WITH more than 1,700 boats and around 16,000 sailors toeing the start line of the JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race each year, you have to be something special to stand out.
But skipper Mark Covell knows all eyes will be on him on Saturday when the truly unique Collective Spirit takes to the water for the first time as a chartered vessel.
Better known as the Boat Project, the 30ft boat is a living archive of people’s stories and lives made from thousands of pieces of wood all donated by the public.
Collective Spirit is the brainchild of artists Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters, who gave master builder Mark the seemingly impossible task of crafting a state-of-the-art seafaring yacht from donated items only back in 2011.
But the 45-year-old, who won silver at the Sydney Olympic games with team-mate Ian Walker in the Star class, was undaunted and over the next two years slowly brought Collective Spirit to life.
“A lot of people said it couldn’t be done, but these are the sort of crazy ideas I like to get involved with,” admitted Mark, who is based in Emsworth.
“I am sailing her this weekend because the funding that supported Collective Spirit has come to an end, and she needs to fend for herself as a boat. The forecast is great and it’s an opportunity to get her out in front of thousands of people.
“Sailors are quite a friendly bunch and normally people look you in the eye but everyone’s eyes will be on Collective Spirit – you could be wearing a clown mask and no one would notice.
“There’s absolutely nothing like her out there – we built her to a contemporary design to celebrate the Cultural Olympiad with a carbon mast and asymmetric spinnakers.
“You could paint her black and she’s look just like any other boat – apart from the tortoise shell in the middle of the deck.
“She’s a little heavier than if I’d built her out of modern timber and a lot heavier than carbon but she should be reasonably competitive.”
In total, 1,221 people donated wood to the project, from a pencil to an old piano and with the type of timber ranging from pine to exotic Zebrawood.
Collective Spirit was launched on May 7 last year, and covered more than 600 miles meeting 100,000-plus people during the summer of 2012.
This will be her maiden voyage as a charter boat, however, and if everything goes well, Collective Spirit could spend as much as one third of her life on the water according to Mark Covell.
“The artists are happy to use her as a public space and just standing next to her and reading all the stories is amazing in itself but she is a modern, fast boat and my motivation is to see her sailing as a charter – this is the start of her new life,” added Mark, who will be commentating on this year’s America’s Cup.
“But like all these things, they only survive if they can generate an income and have a use.
“I might bring my 13-year-old daughter Emily as part of the crew, she’s in the national sailing youth squad and contributed something to the boat and I would love her to experience the incredible feeling of being out on the water with thousands of other boats you only get with the Round the Island Race.”
* The JP Morgan Asset Management Round The Island Race is the fourth largest participation sporting event in the UK and the largest yacht race of its kind in the world, attracting anything between 1,500 – 1,800 yachts and 16,000 competitors. See www.roundtheisland.org.uk