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An intimacy with the sea

Sail a star

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With India's super rich splashing out on luxury boats, high life has indeed met high tide. But while yachts symbolize luxury for some, for others it's simply a need to connect with the mysterious depths of the ocean. What can match the sheer aesthetic pleasure of a yacht, sails swollen by the wind and hull canting dangerously into a blue sea.

A burgeoning cult is that of classic yachts. Eighty of these beauties turned up for the 2012 Panerai Classic Yachts regatta organized by Officine Panerai at Cowes, Isle of Wight recently. Sizes ranged from the smaller 5. 5-metre boats to 27-metre yachts - all of them lovingly restored by people who found them in a dilapidated condition.

Eilean, a Bermudian Ketch, was spotted by the CEO of Panerai, Angelo Bonati, in 2006 in the English harbour at Antigua. She was in bad condition, with her mooring cables tied to mangrove bushes. Eilean, which means 'Little Island' in Gaelic, was built in 1936 and has a very rich history. She became famous for many reasons, one being that English pop group Duran Duran performed Rio onboard Eilean. The video became a worldwide hit in 1982. The other important thing about Eilean is that she sailed across the Atlantic 36 times in her youth.

Bonati brought her to Italy and her restoration took a couple of years. "Seeing Eilean restored to her former glory was moving. And I am sure that all lovers of vintage sailing boats feel the same way, " says Bonati.

Yatching has always been perceived to be a rich person's luxury because of the expenses involved in buying and maintaining a boat. But that's not always true. Sailing in parts of Europe and the UK is a way of life across any social strata. Ron Valent, a writer and consultant for yacht restoration, says he knows of people who cannot even afford a car but have invested all their savings in buying a small yacht. "We have been sea-faring people for ages. But it is associated with luxury because the rich can invest in things like restoration and I know of wealthy people who sail for weeks and months together. They can afford it, " says Valent who, in his youth, sailed from Australia to the UK in an ordinary sailing boat. Since then, sailing has been his passion.
The restoration of a classic yacht can cost anything between $5, 000 and $10, 000 to over $24 million, depending on how close one wants to get to the original look and feel of the boat.

Some of the boats participating in the Panerai Classic Yacht week are more than a 100 years old. Jap, a vintage yacht that participated, was launched in 1897. It is also special because only 10 yachts were made in the same design and just three of them are sailing today. Another popular boat was a majestic 27 metre modern classic sloop called the Svannah. In this race, it's not just the race to the finish line that matters. The winner is calculated by a formula that takes into account the size of the boat and the crew.

Every year, Panerai organises 10 such races around the world. This year at least 500 yachts are expected to participate in all the races, involving 5, 000 boat owners. The Mediterranean circuit will take place between June and September with regattas in Antibes, Porto Santo, Stefano, Mahon, Cannes and Imperia. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Marblehead, Nantucket and Newport will be the locations for more races.

Participants sail with their families, partners or friends to unwind at sea. Scilla Dyke, a senior lecturer of dance, sailed with her partner from the coast of Suffolk to Cowes. "Sailing is my partner's life, " she says.

Bonati says the emotion is stronger than anything else. "Often, when Eilean is taking part in a regatta, I stay on another boat simply to be able to watch her in all her beauty, " says Bonati.

The intimacy with the sea in these parts goes back a long way. In 1851, the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes challenged an American Yacht to race. The race was held in Solent. The American yacht won the race and took the trophy which called the 'America's Cup' to US. It was one of the first big races. The coast of Cowes still reflects the old world charm and the romance of yacht races.

(The writer was in Cowes on an invitation from Panerai)

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