Aug 19, 2015

Cowes Week with Girls For Sail

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written by Hannah

Twice over the Alps before ever I was born, my name is Hannah but when online I tend to go by Lunaed, or Eluned Francis. I like to live in the past or in other peoples' present. I live to travel and love to see the world from the perspective of others. I chew slowly, and absorb the world in much the same way: savouring it.

Whilst volunteering on the Isle of Wight in early July, I dropped into the newly opened office of Girls for Sail, the UK’s only sailing school for ladies, with a view to asking about their apprenticeship scheme. I left scarcely fifteen minutes later having paid a deposit for my involvement in the first three races of Cowes Week, a feat that Karen in the office deserves considerable p raise for because I am normally incredibly suspicious of people who try to part me from my cash! That is not to say that I regretted my decision of course, the week that was to follow has to number amongst the best of my short life thus far.

For a number of years now I have been eyeing-up various internships, sail training schemes, fast-track RYA programmes and the likes from across the world, but I have only discovered this particular gem of a company within the last handful of months. At one point last year I had held a place on the waiting list for a year long scheme in Thailand which would purportedly have seen me progress from keen novice to Coastal Yachtmaster. I gave up my place under closer inspection of the types of conditions under which we would be learning, deciding instead that the UK, although extortionately expensive as a theatre to learn in, would prove far more beneficial in the long run. During the course of Cowes Week I would meet one of the current apprentices, but the subject of this particular post is Cowes Week and my experience as a punter, so I will refrain from going into the matter of any intentions that I might have for the future!

Girls for Sail had two boats registered for Cowes Week, one of which was to fly spinnakers with much more experienced women onboard, whilst the crew of the second comprised of more novice sailors who were set to race in a less competitive class. Rather revealingly a lot of the women were returning customers who had sailed with the company previously; something which could have spoken volumes about Annie’s company, or could simply be a testament to the limited options available to women who want to get involved in this sport without having the necessary connections. I came to realise, come the end of my experience with Girls for Sail,  that the impetus behind peoples’ booking with the company was something of a mixed bag; some loved the skippers, some enjoyed the camaraderie born of meeting new, like-minded ladies, whilst others simply had no other in-ways. Enough with the preamble, however – I’m afraid that this post is going to be a little heavy on the word front.

We were due to meet at 10.00 on the Friday at Girl for Sail’s office, so I made sure to camp somewhere reasonably close to East Cowes the night before in order to get the chain ferry back across. I had full blown tonsillitis and was not enjoying life, winding up in a beautiful stretch of countryside along the Medina, the beauty of which passed me by. Feverish and with a hacking cough I didn’t do an especially good job of disguising my bivvy and rucksack, but fortunately nobody disturbed me and I made it back to East Cowes before 08.30, consequently having to wait for the post office to open in order to send a parcel of unnecessary gear home to Cheshire.

The initial meet-up was marred by my having to unpack and repack my rucksack; I wasn’t paying enough attention and wound up on the wrong boat due to a lack of attention being paid. Whilst waiting for the rest of my boat to turn up I met Alice and Fran, who were to be our 1st mate and 2nd mate for the duration of the week, and got a private tour of Hot Stuff, the Beneteau First 40.7 we would be racing that week. The morning wore on and it became increasingly apparent as the temperature climbed that the wind was not going to pick up. We had a safety brief, met our fantastic skipper Nikki and then decided that there was no time better than the present for getting out onto the water. In spite of the limited wind we did manage to do a couple of drills; people began to get a feel for the positions they would be filling for the rest of the week and for those of us that haven’t sailed for a long time, memory began to kick back in.

It wasn’t until we had the mainsail and jib down, preparing to motor back to the marina, that the wind picked up. Fortunately for us Nikki elected to get the sails back up, whereas the other group missed their chance to get in some quality sailing and headed back on shore. We were pushed for time upon our eventual return to Hot Stuffs’ berth, what with the rum punch party and official opening for the Girls for Sail offices due to start at 17.00. Everybody gave a hand tidying up the boat and setting up for the next morning before heading straight to the festivities. Rum punch was plentiful and we had an opportunity to talk to all of the staff as well as the women who were sailing on the other boat, Diamonds. The office was opened officially by Vicky Ellis, the first female skipper to win a leg of the Clipper round the world yacht Race and one time instructor for Girls for Sail. We were all utterly entranced by her, putting a couple of questions to her about her successes, how she came to get into the sport and what she felt was the most important quality in a skipper.

The rum punch party broke up and everyone dispersed in order to have a little down time. I discovered that there was only three of us staying on Hot Stuff, which was lovely given the cramped conditions everyone else was having to contend with on the shore. Hazel, Alice and myself had a cabin each and come the morning we were delivered breakfast, a setup that I considered to be the height of luxury compared to kipping in my bivvy bag in the lee of various hills and hedges for the best part of the last month. My berth was almost a real bed!

Saturday dawned in a similar fashion to Friday, with a fierce heat to the sun that we are wholly unfamiliar with in the North West, and an unfortunate lack of anything resembling a stiff breeze. We set off with plenty of time before our race was due to start, hoping to get in a bit more practise with the pole, but it wasn’t long until postponements began to pile up and our start time moved back from 12.10 to 13.30. The postponements meant a huge increase in the number of boats encircling the start line, which given our limited experience as sailors, least of all as a crew must have been a little hair raising for Nikki and the girls. I can’t stress how cool, calm and collected she was – given the circumstances. That level of concentration and focus is surely superhuman!

We were cut up on the start by a competitor, and weren’t particularly sharp in our tacks etc. but the course in conjunction with the complete lack of wind and our handicap meant that we did extraordinarily well in the first race of the week. Placing fourth after the times had been corrected was a stupendously good result, much better than we could have hoped for, but the success buoyed everyones’ spirits and sowed the seeds of a competitiveness that would only grow throughout the remainder of the week. That we owed almost all of it to Nikki and the fact that we had less of a punishing handicap due to our not having a spinnaker on board was an acknowledged fact that we all largely ignored!

Sunday saw an increase in the wind, but the trade-off was that the glorious sunshine we had been experiencing decreased dramatically. We had a little rain but that didn’t dampen anybody’s spirits. The addition of Judith was a great help, her presence was reassuring in so much that she had a little more experience and had sailed with Nikki before. We lost Fran, who was kept on shore to help Annie and the office, but gained Sam for the day, although she had never set foot on a yacht as a crew member before. Hazel stepped up to fill her shoes on the mainsheet and Sam floated, doing a little of what she was told to here and there. I felt a little sorry for her in the sense that she didn’t have a defined role, but perhaps we were too competitive to give her her due. We started off scrappily but our cohesion improved towards the end of the race and we placed seventh in class, which disappointed Claire tremendously.

I couldn’t quite believe that my final day of racing was already imminent. Monday dawned with the promise of yet more wind, which we all felt we were equipped to deal with now after a meagre three days racing together. The conditions were very variable and there was a considerable amount of rain. Consequently there are far fewer photos of this day than there were of the first handful of days. As with the previous day, we gained a new addition who had only signed up for one race. Marie was native to the island and came from a family of sailors, or more accurately, a family where many of the men sailed but the women didn’t. She was terrified throughout and clung to the backstay for the majority of the sail; I am not certain it was an experience she is looking to repeat, which is a great shame because she so wanted to enjoy herself and pick up the sport in memory of her father.

We were a much slicker team than was previously the case and we clawed back a couple of positions on the previous days’ result, winding up fifth with only two minutes (on corrected time) between ourselves and Great Escape in third place. Great Escape was the boat that cut us up on the start of the first race of the week, so to have them in our sight was a tremendous boost. Throughout the week there was an upwards trajectory in terms of our competitiveness as a team up until this point, but the changeover of crew that was to take place the next day ruffled a few feathers onboard, unfortunately. I didn’t experience this first hand, but have it from other members of the original crew that tensions were to run high at times during the coming days.

I have said elsewhere on this site that I’ve been meaning to get into sailing for years now, and I’ve given my reasons so will refrain from re-posting them. I was guilty of approaching the week with the view that I would find it easy to jump from an understanding of how to sail dinghies on a sheltered estuary to racing a yacht of some forty foot. Although I knew a great deal more of the terms, and had a great many more stories of races that my parents and relatives have taken part in previously, it was incredibly conceited of me to think that I would take to it like a duck to water. It was a struggle and I am immensely thankful to Nikki, Alice and Fran for all of their coaching. They were all unfalteringly patient and generous, always willing to explain anything, even in the thick of things. I went away from this experience with a tremendous amount of respect for all three of them, cowed into reconsidering my own aptitude for something I imagined, wrongly, I could just fall straight into. That isn’t to say I am not desperate to learn, only humbled.

The week was stupendous, albeit incredibly tiring. I’ve never seen myself so badly bruised and my liver didn’t really know what had hit it, having not been so-assaulted since I finished my ski season in Meribel a year ago. During the course of the evenings, which I have described in greater detail elsewhere, I met a ridiculous assortment of people bound together by two commonalities: an incredible generosity and a real passion for sailing. People often say that sailing is still elitist, but I didn’t find that to be the case necessarily. Perhaps my experience was skewed somewhat; being young, willing to listen and extremely, visibly eager to learn I suspect I go down well with the ‘old set’, as it were. If you are willing to learn in earnest, there are plenty of people in the sport who will be glad to help you.

I came into the experience with the expectation, born of my tiny, feather-light mothers’ experiences, that men would ultimately try and step in to help and ultimately replace me in a given role, especially whilst racing. By sailing with Girls for Sail, this obstacle to mine and other womens’ learning has been removed. You can sail for years and not learn if you don’t have an active role. It is a fallacy to say that women can’t sail because they haven’t the strength; strength helps in the absence of technique, but if you have good technique and less strength you can achieve the same results. In some instances, on some old boats then strength comes into it’s own but in modern cruising/racing yachts such as Hot Stuff there is less need for brute strength.

For this reason alone I am incredibly glad that women like Annie exist, but I have enough self-awareness to know that I would bankrupt myself before I attained the level of knowledge I am desirous of if I were to continue to sail with Girls for Sail. It was an enabling experience, but I learn better from total immersion and in the future I will be more inclined to volunteer and gain my stripes as a skivvy, rather than pay and assume the role of privileged customer. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to anyone who wants to be able to try the sport in a safe, shout-free environment. Their brief is to help women sail and have fun whilst doing so, and to that end they fulfil their objective spectacularly. The all female environment was just too much for me!

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