An all expenses paid chance to sail at Cowes? Meet the Skandia Squad

Skandia PR manager Jo Rimmer makes no secret of the reasons behind the Skandia Squad. “Cowes Week is a regional event, but with the Squad we try to get people who live away from the South Coast and have never sailed here to participate That way the local media can get involved all over the country – the story has local interest.”

Given Skandia’s enormous investment in Skandia Cowes Week it’s hardly surprising they want to make the most of it, but the benefits for the chosen crews are significant. The scheme is run by the UKSA as part of the Sonar class, and each boat is provided with a skipper. The crews are provided with food and accommodation – there aren’t many ways to come to Skandia Cowes Week where all you have to provide is beer money. As Rimmer succinctly said: “UKSA do the management, we write the cheque.”

The Squad consists of five boats this year, each named after one of Skandia’s published core values: Contribution, Commitment, Passion, Courage and Creativity. Crews are tremendously diverse – aged between 20 and 60, they have sailing experience ranging from novice to potentially world class. I caught up with three of the boats to find out how they became part of the Skandia Squad.

The only boat not carrying a UKSA skipper is Skandia Courage – the skipper in this case is the British Paralympic racing coach George Barker. Crewed by four experienced sailors, three of the crew hope to enter the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. This is the first time the four have sailed together as they are drawn from all over the country, but Jackie Gay commented: “It’s great to be here in Cowes – it’s such a major sailing centre. We’ve certainly learned a lot about tides.” David Wrighton, who lost his sight in an army parachute accident, said: “We’re a disabled boat, but we can certainly hold our own with anyone else – this is not demure racing.”

Creativity is crewed by members of the Green Wyvern Yachting Club, whose members come from all over the world to sail traditional yachts on the Norfolk Broads. They were approached by Skandia to take part, but have their own agenda. “We’re hoping to raise awareness of the club and to improve our own skills,” said Marnie Anderson. “The club started in 1947, but membership isn’t high at the moment. If we’re better sailors, people are more likely to join.” Cowes certainly presents a different challenge from the Broads, but Mark Cassidy was undaunted. “There’s a lot more space here,” he observed, “despite the other boats.”

If you’ve been here over the last couple of years, you may well have spoken to Laura Hughes and Roseanna Johnson – they first came to Cowes to market Red Bull, handing out free samples. The pull of the water proved too much, and when Laura’s sister Kate heard about the Skandia Squad, they applied with their friend Hannah Scott. “We’ve got virtually no experience,” said Hannah. “We’ve sailed Toppers in the Med on holiday.”

With one weekend’s training with their UKSA skipper Dan, the girls have had a tough time at Cowes with various breakages on their Sonar. “Yesterday was seriously windy,” said Laura. “These boats are only supposed to go out in about 21 knots, that’s why the fleet didn’t sail today, but yesterday we had 30 at times. It was quite hair-raising – petrifying really. Hannah went in.” Hannah continued: “It was a bit frightening – the boat flew up in the air and I wasn’t holding on.”

Despite that, all four wanted to continue sailing. “It’s been a real buzz,” said Laura. “I’ll never go back to not being able to sail.”