Joining the jet-set

  • Fri, 13 Aug 2004

Mike Kopman talks to the skipper of Red Jet 4 as they pass through the Cowes fleet at 35 knots

With the Red Jet bearing down on you at intimidating speed, it's easy to imagine there's an angry captain at the wheel whose one wish is to be freed of the moral and legal obligation of not smashing into annoying little blow boats. But a surprising amount of good will and effort goes into keeping conflicts between ferries and racing yachts to a minimum. Despite what many yachtsmen may think, it's not just a case of pointing the bow towards Southampton and leaning on the throttles.

I joined Captain Nick Morrison and Mate John Shiner on the bridge ofRed Jet 4on the 11h30 run from Cowes to Southampton. "Most of us have been doing this for quite a long time." Morrison reassures me. "This is my 26thCowes Week."

As we leave Cowes we're greeted by a seemingly impenetrable fleet of White Group boats milling about waiting for their start. Red Funnel Operations Manager Stuart Ferrier spends the first half of each day during Skandia Cowes Week on the starting platform of the Royal Yacht Squadron. From there he coordinates the movements of his ferries in and out of Cowes between starts. "As far as our management goes, there is no pressure at all" said Morrison. "I can go at my own speed, which is quite sensible really. I don't know when I'm going to get stuck here." We end up waiting for three or four minutes for the traffic to clear before getting the OK from Ferrier. Morrison moves the joystick on his right arm rest forward, and soon sails are flashing past at 35 knots. "The good thing about racing yachts is that most of them are on the same tack at the same time, or at least heading in the same direction. Once we get away from the start it's a lot easier. You can normally find quite a nice gap."

Still, the dense fleet necessitates a detour to avoid slicing several Sunsail yachts in two. According to Morrison, in some respects it's easier guiding the Jet safely through a racing fleet than through the Solent's normal weekend traffic. "I can do that if I know they're racing. It wouldn't make any sense at all for them to suddenly go about."

Naturally, everything is done to avoid any possibility of a collision. "I can do everything right, and the yachtsman can do everything wrong, but I still don't want to hit him because it becomes a case. We don't want to get involved. With collisions they apportion blame and I don't think you ever get away with a 100% vs. 0% result." Yet fortunately Morrison doesn't see every sailor as an unpredictable annoyance. "Most of them are pretty sensible" he said. Shiner agreed: "It's the powerboats that take some pretty ridiculous risks. They think it's like driving your car."

Later I head back to Cowes with Captain Paul Field and Mate Rebecca Batten. From the excellent vantage point up on the bridge they've seem some pretty nervous faces looking up at them. "I would be too," admitted Field. "The ones that aren't nervous don't know what's going on. We've got great visibility from our height of eye, but they can't see all we can. You've got to make allowances for that."

"So, who don't we want to win?" laughs Field wryly as he guides the 40m Jet through the Laser SB3 fleet. Fortunately for them, he's joking.

Red Jet 4, the newest addition to Red Funnel's high speed fleet, can carry up to 275 passengers. Red Funnel's high speed service leaves up to three times an hour from Cowes and Southampton during peak times. For bookings call 0870 444 8898 or visit/www.redfunnel.co.uk>www.redfunnel.co.uk 

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