"If a nautical life is something you’re interested in then you can absolutely find your fix here."Cambridge University Cruising Club

Sailing is probably not the first boat-based sport which springs to mind when people think about Cambridge, but that’s not for a lack of trying or training. The Cambridge University sailing team has been kicking about since 1893, and competing in the strange, cerebral, and tactical ‘team racing’ since the sport was first pioneered for the Varsity Match against Oxford in 1913. Spending both Saturdays and Sundays training from 9 ’til 5 on the water or else competing against other universities at regattas as far flung as Turkey and China, Glasgow and Bristol; the twenty-four sailors who make up the mixed squad are as dedicated as we are idiosyncratic.

Almost all British universities compete primarily in “Fireflies” – strange little dinghies manned by two sailors apiece. The first sailor – the ‘helm’ – does the steering and the mainsail, whilst the second sailor – the ‘crew’ – trims the jib (a smaller sail at the front of the boat), raises and lowers the centreboard (a piece of wood that goes down into the water to keep the boat stable and sailing in a straight line), calls the tactics, and brings the snacks. When the boat fills with water, either due to a dodgy tack (turn), or a leak in the hull, it also falls to one of you to frantically bail the water out with a small plastic tub. Both sailors have to co-ordinate their weight to make the boat go quickly and stay upright, often hooking their toes into straps along the hull and leaning precariously as far as they can over the edge. Eventually you learn to read your helm’s mind and vice versa, anticipating each other’s’ movements before you make them, so as not to risk one or both sailors taking an unplanned swim.

"I live for the days I spend on the water."Cambridge University Cruising Club

On a single team there are three boats, making any given race three boats vs three boats: six sailors aside. Rather than sailing around a course and crowning the fastest the winner, like in a marathon, or a sailing fleet race, a team race depends upon the entire team making it around the course with a better score than their opponents. If you come first you get one point, and if you come in sixth you get six. This means that in total there are twenty-one total points available for any given race, and a score of ten or below wins. That means that if your team’s boats finish in first, fifth and sixth (1+5+6) you lose, but if your team finishes in second, third and fifth (2+3+5) you win.

Sometimes in a team race, you will be in a huge one and will need to give it up in order to help out a teammate flagging in sixth; often it’s about letting your teammate take the glory of first so that you could keep the sailor in fourth solidly behind you and out of their hair. There is no glory in finishing quickly if that leaves your friends stranded behind – you win or lose together. Maybe it is this that makes the sailing team such a tightly knit community and supportive social circle (although it might also be all of the boozy team dinners and late nights spent towing boats).

Before sailing for Cambridge, I had no idea just how much time I could spend feverishly checking windguru.cz and taping the ripped skin back onto my fingers with electrical tape. For me, it all started with a bit of a whirlwind crush on a boy at the freshers’ fair, which turned into going along to a taster day. I had been a very casual sailor before university, crewing where I could for people who needed a hand on their boat, and had been considering socially sailing, which CUCrC (Cambridge University Cruising Club, which covers all small craft wind-propelled watersports) also offers. Almost immediately however, something about driving far outside the invisible bubble in between Homerton and Girton, zipping back into my neglected wetsuit, and feeling the wind in my hair, had me absolutely compelled to keep going. I came back to college with a sunburned nose, a spring in my step, an unfamiliar ache in my shoulders and a newfound desperation to make the squad.

"There is no glory in finishing quickly if that leaves your friends stranded behind – you win or lose together."Cambridge University Cruising Club

At an extremely windy try-outs my first year I was underdressed and soggy; at lunchtime I shared watery tea from a Styrofoam cup with another hopeful sailor, and then vanished for a long cry in the girls’ changing rooms. I called my best friend from home and through chattering teeth bawled my fears; that I was embarrassing myself and cold and wet and bruised and scared. When I emerged a Masters student from the previous year’s first team pulled me aside and gave me his sailing jacket. “I’m finding it rough out there too,” he said, smiling. We were competing for just twenty-four spaces on the University squad, and still everyone was eager to make sure that the nameless freshers were getting their fair crack at the proverbial whip. I took a deep breath, zipped up the coat, and finished the weekend. A fortnight later I got a call from the team captain saying that I had made the cut.

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That same year I found myself at both the UK Team Racing Association mixed and RYA Ladies nationals crewing for the first helm I had ever got into a boat with at try-outs. From the development team we grew together as a pair, simultaneously improving as athletes and learning to find the fun in long weekends of training. Playing ‘i-spy’ during the three-minute start sequences before each race might not have been ideal for our boat speed, but it definitely brought us both a lot of joy. Often my college friends ask how I manage to give up two or more full days to train every week, but really I live for the days I spend on the water. It’s not only cherished and hard-won time that I section off to spend away from my degree, but it’s also I choose to spend with twenty-three of my closest friends who have had my back through the thicks of Varsity wins and BUSA finals, and the very thins of capsizing in the snow, dislocated kneecaps and team shuffles mid-season. Frequently competing against other universities means that I’ve met and befriended sailors from teams from all across the country; the nicheness of the sport means the faces I see are usually familiar, and always welcome.

Sailing can seem like a sport with a clear barrier to entry, and most people do not have the privilege of encountering it before university. Whilst Cambridge Sailing has always demonstrated excellence in the sport at the highest level, it is also a space I have found inclusive, supportive and open. With casual sailing weekends for people of all abilities, taster days, RYA learners’ courses every term, and a dedicated development team; if a nautical life is something you’re interested in then you can absolutely find your fix here. Since the first time I launched a Firefly, I’ve been utterly hooked.

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