With Camel Week just around the corner, we caught up with seasoned sailor Roger Williams to hear about his first experience of the event.
When first we came to Rock by road, we simply could not find it. For years my up-country pond-life pilgrims (sailor friends with a religious fervour for sailing) had eulogised about the Camel Estuary, its magical waters and already legendary beer. So in 1993 I succumbed and, with family and boat in tow, wrestled with successive motorways, dual carriageways and ever-diminishing country lanes until we finally emerged for Camel Week in this most remarkable of places.
Remarkable because it was so unremarkable; unlike any other coastal haven that I, as a South London boy, had encountered before. A butcher, a baker, a fishmonger, an independent newsagent and a local garage: next I would be seeing neatly cut verges, pretty front gardens and people saying hello as they passed on the pavement. And so I did. But for the shiny glimpse of sea at the foot of Rock Road and a colony of flapping wet-suited youth outside the Mariners, I could have sworn we had flipped into 1950s suburbia.
As you already know – or are about to find out – this is still the beauty of Rock. It has huge appeal without overt commercialisation, and with the confidence of both a resident and returning holiday community that have kept it as their own secret for generations.
So to the sailing. Anybody can sail anywhere on the estuary – or ski, fish, do what you will – mostly under the guidance of Padstow Harbour Commission. Rock has its own sailing and water ski schools but, for those who already know how, there is the Rock Sailing and Water Sports Club (RSWSC). Sat on the quayside opposite the Mariners, RSWSC operates from an ancient grain and coal warehouse owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.
To the outsider it can look a forbidding place; its obscure entrances and off-putting quay signs deterring visitors. But look past this and you'll find the best balcony in Rock, an enviable bar (Doom Bar is brewed only a mile away and several Sharp's Brewery beer-tasters are members) and a great little galley kitchen with food at low prices. Although RSWSC is a members' club it does encourage all visitors to take a look, and to have a drink or meal as they do so. Opening hours can be a bit random, particularly in low season, but it's open most times during the summer – just go on in and see for yourself.
When I first turned up to compete in Camel Week, the Club's biggest sailing regatta of the year, I hadn't a clue what was going on. It seemed a jumble of boats, of many shapes and sizes, going all over the place at once. Over time I found out that Camel Week – and Camel Estuary sailing in general – is basically good for three types of small boat: dinghies where you hang out before you fall out, catamarans (cats) with two hulls and a tendency to go extremely fast in straight lines making whooping noises on the way, and the favourite of those of a certain age: the Shrimper.
Built by Cornish Crabbers just up the road, the Shrimper is a traditional-looking boat with deep tan sails and a gaff rig – a wooden mast with a smaller diagonal bit coming off the end – which you'll see all over the estuary. (To visualise, just imagine if Noddy were to have a small yacht.) It's actually quite a modern craft, made of fibreglass and designed in the 70s by Roger Dongray, who may well also have designed your holiday house in Rock. This is the most popular home fleet – the only single-class fleet in Rock – and sailed largely by retirees, yet raced with the aggression of slo-mo angry bees. You'll find many an ex-champion dinghy sailor here in a Shrimper, and it is a surprisingly physical boat.
The dinghies, the cats, the Shrimpers; well over 100 boats get together and race throughout Camel Week. With visitor entry costs around £120 – members a lot less – and participant boats worth largely £700 to, say, £15,000, sailing is not inexpensive but isn't the rich man's sport many think it to be. If you win, you get to carry away the silver; if in the middle you win the "Camel's Hump"; and if last you get to win...wait for it...the "Camel's Tail". (Other camel body parts might be awarded elsewhere, but this is Rock you understand.)
Twenty-something years – and many repeat sailing holidays later – find us retired in Rock, racing both dinghies and Shrimpers and being busier than ever before. The only drawback is Rock's hedonism, which gets better the longer we live here. Rock is understated but it can be addictive; you are already browsing, maybe renting...maybe buying. You have been warned!