Roger Cox: Sailing the 2010 Brewin Dolphin Scottish Series
Of all the parties taking place in Scotland next weekend, the biggest and best will be held in… you'll never guess, so I might as well tell you... Tarbert in Argyll, when the crews of more than 200 sailing boats will converge on the otherwise tranquil coastal town for the 2010 Brewin Dolphin Scottish Series. Fireworks will light up the early summer sky, vessels of all shapes and sizes will crowd the harbour and the pubs will get so full the only sensible way to get to the bar will be slowly, carefully and on hands and knees.
Until relatively recently, Scotland's foremost sailing jamboree wasn't on my radar, and even when I finally got around to going it was more by accident than design. I suppose I hadn't heard of it because it tends to get so little coverage in the mainstream media – a fate shared with most sporting events that don't involve either bats, balls or little white lines drawn on the ground. But that's a subject for another week.
I'm no sailor (severe knot allergy) but this time last year I signed up for a weekend sailing course for absolute beginners, run out of the National Sailing Centre at Cumbrae. The original plan was to complete a leisurely lap of Arran, but by the middle of the Saturday morning it was clear that the weather conditions were becoming distinctly beginner-unfriendly, to the extent that our instructor, a calm, capable chap called Allan Bunyan, suggested a change of itinerary – an overnight stay at Tarbert followed by a morning watching the Scottish Series racers do their thing. Wet, cold and feeling more than a little queasy, the rookie crew of the good ship Santa Vey agreed enthusiastically to this suggestion. So, our spirits duly lifted, we changed course and headed north towards the shelter of Loch Fyne.
When we arrived at Tarbert it didn't look like we'd be able to find a mooring at first – there were so many boats in the harbour already that you could almost have walked from one side to the other without getting your feet wet. Somehow, though, Allan was able to negotiate us a berth. Not just any berth, either, but one directly next to a pontoon. He must have seriously charmed someone, because these premium parking places were like gold dust.
The harbour was so crowded that many of the boats were moored three or four deep – not a problem if your neighbours are early-to-bed types, but a nightmare if they decide to stay out at the pub till closing time and then come clumping back over the top of your cabin in the wee small hours. Thanks to Allan's quayside diplomacy, however, we slept like logs.
As I've already hinted, the competitors at the Scottish Series have a tendency to party like it's 1999. They must have hollow legs, though, because at crack of dawn the next day they all seemed wide awake and ready to race. I'd never seen a sailing regatta up close before, but Allan got us an unbeatable view of the action, weaving in and out of the field so we caught every near-collision and sly wind-stealing manoeuvre. With a combination of great sailing skill and crystal clear commentary, he took us right into the heart of what seemed like total chaos and made it all make sense. His enthusiasm was infectious, too. Later, as we made our way back to Cumbrae via the Kyles of Bute, I noticed a subtle change in the temperament of our crew. We weren't just going through the motions any more, we were hell-bent on overhauling any boat that dared come within a half-mile radius – even if our imagined competitors weren't even remotely interested in taking us on. At one point, we worked furiously for a good 20 minutes, trying to overtake a boat whose skipper had his feet up and was reading the paper. Such is the mark of a great teacher, I suppose: not just to teach, but to inspire.
I'd hoped to go sailing with Allan again, but fate had other ideas. A couple of months after our trip to Tarbert, he was killed in a freak accident, leaving behind a wife and young family. He was a man who lived life to the full, so I suppose if there's any lesson to be taken from his death, it's this: whatever adventures you've got planned for the future, whatever dreams you've still got left to chase, don't put them off. Oh, and if you're at the Scottish Series next weekend and you find yourself with a drink in your hand and a moment to yourself, raise your glass to Allan Bunyan. I've no doubt he'll be there in spirit.
This article was first published in The Scotsman on 22 May.