a skipper.
Despite owning no sea legs worthy of the name, I have been invited to spend a week with a crew of novices under the stewardship of the double Olympic sailing champion Shirley Robertson. Arriving in Tortola, the BVI's largest island, my only experience of crewing had involved selling tickets for a River Thames pleasure boat during my summer holidays from university. And to be honest, most of that time was spent working on my tan rather than learning the intricacies of knot and sail.
Nevertheless, Robertson does her best to allay my fears when I arrive for my first lesson. "The BVI is the sailing equivalent of Greg Norman building a golf course for beginners," she says. "The layout [of the islands] makes it easy."
So here I am alongside four other beginners as we man our ship, Inn Harmony, a 50ft charter class vessel, under the guidance of Robertson and her husband, Jamie Boag, no slouch himself on the high seas and an accomplished yacht racer.
It is immediately apparent that the opportunity to get something wrong is considerable. At 6ft 6in and 15st, I am not the nimblest creature on God's earth, yet 50 feet of sailing yacht had sounded spacious enough to a confirmed landlubber like me. But the proliferation of ropes, sails and winches means there is barely room to swing a cat.
My confidence is hardly bolstered when Boag's first instruction is to ask me to hoist the mainsail. I struggle, embarrassingly, in front of a crowd of sniggering girls. "It's all in the technique," Boag explains. "You need to bend your knees more and put your bodyweight into it."
As soon as we leave the dock, all light-hearted banter ceases and the commands come thick and fast. Even if we had been racing pedaloes, such is the competitive nature of our tutors you sense they would still be been aiming for nothing less than victory - an indicator of the tenacity that earned Robertson gold medals at both the Sydney and Athens Games.
While Robertson is firmly in charge at the helm, Jamie is our tactician, working out which direction the wind is coming from as he orders us to change direction by tacking (turning the bow of the boat across the wind), or jibing (turning the stern across).
Our crew is entered for a week-long regatta. In three qualifying races, we rack up a second place, a third and a fourth. However, if we want to stay on the right side of the dynamic duo, nothing less than a win in the final race will do.
Sadly, our start is less than auspicious. A near-miss with a rival vessel forces us to make a penalty turn of 360 degrees in order to avoid disqualification. This leaves us in last place for the five-mile race, and the mood on board is tense.
On either side, boats are just inches away, yet the men and women in charge of these expensive craft are throwing them around like dodgems. As we attempt the turn around the second of two course markers at what feels like far too many knots, the air turns an aquamarine blue with the language coming from a rival crew just a foot away, whose boat we are about to collide with. We hold our breath for the inevitable (and expensive) crash, but somehow manage to make it round in one piece and have actually made up some places.
The cut and thrust of racing is not turning out to be the gentle jolly I'd been expecting, and the drama is far from over. On the way down to the next marker buoy a Dutch crew try to overtake us. As they cut across our stern their boat interrupts the airflow to our sails, causing us to slow down. Robertson tells the Dutch she intends to block their passing manoeuvre, but they press on regardless. Approaching the next buoy we are neck and neck but, discretion being the better part of valour, Robertson does the sporting thing and gives way.
It's not over yet, though. On the run to the finish, Boag positions himself on the bow to look for small, incoming gusts of wind, visible on the water's surface, that might help us catch the Dutch boat. Each time he spots one he relays it to Robertson, who steers the boat in order to keep the sails as full as possible.
Over the final two miles these tiny course alterations begin to add up and we start to make up ground - and cross the line to beat the Dutch boat by a few feet.
While we sail off to one of the tiny nearby islands for a celebration snorkelling session, I can't help but wonder whether the intensity of such racing might lead to a spot of afters with the opposition. According to Boag, however, post-race argy-bargy is rare.
"Although things can get a bit tetchy in the heat of the race," he says, "it's a sport at the end of the day. A lot of the people here are on hol- iday, so what happens on the boat, stays on the boat."
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Moorings (001 888 952 8420; moorings.com) offer two-week charter packages to the British Virgin Islands, including flights, from £611 per person. The price is based on six people sharing a boat.
For more information about holidays and activities in the BVI, contact the BVI UK Tourist Board (020 7355 9585; bvitourism.co.uk)