You’ve never sailed in your life, you’re aboard a boat with sailing royalty among its crew and you’re about to embark on the Isle of Wight Round the Island Race – that is the definition of out of your depth in my book.
I am no sailor but I was aboard the Gibsea 442 Moonspray for the Isle of Wight’s big race with Dame Ellen MacArthur, once the fastest to sail solo around the planet, a transatlantic racer and veteran of countless voyages ... no pressure.
I’m a newbie on the Daily Echo sports desk and with sailing not overly my specialist subject (it isn’t at all) I thought I’d take the chance of diving head first into one of the most iconic sailing challenges on the planet. The Round the Island Race sees more than 16,000 sailors take to over 1,500 boats of all shapes and sizes in a 50 nautical mile challenge, circumnavigating the Island from Cowes.
Last year some impressive times were set: Ben Ainslie set a multihull record of two hours 52 minutes, but this year no records were ever going to be set.
One thing I did know before boarding Moonspray, a 25-year-old 45ft monohull and flagship of the Ellen MacArthur Trust, is that to sail you need wind. Without it you aren’t going anywhere. We (the sailing community and I) had barely a gentle breeze to take advantage of on Saturday. This meant that once the race had started and the engines were cut, no one was going anywhere fast. Our top speed all day was four knots, which equates to just over 4.5mph. Basically, walking pace.
But this isn’t really a race. It’s about the atmosphere that comes with sailing. Spending time in Cowes the night before I was caught up in the whole occasion, the entire town was in party mode – except everyone went to bed early because they had to be up at silly o’clock the next day.
I rose at 5am and the race started for us at 6.25am. We parked back up at 7pm after half a day at sea, retiring from the race as we reached standstill at St Catherine’s Point on the southernmost point of the Island. So, while the sailing was more like glorified sunbathing and the sea was much like a pond, there was ample time to learn the ropes or halliards.
I wasn’t aboard any ordinary craft. Moonspray is one of five Trust boats.
MacArthur, the patron of the Trust, was a member of the crew and so were six youngsters given this once in a lifetime opportunity by the Trust after battling – and defeating – cancer.
The six of them were incredible. It was the same across the other five boats out on Saturday, two of them returning under sail and the rest with the help of their diesel engines, all with children aboard who had been given this special opportunity.
You cannot help but endear yourself to sailing’s ethos. You’re part of a crew. That crew is like your family. You eat, sleep, work and go through the highs and the lows together. You’re all packed closely in a confined space. You share stories; you grow and learn as a group. Sailors are a somewhat superstitious breed. For example, if you say the word ‘rabbit’ on a boat you have to run to the mast and scratch it – if not you’re all doomed. The reason for that? Rabbits used to gnaw the bottom of boats in the past. Sailing is one of the nation’s oldest pastimes and that means that endless traditions and subtleties that have accumulated over thousands of years are embedded into the sport.
Sailors are always looking at the sea for patterns in the water to take advantage of the wind and tide, scanning the land for the best position in the water, staring at the mast and sails for clues to where the boat speed could be improved. I learnt that if the ribbons attached to the sails are flying horizontally then the boat is travelling at its optimum – here’s me thinking they were for decoration.
I’m not about to learn all there is to know in 12 hours, it takes a lifetime to understand just half of it. The skipper of the boat, Mark Burton, had been sailing since he was three weeks old. Don’t be daunted if you’re thinking of giving it a go though, because sailors love to talk sailing, no question is too silly. I did some winching, pulling slack from the head sail as we tacked, and made cups of tea and coffee – as about as active as much of the race became. The start of the race saw us head towards The Needles and the conditions meant an introduction to the ins and outs of the boat, tacking (turning) from portside to starboard as we dodged other boats. It was an ideal warm-up we thought before decent sea breezes would set in on the south of the Island.
That didn’t exactly transpire and we drifted on just the other side of The Needles for more than an hour. It was great for pictures but not so good for the racing. There just wasn’t any wind.
It was another opportunity to learn though. Just off the Needles lies a wrecked ship, the SS Varvassi. The Greek merchant steamship foundered there in 1947 and it is still causing chaos.
Brave sailors will steer close to The Needles where the Varvassi is, the lucky ones get through but some will become stuck on the boilers of the ship. We witnessed one boat wrestle with it.
By the time we got to St Catherine’s Lighthouse, which is basically halfway, we came together as a crew and voted to turn on the engine and forfeit the race.
There was no option. We’d either drift back to Cowes and arrive at midnight or rely on the engine and get back in three hours for a fish and chip supper. If you arrive any later than 8pm you’re disqualified anyway, so naturally we voted to turn on the motor and steam off towards Bembridge and then the finish.
There was a real sense of achievement as we reached Cowes. Although we didn’t finish the race, we’d circumnavigated the Island. It is an experience I won’t ever forget.