And while high-tech modern racing vessels can be seductively sophisticated, a classic yacht takes charm to another level
My absolute passion is sailing. I rather consider my 30-year City career a necessary distraction to keep me off the water. A distraction because a bad day on the water always beats a good day in the office, but a necessity because boats are expensive beasts to keep and maintain. (So, thank you to all my clients for the business that’s paid for those new sails!)
Until just a few years ago, She-who-is-now-Mrs-Blain and I spent all our free weekends racing on the Solent – the inland sea that divides the Isle of Wight from the real world – or charging up and down the south coast of England on offshore races. We’ve been fortunate enough to afford some very nice racing yachts – all named Batfish – and to have great friends to crew the boats. But it’s been the quality of our crews’ teamwork that has made our yachts successful.
In recent years we’ve discovered a new kind of sailing – cruising. Instead of sailing with eight or nine crew on the foredeck, stacking sails as sewer rats, trimming jibs, working the mainsheet and playing the various halyards from the pit, the pair of us clamber on board on a Friday night, hoist the sails, set the autopilot and trundle off across the Channel (standing alternate watches through the night so we don’t hit anything in the shipping lanes), before mooring up in some sleepy French harbour in the morning. We spend the next two days eating, drinking and meeting our Yooropean chums, before sailing back on the Sunday and heading straight for the train up to London on Monday morning.
Last year we sailed to Normandy and kept going, eventually ending up in La Rochelle on the Biscay coast after eating half the lobsters in France as we sailed port-to-port around the Brittany coast. Cruising means pointing and getting on with it. Who could have imagined that seaside towns had such great restaurants, excellent wines and interesting markets? Who knew?
Before we discovered cruising, we loved offshore racing: charging through the night towards some X on a chart, half the crew dozing below while the other half sat on the rail in the rain, getting soaked by breaking waves as they trimmed the sails and prayed to the weather gods. We would then spin the boat around a miserable rock outside some harbour and race straight back – probably via a dog-leg course to some godforsaken lighthouse off the Channel Islands. And we called it fun! It was. We were good at it. We were even champions – top boat out of 600 competitors.
Offshore races are point-to-point. The legs are long and require loads of patience, especially when the wind isn’t blowing. The skills involved include choosing the right route to benefit from the expected wind, weather and tides. The other kind of racing is ‘round-the-cans’, where there are two or three short, sharp races each day over a regatta. Each race involves lots of complex manoeuvres called tacks and gybes, and racing turns around moored buoys (the cans). This necessitates very tightly co-ordinated crew skills, as specialist downwind sails such as spinnakers and A-sails are hoisted and doused (sailor-speak for dropped), since each leg is at a different wind angle. Each crew member knows their place and role, and each hoist, drop and bear-away is executed with balletic precision. (Or so we hope – when it goes wrong, it really goes wrong – I have pulled sails out the water with fish in them.) After racing, all the competing crews compete again in the bar. It’s messy, great fun, and makes the following day’s racing even more challenging.
All our boats have been modern in their day. Our sails now are made of complex, man-made carbon fibres woven to retain shape and efficiency on moulds to give them the best aerodynamic shape. The lines (heaven forbid you ever call them a rope – every one has a specific name: halyard, sheet, strop, barber and jack) are constructed of engineered non-stretch materials with breaking stains measured in multi-tons. Each line is a different colour so we don’t get confused what it does.
There are multiple blocks, turners, clutches, tracks, and jammers to control the running rigging. The winches are geared to make it possible to grind in the sails even in the worst storms. The mast is made of carbon fibre, while the hull is crafted from carefully calibrated expoxied vacuum-bagged honeycomb glass. Below the boat is a 2.6m-long razor-thin keel with a torpedo-shaped lead weight at the bottom to give the vessel the maximum righting moment. The carbon steering wheel controls a 2.5m carbon rudder polished to diamond smoothness to cut through the water. Every single piece of kit on the yacht is designed for functionality and efficiency.