Captain of my own ship

Kass sailing Zest off Cowes Green

Sailing Zest off Cowes Green in the bright February sunshine (photo: Tom Loosemore)

Step one of becoming the captain of one’s own ship is, of course, procuring the ship. For me the process started with a bit of seemingly innocent browsing of various used boat websites. This often took place, if I’m perfectly honest, in bed on weekday mornings, as I sipped a mug coffee and put off the start of my dreary 90 minute commute.

Offshore racing has very strict rules about what makes a suitable boat, and these rules are usually pretty difficult for smaller boats to satisfy. As my budget was very limited, this meant my choices of acceptable and affordable boats were pretty restricted. We were eyeing up models like the Jenneau Melody and the Beneteau First 345, of which there were typically a handful for sale in the UK, Ireland and on the Atlantic coast of France.

In November, while on holiday to our usual cruising ground in Greece, we heard about a Melody that had been recently bought for a good price and fixed up in our local boatyard. The boat was not for sale, and the owners were off home before I arrived, but told mutual friends I was welcome to have a nose around on deck in their absence, just to get a feel for it. So one evening we took a dinghy across Vathoudi Bay to the local rustic boatyard, full of hungry mosquitoes in the fading light, and I climbed up a rickety ladder onto the deck.

I imagined myself alone on this boat, steering across the waves of the North Atlantic, which was not so easy with the olive tree just off the port quarter. The cockpit felt reassuringly small and protective, good for stormy conditions, while the expansive foredeck offered plenty of lounging space for calm, sunny days. There were rumours that this boat had been designed specifically for the OSTAR, with a deep keel and high ballast ratio. Looking around the deck I could believe that. It had the feeling of a well-engineered, mass-produced tool. It would do the job, even if it wasn’t particularly exciting.

On our return to the UK we started making tentative plans to spend a weekend or two jetting off to similar boats that were actually for sale. But before we had a chance to surrender ourselves to Easyjet, our heads were turned by a couple of intriguing boats much closer to home, on the south coast.

Both were pedigree racing machines, designed by top names, and custom-built with no expense spared. Both had recently had costly refits, only to have the owners’ racing aspirations curtailed, in one case by the sudden death of the owner and in the other by the birth of a child.

I bought the first boat we looked at. It took about five weeks from seeing it to becoming the owner. The asking price was about 50% more than I could afford to pay, but for some reason Diana, the original owner’s widow, agreed to sell to me anyway. I am extremely grateful to her for that, and my gratitude just increases the more I learn about the boat (and the more knowledgable people come visit and tell me what a great boat I have). I realise I have said almost nothing about the boat so far. Don’t worry, (much) more soon.

The seed of an idea

‘Have you always wanted to do this?’ is more often than not the first question people ask me when they learn about my plans to compete in the 2013 OSTAR (Original Singlehanded TransAtlantic Race), to which I often answer in true snarky geek fashion ‘No, of course not’ before establishing that what my questioner actually wants to know is for how long have I wanted to do it. That’s a more difficult question to answer.

I can’t say for sure when I first learned about the OSTAR, which has been organised on average every 4 years since its debut in 1960 by the Royal Western Yacht Club of England. But I definitely remember in Autumn 2008, as Rupert and I began the long rebuild of his Quarter Tonner yacht in a boat shed in Cowes, becoming intrigued by the boat next to his, a J/105 being fixed up by a 17 year old kid who was planning to race it in the 2009 OSTAR.

Oscar Mead on King of Shaves at the start of the 2009 OSTAR

Oscar Mead on King of Shaves at the start of the 2009 OSTAR (by Rupert Holmes)

We got to know Oscar Mead over the following months, during which time he turned 18, the minimum required age to compete. On the May Bank Holiday weekend Rupert and I travelled down to Plymouth to wave Oscar off at the start. As we were driven around Plymouth Sound on one of the big spectator boats before the start, cheering each competitor as they sailed by, I felt that same funny feeling I felt the first time I was a spectator at a marathon.

It was a mixture of admiration and awe for what the competitors were undertaking, curiosity about what it would feel like to be in their shoes, and the frankly unsettling germ of a realisation that I could, if I was so minded, someday do the same. And as if he had read my mind, Rupert turned to me and said ‘if you wanted to, you could be here in four years’.

It seemed a ridiculous idea when voiced, but then so did the idea that I might run a marathon the first time I spoke about it. Less than a year before my first marathon I had never run more than a mile without stopping. But if I learned anything from that experience, it was that the mind is the most important muscle to develop when working towards a challenge such as a marathon. Belief in that can take you on many unexpected adventures.