Crews competing in next month’s Cowes Week will be hoping for fairer winds than I experienced early on the opening morning of last year’s regatta, when double Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson took me out on the Solent for a pre-race sail. Few other sailors were up and about, but I was hoping for a flavour of the thrill and excitement that would be experienced later by those crewing more than 1,000 boats. Cowes is one of the world’s biggest open-to-all regattas. Instead, as Robertson and I walked down to the marina below the Royal Yacht Squadron club, not a breath of wind disturbed the burgee flags on top of the masts.
Sailing without wind is like cycling without pedals and, since the boat we were about to use, a Bembridge Redwing, is based on an 1897 design, it is not equipped with such luxuries as an engine. “It doesn’t matter how good a sailor you think you are, nobody can make a boat move without wind in the sails,” said Robertson. “It’s terribly frustrating for the serious sailors but racing in light air is a much tougher test of skill than blasting along at 10 knots in a big blow.”
Robertson should know. She was the first British woman to win two Olympic gold medals at consecutive games, in 2000 at Sydney and again at Athens in 2004. She was named World Female Sailor of the Year in 2000 and was awarded an OBE in 2005. Now retired, Roberston has a home overlooking the Cowes marina, from where she still sails, although non competitively.
Our boat, named Gosling, had a classic-shaped hull and, from bow to stern, came in at an inch below 28ft. That might sound like a comfortable length but it was only 5ft 6in wide. Such a narrow vessel tends to roll from side to side, even in a flat sea.
There were no safety rails to negotiate so Robertson and I simply climbed down into a cockpit resembling a dugout canoe with a mast attached. The deck was covered in a mass of ropes, each one of which would fine-tune the two red sails to match the wind and racing conditions.
Instrumentation is minimal but Charles E Nicholson, who designed the Redwing more than a century ago, was smart enough to add one little luxury. Underneath the tiller handle at the back of the boat is a wooden drawer, just big enough for a few sandwiches and a flask of tea – or something stronger.
Robertson, who was 46 this week, immediately looked at home, even though the Gosling was not her own boat. “I’ve raced offshore in 45-metre superyachts in very tough conditions but there is something special about helming a boat like this. You don’t need a large crew and you just turn up with your sailing partner and race. That’s why my heart has always been in little boats.”
Her first sailing experience was as a seven-year-old in a tiny Mirror dinghy, built by her father in the garage of the family home in Dundee. “Dad and I joined the Loch Ard Sailing Club in the Trossachs because it was the closest place for us to get on the water. I met my friends there every weekend and our parents would organise sausage sizzles for us afterwards.”
Robertson then went on a weekend training course, caught the bug and never sailed with her father again. “I had to race in my age category in a single-handed dinghy so that was that. I remember winning the regatta at our club. Everybody thought I was a boy because I did so well and my hair was short.”
Our session was floundering in the still conditions, so we decided to hoist the mainsail, hoping for a gentle breeze to carry us across the water. But I struggled to identify the correct halyard – or rope – to pull the sail up the mast because none of them were labelled. Eventually, by a process of elimination, I located the correct one and sail number 45 was lifted skyward.
I did the same with the jib, or triangular sail at the front of the boat, then stepped gingerly on to the foredeck to free us from the mooring. In normal conditions, Robertson would have turned Gosling away from the wind to fill the sails and sent us on our way. Frustratingly, our only movement was backwards with the tide.
Normally, racing would be delayed by such flat wind conditions but Robertson was itching to get us moving. Suddenly to our starboard side she spotted a patch of ripples on the water – at last, a breeze. She ordered me to stand with my back against the mast boom, holding the mainsail broadside to the direction of the wind: “Just keep it there, don’t move, and wait.” By then we were drifting sideways in the current, directly towards a line of other boats neatly moored up in a row.
I started to feel a little anxious for Gosling’s pristine hull until, quietly above me, the sail gently took shape and started to fill. Now there was a new soundtrack to the calm of the moment, the sound of our bow slowly cutting through the water as the Redwing eased forward and out into open water.
Robertson told me to sit down in the cockpit and adjust the jib until it too took shape. “Sometimes in big yacht racing they send a man to the top of the mast to look for wind ripples on the water. You can have every piece of technology onboard but all boats are the same – without wind you aren’t going anywhere.”
But our wind-assisted momentum didn’t last long, so we abandoned our sailing and returned reluctantly to the marina. By then it was almost 10am and the scent of bacon sandwiches on the air was luring crews from their slumber. I asked Robertson if it was frustrating to be no longer in contention for, say, the Olympics. “There were days when I was in tears training and there was a lot of heartache along the way,” she said. “Sailing should be fun and by living here at Cowes I’ve recaptured that spirit.”
Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week runs August 2-9, www.aamcowesweek.co.uk
Photographs: Gian Paul Lozza