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Plain old H2O can really freshen up a company away day. Annica Wainwright rounds up a range of activity options on rivers, lakes and seas within easy reach of London
Nothing clears the cobwebs like a day on the water. Whether you’re sailing, surfing or waterskiing, the combination of fresh air and furious fun, not to mention the intense concentration often demanded by the activities themselves, will soon make sure you’re not thinking about anything other than what’s going on right there, right then. As such, water-based events make for invigorating incentives and it’s also easy to throw teambuilding elements into the mix.
Here in London, we’ve got our very own watery playground in the Thames, where groups can enjoy anything from dinghy sailing and rowing to fast-paced RIB treasure hunts, and you don’t have to look very far for other alternatives either. Did you know, for instance, that water-ski lakes with permanent cable courses and event facilities are only half an hour away in Surrey? Or that the lakes that make up Cotswold Water Park can accommodate just about every water sport going? With an artificial reef currently under construction in Bournemouth, Dorset could soon offer surfing to rival Devon and Cornwall.
Kent, Essex and Sussex all tempt with excellent beaches – Jersey, too, is easily reached from the capital – but your best one-stop-shop for coastal events has got to be the Solent. Home to countless specialist organisers and some of the best weather conditions in the UK, this sheltered stretch of water between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight is dotted with easily accessed harbours, including Portsmouth, Southampton and Lymington – all of which have impressive events facilities.
Few activities are as naturally teambuilding as sailing. This country’s best-known seafarers may well be those who’ve won big races on their lonesome but the fact is that just about any boat becomes more easily manoeuvred and more enjoyable to sail when crewed by two or more people working together. It is also a sport with a strong competitive element and it’s easy to put together thrilling races in anything from dinghies to superyachts.
Choose to pitch departments against each other in your own company regatta or allow staff to take up the challenge together in an industry event. Established regattas cover the legal, telecoms, furniture, insurance, private healthcare and hospitality sectors, while this year sees the launch of two new events – the Advertising, Brands and Communications Cup and Banking and Finance Regatta, both held in September.
The most successful format for a corporate sailing day is perhaps Americas Cup-style match racing, which sees pairs of identical boats go head to head in a series of short races. Having joined respected organisers EMG on one such event earlier this year, this is one we can vouch for ourselves:
Tried & tested EMG’s ‘Cup in a Day’
By Annica Wainwright & Anna Longmore
Sometimes you’ve got to admit that you’re wrong. Like when EMG called the office three days ahead of our long-anticipated sailing day to suggest we changed dates due to bad weather forecasts and we dismissed them, thinking we wouldn’t mind a bit of rain. Blinded by excitement and encouraged by seemingly waterproof event plans drawn up by some of the most seasoned sailing organisers in the business, we felt confident that the day would run without a hitch – even as we crawled down the M3 in near-torrential downpour.
In the end, the rain did clear, but the winds that swept those clouds away picked up quite significantly and, when they began to nudge gale force, EMG politely but firmly called in ‘Plan B’. And so instead of taking to the stormy seas, we found ourselves sinking into the altogether more pleasant waters of the spa at Chewton Glen, where we were also treated to a lovely dinner and overnight stay. Lesson learnt, we ended up setting out from Royal Lymington Yacht Club the following morning in just about perfect conditions: clear, sunny skies and plenty of wind.
The beauty with match racing is that it can be organised for just about any group size. Modelled on the glamorous Americas Cup, EMG’s ‘Cup in a Day’ offers larger parties a swish ‘mother ship’, from which to watch the action as smaller groups take turn to crew the competing yachts. Ours was just big enough to fill the two Beneteau 40.7s used for racing, so everyone got to take part in each of the three races, trying their hand at everything from sail trimming and helming to counting down the minutes to the all-important starts.
Each yacht came with an experienced skipper but sailing is all about teamwork and even novice crew were soon put to work, knowing that their combined efforts could make or break the race. It’s a situation that could bring out the inner competitor in anyone, and the adrenaline we all felt as we jostled for an advantage point on the starting line made the hard work seem effortless.
Three races went in a flash, leaving everyone hungry for more as we steered back to shore for prize-giving and a late lunch. Anna’s team were the clear winners this year but let’s hope they don’t get too attached to that gleaming trophy: with everyone now firmly hooked on sailing, it will definitely be put up for grabs again soon. EMG, tel: 01590 670999
Match racing works with just about any type of sailing vessel – so long as you can get hold of two of them – but the ultimate experience has got to be one involving the majestic International Americas Cup Class (IACC) yachts. You can even get a taste of what’s to come by chartering the super-fast VX40 Catamarans next year’s Americas Cup teams are practising in, following legal proceedings that look set to turn the competition into a multi-hull event.
A different experience altogether can be had aboard one of the many classic Tall Ships available for corporate hire. Entirely different beasts to today’s technologically advanced racing yachts, these serve up a gentler side of sailing with generous side orders of history, while still offering great scope for teambuilding. The crew quite literally have to pull together to get the big sails hoisted and there are plenty of onboard jobs, from rigging and navigating to cooking in the galley, that can be shared out among participants.
BMO Capital Markets took a group of 15 clients out on the Solent in Red Sky Sailing’s magnificent tall ship La Recouvrance during Cowes Week last year and had nothing but praise for the event. ‘The feedback was extremely positive,’ says Bank of Montreal’s Alice McCleary. ‘It was a unique and relaxing experience and an excellent chance to network and kick back away from the City.’
Entertaining at Cowes Week
Watching a regatta can be almost as exciting as taking part in one, particularly if it’s done from the water, with top-notch hospitality served up alongside. The biggest event in the British racing calendar is Skandia Cowes Week, which this year takes place from 2-9 August, during which time just about every last charter boat operator in the country make their way to the Solent. Those wishing to entertain clients can therefore take their pick from a wide range of floating venues – from stately ‘gin palaces’, speed boats and Tall Ships to super-charged RIBs that can follow the action. Some organisers even offer a regatta support package for corporate groups who want to take part in the racing. The trick here, as always, is to book well ahead. It’s also worth checking that your package includes the option of going ashore on the Isle of Wight to soak up the festival atmosphere in Cowes itself.
Motor Boats & Sea Survival
Yachting can, of course, be enjoyed with or without sails. Something as simple as dry-hiring a skippered speed boat can turn into a really memorable experience, particularly if your destination is a hospitality event like Henley or Cowes. It’s also a great way to see London from a different perspective, whether you’re entertaining visitors or locals (if they’ve seen it all before, throw in a high-speed RIB or book the amphibious Duck Tour).
Among the more elaborate packages on the market are specially designed treasure hunts, which can be held on a range of different vessels – think RIBs or luxury Sunseekers – on the Thames or in the Solent. These see teams uncovering clues to reach secret locations and are great for teambuilding. Throw in some walkie-talkies, GPS systems (for navigating tasks) and digital cameras – a slide show always goes down a storm at the prize-giving – and you’ve got yourself a gadget and action-packed day that’s about as close to James Bond as you’re going to get at a corporate event.
Also great fun are so-called Zapcats: individual miniature catamarans that are easy to manoeuvre even at high speed. All you need is a thorough safety demonstration and you’re away. Use them for racing and time trials or leave participants to play around at their own leisure.
For something really different, book a Sea Survival Experience, run by the same people who would come to your aid if you ran into real-life difficulties. This brand new event from RNLI takes place at the lifeboat charity’s training facility in Poole, where corporate guests can experience first-hand the bravery and hard work of its volunteer crews.
Participants are given a thorough briefing before braving the waves of the practice pool in full wet weather gear. Among the first to try the new experience was Blue Peter presenter Zoe Salmon, who said: ‘It’s been a fantastic experience. The bit I enjoyed most was being winched out of the life raft to safety. I’ve never done anything like that before.’
Weather With You
Outdoor events are always at the mercy of the elements but catching up on the weather forecast is never as important as when you’re taking a group out to sea. ‘Safety is a massive issue for us and the weather plays a big part in that,’ says Jason Ludlow of EMG. ‘We have comprehensive event insurance, but that doesn’t mean we could run an event for novice sailors if there was a severe weather warning in place. We just wouldn’t take that kind of risk.’
So what happens when an event has to be called off? Well, there’s always the option of having a ‘Plan B’ at the ready, but to organise two events simultaneously ‘just in case’ can prove costly, so most reputable operators will give companies the chance to reschedule for a future date. The best will call with weather updates three days ahead of the event, offering clients the choice between postponing or kick-starting work on a last-minute alternative.
By far the hottest watersport at the moment, kitesurfing has a reputation for being dangerous, but Steve Pocock of Rye Watersports in Kent says this isn’t necessarily true: ‘The power of the kites is mind-blowing – they could easily pull a 16-stone man up the beach – but as long as it’s practised under the right conditions and with proper instruction, it’s just as safe as action sports like skiing and windsurfing.’ The trick, he says, is to avoid so called ‘taster sessions’ (Pocock recommends a two or three-day course for beginners and would never let anyone in the water on the first day) and to have at least one qualified instructor per four surfers. For a shorter event, you could arrange kite-flying instruction on land.
Windsurfing is also having something of a resurgence at the moment and Pocock says complete beginners can learn to sail out, turn around and come back with as little as an hour and a half’s practice, so it’s a rewarding activity that also combines well with other watersports, such as dinghy-sailing, kayaking, waterskiing and wakeboarding.
Regular surfing makes a great group activity, too – and with the construction of an artificial reef in Bournemouth due for completion in October, there will be no need to trek all the way to Devon or Cornwall to enjoy it. Designed to provide ‘grade five’ waves – a Hawaii ‘pipeline’ is grade eight – on days with good swell, the construction will be the first of its kind in Europe and is expected to attract up to 10,000 surfers a year.
Tried & Tested
Break for the Water at Thorpe Park
By Karen Doyle
On a sunny day in May, I headed down to Thorpe Park in Surrey, where a recent partnership with JB Waterski means corporate groups can now combine a day conference with refreshing water-based activities. The venue, a log cabin on the edge of the river (just five minutes from the theme park and about a half hour from central London), has a suitably laid-back feel, with a sports shop, new changing rooms and an outdoor deck with picnic tables.
After watching a health and safety video on a rather battered-looking TV, it was time to get kitted out in my wetsuit, life jacket and helmet, and head off to the training area for a practice run. The extensive cable tow system means you are pulled along by a line rather than by boat, which takes come getting used to, but I managed to get the hang of taking off from the wooden platform without too much trouble.
On the main circuit, I soon discovered that while I had no problem going in a straight line, turning corners was a whole new ball-game – it took all of my upper-arm strength to stay on as I was jerked around the corners. When I finally got it (not before experiencing some spectacular wipe-outs and a couple of long swims back to shore), the feeling of accomplishment made me forget all about sore muscles and bruised egos. By the end of my session I was feeling refreshed and energetic – just what you’d want from a conference breakout activity.
For more information contact Thorpe Park, tel: 0870 141 3087, squaremeal.co.uk/thorpe
Safe & Sound
All water sports have a risk element and safety should always be at the top of any event organiser’s list of priorities. Make sure that all suppliers take the necessary precautions and that participants are fully briefed. Don’t let anyone out on the water without a life jacket – even on a calm day. Weather can be unpredictable, particularly at sea, and even the strongest of swimmers can struggle against currents and tides. For further information, check out the Sea & Beach Safety pages at rnli.org.uk
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Summer 2008.