The Serpentine doesn't really cut it as an Olympic sailing venue, so all the yachters and sailspersons are off to the Dorset seaside instead. A full 120 miles from the main stadium, in the lee of the Isle of Portland, they'll be all a-flutter come 2012. To conclude my summer series, here's a report from the one remaining out-of-London Olympic venue.
The best sailing waters in Northern Europe are to be found in Weymouth Bay. Lucky, that. The waters are protected by coast on three sides, with only the non-prevailing easterlies able to blow in unhindered. But even that wasn't good enough for the Royal Navy, who in the mid 19th century built a series of breakwaters to create one of the largest man-madeharbours in the world. Prince Albert laid the foundation stone - and there aren't many other Olympic venues which can claim the same thing. The Navy sold up in 1996, allowing the watersports industry to move in instead, and the Weymouth & Portland National Sailing Academy was established four years later. One nigh-perfect global sailing venue, up and running in advance of London 2012's successful bid, and making barely a scratch on the Olympic budget.
The WPNSA can be found off the northern tip of the Isle of Portland, on reclaimed land in the lee of Chesil Beach. Don't think glamour. The inshore area at Osprey Quay is covered with car parks, metal sheds and a heliport. As for the boatyard, that's shielded behind metal railings to keep mere landlubbers at a safe distance. The fence isn't standard Olympic issue, no mile-high razorwire or anything, but no doubt that'll change once 2012 comes around. The clubhouse is a blue toastrack of a building, not as capacious as you might expect, and with its most interesting side out of sight facing the waters. Hundreds of high-masted boats are lined up nearby, some on the tarmac, the rest spaced out along pontoons in the water. Pick your weekend carefully and the harbour is a mass of flapping white sails tacking across the waves, and a quite magnificent sight. I picked my weekend less carefully, and got a few racing canoes instead.
Nextdoor is the Portland Marina, a commercial proposition which meets the needs of the more aspirational yacht owner. They have a two-storey restaurant called "The Boat That Rocks", named after last year's pirate radio film which was shot around here. How long the name survives remains to be seen, but the place was packed out with boating clientèle when I walked by. I doubt that many of these diners came from the local area, but one day soon they will. Some gleaming green-domed apartments have just been finished nearby, looking wildly out of place like they were meant for the Battersea riverside. In the meantime Castletown on the rim of the island is little more than one weatherbeaten street, lined by grand hotels whose glory days are long past and the occasional dead pub. Further up the hillside are the outskirts of Fortuneswell, a patch of council housing strung out like fingers along the upper contours of the island. [photo]
These two settlements are joined by the Merchant's Incline, a steep footpath once used for the haulage of Portland stone down to the docks below. It's well worth making the climb to the top, turning round occasionally to stare back at the panorama below [photo]. The best view is from outside the gates of HM PrisonThe Verne, hidden in the rockface at the very peak of the island. From here the entire bay is spread out below, with a focus on the protected waters inside the Portland breakwaters [photo]. This'll be a great spot from which to watch the Olympic yachting in 2012, even though you won't have a clue who's winning. You probably won't even need a ticket. Sailing's traditionally been a free-to-view Olympic event, and it's likely that the cliffs will stay open to all throughout. Hospitality enclaves and spectator boats may be introduced at sea level, and they'll no doubt cost a small fortune, but the slopes of Fortuneswell offer as fine an overview as one could hope to find. Genuinely spectacular.