Race control came on the radio at 3pm, as planned, to an audience that was riding at anchor, tense with nerves after a prolonged delay. Wind conditions were easing, announced the crackling radio, so we were set for the next stage of the competition. But in case any eavesdroppers might be confusing us for Olympians, the exchange ended with a new voice, cutting in. “Thanks for the information, race control,” said the skipper of the boat Mascotte. “Eve of St Mawes, will you be wanting your sausages?”
Lara Caine, our skipper, leant across the chart table to pick up the handset. “Yes please,” she responded. “Can you defrost them first?”
A post-race barbecue with one’s closest rivals is not the normal behaviour of world-class athletes. But then this particular world championships involved a particular class of boat and a particularly gentlemanly breed of crew, who were as happy trimming topsails as they were discussing economics or the latest decisions from the Royal Courts of Justice. They were united by a passion for a classic vessel that is the nautical equivalent of an old Bentley: pilot cutters.
In the 19th century, there were pilot cutters galore in British waters. These fast, robust boats earned their living by taking pilots out to ships headed for British ports. Speed was vital. In a competitive environment, the first pilot to reach the ship would win its business.
Besides being quick and tough, the boats were also head-turningly good-looking, especially when carrying a full set of sails. And that was something I gave thanks for, stepping into Eve’s clinker-built tender at its home port, the paint-box-pretty harbour of St Mawes on Cornwall’s south coast. In my book, there are two golden rules for such quay-side pick-ups, especially when under the eye of a weekend crowd waiting for the ferry to Falmouth. One, don’t fall in. Two, make sure you’re going to the most handsome boat in the bay. I’m glad to say I managed both. Eve of St Mawes is a 38ft hardwood-built, powder-blue-hulled, 14-ton cutter owned and run by Classic Sailing, a holiday company that has been at the helm of something of a revival in pilot cutters. Eve’s habitual beat is Britain’s south-west coast, with all its creeks and crevices, smugglers’ anchorages and barbecue spots, but once a year guests can also join her to take park in the annual three-day Pilot Cutter World Championships.
Alongside me at this year’s event were a barrister, a zoologist and an engineer, a motley crew with little previous experience of this kind of sailing. But never mind that, we’d been reassured that there was no substitute for learning on the job. For unlike modern yachts, where you sit in the cockpit and twiddle your winches, a pilot cutter is a very hands-on business – and that means hauling hemp on heaving decks. Everything on board was, as skipper Lara described it, “mantronic”.
And womantronic, too, because Lara herself turned out to be the Billy Whizz of the yachting world: one minute up the top of the mast, adjusting the halyards, the next down in the galley, tossing a salad.
The first leg of the competition was from Fowey, a handsome fishing village barnacled around a creek jammed with rigging. Squeezing a dozen racing cutters through the harbour entrance was hair-raising but, thereafter, it was a broad reach pretty much all the way, with a vigorous tack into St Mawes to end.
Thereafter, the wind kicked up so the rest of the racing was in the comparative shelter of the Fal estuary. We scurried along wildflower-rich shorelines, glimpsing church towers and diving shags as we pointed Eve’s bowsprit this way and that.
In the end, we didn’t end up among the medals, I’m afraid to say. But while others may have been better than us, there was no one prettier. And in this particular sporting clash, just being on board was more than enough.
Andrew Eames was a guest of Classic Sailing (www.classic-sailing.co.uk). A four-day trip on the Eve of St Mawes, including taking part in next year’s Pilot Cutter World Championships, costs from £480 and starts on May 29. A six-day voyage to the Isles of Scilly and back costs from £720