Blogger's Digest: a Novel
The Round the Island Race was a fairly self-descriptive event. Each year, thousands of yachts would race around the Isle of Wight in Hampshire. Obviously, the fastest circumnavigation wins the race, but in yacht and dinghy racing, there is a handicap system, so that vessels of different class can compete - theoretically the best sailor in the worst vessel should still win the race, and an average sailor in the best vessel should have no unfair advantage conferred by the vast amount of money that they've spent on the very best racing yacht or dinghy.
Much like the London Marathon the fastest yachts would start first, and the slowest would start last, for two obvious reasons. The first reason was for safety: having extremely fast racing yachts overtaking vast numbers of slow-moving pleasure craft, would be a recipe for collisions. The second reason was to create the illusion of competition on the water: overtaking another yacht of the same class was a minor victory, and being first in your class was a victory in and of itself, even if you might not end up winning the race, after your circumnavigation time was adjusted based on your handicap.
The sport of Formula One motor racing is an opportunity for car manufacturers to demonstrate what they can achieve when money is no object, and there is a lot of attraction the general public feels towards the passtimes of the rich and famous. Yacht racing is no different, with the America's Cup yachts costing $10 million dollars or more, and the research, development, plus the cost of their professional crew, adding an exorbitant amount more to the price tag for the privilege of competing in the world's most prestigious sailing championship.
The great attraction of the Round the Island Race, was that anyone could enter. Anyone with a yacht, that is.
Imagine being able to drive your ordinary family car around a Formula One track, straight after the Formula One cars have just finished their race. It might not exactly be an everyman accessible sport, open to the masses, but it was a brilliant opportunity to be part of a flotilla of thousands of yachts - a spectacle; a tourist attraction - all racing around the Isle of Wight, attempting their circumnavigation in the fastest possible time: one single 'lap'.
I had done it once before, when I was 23, in my small racing yacht. My crew were all experienced sailors and competitive dinghy racers. We were young and foolish; we were brave and stupid. We sailed well and finished 7th in our class, which was a great achievement, because it was mostly semi-professional sailors who finished ahead of us.
This time, my crew and I were moored up Portsmouth, getting very drunk and having a delicious meal, but I was very anxious. My crew were all amateurs, and we were going to be racing my 'floating caravan' which had been my home for well over a year. It did not feel at all as though my mobile home should be subjected to a punishing race at sea. I felt my crew were woefully ill-prepared, which was my own fault for inviting them. When I had entered the race I thought it would be fun. As we drew closer to the start, I thought it was going to be hell, for all involved.
* * *
Sian was a level-headed lady and she did not enjoy sailing at all.
She enjoyed visiting me when I was moored up in the marina, and she enjoyed motoring through the dock, out of the marina, and up to the breakwater, where the sea was flat and calm. However, she hated things when even the gentlest of waves began to cause the yacht to wallow slightly, and she hated things even more when the sails were up and the yacht began to lean over - to "heel" in the yachtie parlance - and she felt sure that we were about to capsize at any moment.
Poor Sian never lost the instinctive feeling that whenever the yacht was not completely flat and level, that we were sure to sink straight to the bottom of the sea. The moment the yacht heeled over - leaning as the wind caught the sails - she would grab the nearest handrail and cling on for dear life; her knuckles literally turning white, as she gripped to tightly.
A catamaran - with its two hulls - might appear to offer more stability than a single-hulled vessel, but any yacht sailor will tell you that a capsize is much more likely in a catamaran than a regular single-hulled yacht. To capsize a catamaran yacht would be catastrophic, as the mast would be smashed to pieces and it would end up fully inverted - upside down - and the crew would require rescuing by the coastguard, or anybody responding to a mayday distress call. Sian often asked why I didn't get a catamaran, which she felt sure she would prefer, and I explained repeatedly, as many different ways as I could think of, and as patiently as I could, but she persisted in her mistaken belief that my yacht was capable of capsizing at any moment, and that a catamaran would be much safer.
We hadn't been out sailing more than a handful of times before the entry deadline for the Round the Island Race was fast approaching, and I foolishly thought that Sian would soon find her sea legs. She seemed enthusiastic about the idea of sailing around the Isle of Wight - she imagined that it would be a romantic trip, like going on a cruise. I managed her expectations very badly and was exceedingly over-optimistic about my ability to convert her into an enthusiastic sailor.
Having invited Sian to be my first crew member, and buoyed by my ambition to introduce a group of amateurs to the joys of sailing, I proceeded to invite three other people who had expressed a keen interest in crewing for me. I hadn't really done much sailing all year, given that I thought of my yacht more of a floating home than as a racing vessel which I would gain much excitement from sailing. My 'floating caravan' did not enthuse me to go sailing, but the prospect of introducing some people to the sport was something I was motivated to do.
* * *
The voyage from Brighton to Portsmouth, the day before the race, was the first time I had assembled the entire crew aboard my yacht. This was the only opportunity I'd had to attempt to train my crew to work together to complete a handful of fairly simple manoeuvres. My yacht was built for comfort, not for speed, and had a number of convenient features which meant I could sail her without crew. However, during the Round the Island Race, the helmsman - me - could never leave the wheel unattended, because of the vast number of other yachts which we might collide with. Only I had the skill and experience to steer us safely through the start of the race, and around the Needles, during the first leg, when all the yachts in our class would be tightly bunched together and vying for position. Only I knew the 'rules of the road' and therefore who had the right of way. Only I knew how to spot and avoid collisions. For the most part, my crew would simply be pulling ropes, while I barked instructions at them.
The pre-race passage was a great success for my crew - they literally learned the ropes very quickly, and their confidence soared. The sailing conditions were very kind to us and we bonded well - the crew worked very well together as a team. There were more yachts than usual, making their way westwards, but it was very relaxing and easy sailing for me, without any of the close-quarters manoeuvring of racing, where yachts and dinghies would clump together, sometimes inches apart, and sometimes colliding. It was a leisurely trip and it was great to know that my crew understood the basics, but I knew that they were hopelessly ill-prepared for the race.
Sian was sulking, because she had imagined that the trip would be a romantic getaway, but she hadn't reckoned on how different it felt to be aboard my yacht with other people. It's often said - figuratively - that a boat gets a foot shorter every day that you're on board. Sian and I had had sex on board before, in the marina, and she wasn't too bothered about being overheard by the neighbouring berth holders, but it was pretty clear that any pre-race nookie was going to be somewhat spoiled by the fellow crew members sleeping in close proximity, with only flimsy thin wooden doors in-between us.
My other crew were in fine spirits, although they didn't seem to appreciate that we would have to leave our mooring and make our way to the race start at approximately 7am, in order to arrive at our allotted time. The moorings near the start/finish line were impossible to book in advance, and were reserved entirely for serious professional racing teams. We were lucky to be as close as we were. In my younger days, I would never have entertained the idea of racing with a terrible hangover, because of sheer competitiveness, but now I didn't want a hangover because I knew that it was going to be a very long day - something I wasn't able to impress upon my well-lubricated crew, who were drinking as if we had finished the race, not about to start it early the next day.
Still, I knew I could take care of getting us most of the way to the start/finish line of the race, with minimal help, if my crew needed to sleep off their hangovers. Unfortunately, the rules of the road said that a yacht without its sails up - using its engine - has to give way to a yacht which is sailing, which I knew would mean having to weave in-between vast numbers of yachts, if my crew were not awake and doing their job, as we got closer to the start of the race.
I really wanted to be a good skipper and ensure that everybody had a thoroughly enjoyable time, but there was a certain amount of telling people what to do by shouting at them, which was unavoidable. There wasn't a skipper in existence who hadn't had to shout "pull the red rope! no the red one! no that's a green one! the red one! the other one! yes that one! pull that one!" or words to that effect, when somewhat under pressure to avoid colliding with other vessels and keeping an eye on all the other crew members, to make sure that nobody was doing anything stupid and/or dangerous.
My relationship with Sian had been thoroughly pleasant, and we had never quarrelled. I desperately wanted to avoid her ever seeing my bad side, but I knew that if there was ever a situation which was guaranteed to bring out somebody's less desirable character traits, it was when they were in charge of a yacht. I prided myself on being a patient teacher who was calm in a crisis, but I knew that the build up to the start of the race, and the first leg - down to the Needles out of the Solent and out into the English Channel - would be incredibly stressful for me, trying to avoid colliding with any other floating caravans, which were also taking part in the Round the Island Race, and were probably crewed by equally incompetent amateurs.
My anxiety about the impending race and my sulking girlfriend didn't fully dampen my spirits, and I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening, getting drunk with my crew.
I awoke at 6:30am, dreadfully hung over, and was immediately struck with the horrifyingly embarrassing memory that Sian and I ended up having drunk sex when we had returned back to the yacht. We had been exceptionally noisy and it had lasted far longer than it should have done, because I was so inebriated. I tried to shrug off the shame and began my preparations to set sail for the start of the race.