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2004, Offshore Sailing

A few white flecks of foam were beginning to chalk the tops of the waves as the breeze stiffened and three well matched yachts bore down on each other approaching the start line. No-one wanted to give way. It was going to be tight as the bow of one tucked behind the stern of another, missing the superstructure by a few feet.

We might have been competing in the most important race of our lives. In fact it was nothing more than a practice session in the Solent off the Isle of Wight but our instructors only know one way to sail. “You train like you sail and you sail like you train,” says Mark Covell, a silver medalist at the Sydney Olympics and one of three of Britain’s America’s Cup squad taking us through our paces.

Covell is a giant of a man – 6ft 7 inches and 16stone. You have to be big to sail the double-handed Star yachts that brought him his medal success. So the tinkling sound of the trumpet hornpipe, better known as the theme tune to Captain Pugwash, seems in once sense appropriate and in another bizarre as he reaches in to his pocket to answer his mobile phone.

Covell, with team mates, Chris Mason and Mo Gray have been engaged by Formula 1 Sailing, a Gosport-based sail training and charter company, in a novel experiment attempting to turn journeymen sailors in to a first rate racing crew.

High-powered and lavishly funded races such as the America’s and Admiral’s cups make sailing one of the most glamorous and expensive sports around. The top crews occupy a rarefied world where wealthy yacht owners think nothing of jetting over one of the leading New Zealanders, say, to compete in the most prestigious events.

The sheer glamour of it all is difficult to match. Never mind the crazy checks of the golf circuit or tennis whites that look out of place off court. The sailing bars from Antigua to Cork sport a studied combination of rufty tufty practicality and designer chic to complement the bleached hair and weather beaten tans.

Then there are the boats, the ultimate in designer accessories, with their sleek lines, Kevlar sails and go-faster everything. Sailing’s couture image is indisputable. The only problem for the would-be racer is the sailing itself where looking the part really means knowing the part. And playing the part is a world away from the glossy image. There is nothing very glamorous about heaving last night’s supper over the side in a gale, or trying to grab some sleep in your salt-soused fowl weather gear while you sit out on the rail as human ballast.

Still, there is no shortage of candidates willing to sign up for some of the most exhilarating sailing events in the calendar such as Cowes week, Antigua Week, the Sydney-to-Hobart race or the Heineken Cup in St Martin. But how do you reach the standard needed to be taken seriously as a big yacht racer when your experience might be confined to taking your dingy around the local pond or puttering up the Hamble for an evening beer at a riverside bar?

This was the question facing Rob Cousins, managing Director of Formula 1 Sailing. The company was established five years ago as a yacht-chartering business with a fleet of Farr 65’s. These are sturdy cruising racers that can give weekend sailors the chance to test themselves in a transatlantic race such as the Arc or one of the annual Royal Ocean Racing Club events such as the Fastnet race.

But one-off competition will not provide the skills needed to move up a gear. “I know that the top race teams think nothing of packing their crews with professionals – the so-called rock stars who they will fly over from the southern Hemisphere. But we think it is possible for aspiring amateurs to grow their own skills and compete with the best,” he says.

Most of the world’s best sailors have been reared in youth training schemes from a young age. In the UK teams such as Bear of Britain, racing a Farr 52, are doing an excellent job of building an ocean racing team, chosen from the cream of young sailors who are willing to undertake a rigorous military-style selection programme.

But that can’t help the weekend sailors. Neither is Cousins convinced that a Spartan, elitist regime is the best way to promote the kind of inclusive, fraternal competitiveness that he believes is essential in a healthy yachting community.

His answer has been to launch a race training scheme based on fielding a competing yacht in the 2004 RORC and International Racing Commission events. The team was conceived by Philippe Falle, a round the world yachtsman and transatlantic racing skipper who trained and led the team that won the 2003 RORC Offshore School Boat Trophy, a keenly contested event among UK sail training schools.

This year Falle is trying to win it again as chief instructor of Formula 1, building a racing crew from scratch from a core group of six who signed up for the programme in April. Three of the team, Andy Greaves and brothers Mike and Chris West had sailed together for the first time with Formula 1 on one of the Farrs in the 2003 Fastnet race and wanted to build on their experience. “We wanted to learn more about sailing but in a racing environment,” says Mike West, “And this seemed to be offering an ideal opportunity to do both.”

Initially they approached Cousins for advice on buying and financing a racing yacht of their own. He offered the alternative of a training and racing programme, on the company’s Volvo-sponsored Reflex 38, Leopard, at a cost of £3,000 each for the season.

Price comparison between buying and chartering is an important factor when embarking on such a venture. First there is the cost of the yacht. A fully race-fitted Reflex 38 would cost about £145,000 at today’s prices. Then there are berthing fees of about £5,000 a year, £6,000 to fully kit out a crew of 10, £1,000 annual insurance, £5000 a year for general maintenance and £500 for race entry fees.

“If you think that a set of Kevlar sails alone, costs £18,000 and they will last for two seasons, you can see how the costs begin to build up,” says Falle. “Owning your own racing yacht is a serious undertaking, not least in the time you need to spend on maintenance.” For a cash comfortable, time poor executive, maintaining a boat in racing trim is a significant factor.

Before every race Falle gets in to his diving gear and scrapes the boat of weed. “It might not make a huge difference to the boat speed but it means we have taken care of one other factor. Normally a private owner would hire a cleaning crew but I do it myself as part of the service,” he says.

Beyond the costs of equipment and maintenance is the training. Although many training schools, including Formula 1, undertake Royal Yacht Club accredited courses to bring sailors up to certified standards of proficiency such as Day Skipper and Ocean Yachtmaster grades, there are no accredited racing courses.

The big difference between race training and the learning of general sailing skills is the intensity of specialisation expected of race crews. As Mark Covell points out: “Each member of a crew should know their individual roles better than anyone else on the boat. There will be times in any race when everyone else on the crew is leaning on the expertise of one crew member so leadership roles are passed around different people, depending on the manoeuvre.”

The America’s cup teams prepare detailed plans of their on-board routines meticulously so the relationship between each of the drills is understood by everyone in the crew. “Imagine describing to an alien how to make a cup of tea. It’s more than pouring water in to a cup,” says Covell. The working documents were considered so sensitive that they were locked away when not in use.

The complexity of sail trimming is a science of its own. The sails are the boat’s power unit, and just like the engine of a racing car, they need to be tuned constantly to achieve their maximum efficiency. The main sail, for example, has nine points of adjustment offering thousands of possible combinations to change the profile of the sail. Add to this to the ever-changing strength and direction of the wind and you can begin to understand how the science of sail tuning is transformed in to more of an art.

“You never stop learning when you’re sailing a boat. I learn something new every time I go out on the water, and learning from people who have proven themselves at the top of their sport has been something of revelation,” says Falle.

The first RORC race – the Cervantes Cup from Cowes to Le Havre goes well - earning the boat a third in class and ninth overall out of a fleet of about 60 yachts. I always find night sailing on a moonlit sea something special. You start the race among a big fleet which slowly dissipates as the tacticians on each boat try to second-guess each other, reading the tides and the approaching weather systems. During the night the odd masthead light indicates a competing boat before the dawn breaks to reveal a scattering of sails as the fleet bunches again near the finish line.

There is always the ritual of a few breakfast time beers among the exhausted crews in the yacht club bar before people head back to their bunks for a rest ahead of the long journey home. This provides the opportunity to practice other shipboard jobs. A few years ago I had the good fortune to undertake one of the southern ocean legs of the BT Global Challenge but I have learned far more about boat handling in a few weeks of yacht race training in the Solent than I ever learned in the southern ocean.

The team has made enormous strides in a matter of months,” says Falle. “Learning from the experts really does make a difference.”

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved