I have done a fair bit of sailing in my time, being lucky enough to attend a school with its own sailing team. This wasn’t quite as glamorous as it sounds, with many afternoons spent doing a passable impression of the Michelin man whilst shivering on half frozen lakes in southern England (we were the only school in the country that sailed in Winter, something about it being character building).
Frozen lakes aside (the summers were glorious, admittedly; swallows and amazons eat your heart out), I love sailing, and have even done it at a fairly competitive level, although I hasten to point out that the boats I am predominantly used to sailing in are small things, slightly larger than a bathtub, and easily handled by one or two people. The principle of sailing however remains the same, involving bits of rope, some wind, and a lot of wet stuff.
So when I was invited down to Italy recently, for a variety of reasons, but largely to take part in the world famous Brindisi – Corfu sailing regatta which happens every year, I naturally leapt at the chance. I would probably have leapt at the chance even without a boating background, as I’m the leaping sort, but having a vague inkling of what lay ahead only served to excite me further.
The Brindisi – Corfu regatta, now in it’s 28th year, is a 200km race across the Adriatic sea from Brindisi in Italy, to the island of Corfu in Greece. A great many (about a hundred) boats take part every year, and I was being put on board one of these to document the experience.
Prior to setting off I wandered the harbour with a fellow Italian blogger (and talented videographer it turns out), in search of our respective vessels. Neither of us had any idea at all of what to expect, what our craft or crew would be like, and even, in my case at least, if they would speak English. All I had was the boat’s name.
The Brindisi marina was stuffed to the gills with boats, mostly in the 30 – 40 ft range, ostensibly pleasure yachts that were taking part. It didn’t take long before we found Denis’ yacht, which looked wonderfully homely, right down to the potted plants and wooden trim. It didn’t necessarily look very fast, but it looked like the sort of place where one could happily while away a regatta, perhaps over a glass or two of fine Italian wine. He introduced himself to the crew, and we wandered on, in search of my yacht, the Idrusa.
This took some time, as the marina was very full of boats, and went on for quite a distance, but finally we found my vessel. I’m not going to lie, it came as a bit of a shock. Having walked past so many homely looking boats, discovering that my ride was an 80ft purpose built racing yacht was somewhat unexpected. This did not look like a boat where the crew would be sipping glasses of wine and exchanging stories of mermaids. It looked very serious, and frankly, a little bit scary.
Luckily the crew, some of whom spoke some English, were very nice, and I was welcomed with a glass of wine and some cherries, before bunking down for the night in preparation for a 4am start. A 4am start! Sailors are crazy.
4am dawned bright and blue, and I lay in my bunk and watched as everyone around me started getting dressed in very serious looking clothes, including head to toe waterproofing. I pondered that perhaps my one fleece and no shoes approach may not have been ideal, but hopped out of bed anyway to start the day by taking some pictures, which was ostensibly what I was there for.
The sun hadn’t bothered to rise as I walked around the slippery deck (if you go on a trip like this, take some nice, rubber soled trainers with you – bare feet are not grippy on a deck!) and took some shots. Then the engine fired up, we cast off and were heading towards the start line.
By this point, the sun was starting to rise and all the boats around us were getting their sails up, a spectacular sight. I was doing my best to take it all in whilst slipping around the deck being as not in the way as possible.
Which is quite hard when there are twenty people all running around being industrious with ropes and winches and bits of sail. I finally elected to sit out the way at the back, take pictures of the sunrise, and do my best not to fall in.
Sail boat races always have a running start – lining up a bunch of boats in a row and shouting “start” doesn’t really work when you are wind powered. Getting the start right is important – you want to cross the line just as the starter horn goes off – but not before obviously, as that is a false start.
This was very exciting, and the tension in the air was palpable as watches were checked to ensure we got the best possible start. We were surrounded by competitors, including this boat behind us, our sister ship and nearest competitor.
And then we crossed the line, and the race was on! The wind was just perfect for the race, meaning we had to make minimal course adjustments, and could go almost directly to Corfu.
It quickly became apparent that our boat was a bit faster than the majority of the other boats out there, as within about half an hour of starting these could only be seen as distant specks on the horizon, and after a couple of hours there was just us and the two or three other boats in our class even visible any more. We were a rocket!
After a while of sailing and working out how not to fall in, I set about doing my best to get to know some of the people I was sailing with. It turned out that not everyone was a regular crewmember on the Idrusa either – perhaps 7 or 8 were core crew members, and the others were enjoying their first chance at crewing such a lovely ship.
It was fairly obvious who the new ones were – they had the job of winding the ropes. Constant adjustments had to be made to the sails, and this meant a lot of time spent at the winches. So much time was spent at the winches that I started to suspect in fact that the boat was clockwork powered, and the sails were an illusion.
I also chatted with a couple of the younger crew members, one of which turned out to be the Captain’s son. From him I was able to learn that our Captain, Paolo, had been sailing for a great time. I asked him how long he had been sailing, and he said for as long as he could remember. One day, he added, he would be a captain too, like his father, who was his hero.
Sadly, being the son of the captain didn’t get him out of working for his ride, and he spend a large amount of time winching. Turns out you need a camera attached to your face to get out of real work on a sail boat.
This isn’t to say I didn’t contribute. Weight distribution is very important on a yacht, and I took my duties of mobile ballast very seriously, moving to the bits of the boat I was told to, and leaning over the side appropriately as directed. Watching the water scoot on by under the huge sails, with the Albanian coastline in sight and Greece a distant speck, it occurred to me that life was pretty good.
Of course, all good things come to an end, and after around 11 hours of sailing and reaching a top speed of 18 knots (33km/h), we made it to the finish line, the first boat to do so. There were lots of cheers and hugging, before I had to depart on a small inflatable dinghy, and the crew turned the boat around, and set off in the opposite direction for home.
I think it’s fair to say that this was one of the more memorable boat rides I’ve ever taken – a combination of a fantastic adventure and wonderful people made it into a day I’m never going to forget. I’d like to thank the folks of Brindisi is MY Destination who made this adventure possible, and of course all the crew of the Idrusa, who made the day so awesome! If you ever get the chance to sail on a boat like this, take it – I promise you won’t regret it!