Cowes; a small town on the north coast of the Isle of Wight steeped in history and featuring picturesque period architecture, quaint streets and small friendly cafes, bars and restaurants — population 16,000.
But step off the ferry during Cowes Week (July 31 – Aug. 7) and the population will be doubled, with parties, picnics and live music puncturing the peace and 100,000 spectators watching around 35 races per day.
Not that the locals mind. To say sailing is popular in Cowes is like saying praying is popular in Mecca.
If the boat-speckled view of the coastline isn’t a big enough give-away you just need to walk down the narrow high street and note the mass of nautical themed shops to see what they’re into here.
This makes it the perfect place to let go of the notion that sailing is an elitist sport and give it a try.
One of the competitions taking place in Cowes Week is round two of the UK Extreme Sailing Series. But it is on one of the Oman Sail Extreme 40s that I get a taste of racing at another event Cowes throws down its welcome mat for every year, the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race.
The town provides both the starting and finishing point for the competitive one-day yacht racing spectacle which stages a 50 nautical mile course around the Isle of Wight.
My sailing experience was somewhat limited but the all-encompassing nature of the event means I’m sharing the waters with the likes of Dame Ellen McArthur (world record holder for fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, and three-times Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainsley, along with other professionals, families, amateurs and first-timers.
A massive 1,780 boats in total. And, to my immense surprise, I’m going much, much faster than most of them.
I’m on the Wave Muscat — one of four Extreme 40 boats competing in the race. They’re exhilarating to watch — but not even close to how exhilarating they are to sail.
As the fifth “man” on board, my role pretty much consisted of changing my position while the four-strong crew, skippered by Paul Campbell-James, are tacking or jibing — if you’re unfamiliar with the lingo (as I was), this is the trick of switching between starboard and port tack depending on the direction of the wind.
As someone with zero sailing experience this takes some getting used to. As someone who regularly falls over on dry, flat land this means I spend much of the race clinging to the trampoline flooring of the boat as I try to clamber across without falling in when Paul shouts “TACK!” while one side of the boat is out of the water.
The extremes aren’t known as the grand prix of sailing for nothing and speeding over the crystal clear waters of English Solent in the early morning sun — we set off at 5.15 a.m. — it’s hard to believe the only power behind this thing is the wind.
Finishing second over the line after just a little over four and a half hours, just three minutes after multihull vessel IDEC, we make it back ashore in time for breakfast whilst many boats on the water are hoping to make it back by dinner time.