Sport - Jason Cowley goes to sea

The Barmy Army may be drunk but at least they're not at sea

It should not have been a difficult decision to make: either to spend Boxing Day at the Test match in Melbourne, or on a boat observing the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. Now, I am no sailor. In truth, I have scarcely set foot on a boat since I was calamitously sick over a former girlfriend during a particularly turbulent crossing of the Channel in the autumn of 1981. My wife, on the other hand, works for Musto - the Barbour of the yachting world - and she favours blue skies, calm seas and sunshine. Her decision was final.

So there I was (as Andy Caddick lumbered in to bowl the first over of what turned out to be an enthralling Test match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground), not watching cricket, as I'd long planned and expected, but out there on Sydney Harbour, accompanied, on a media vessel, by a group of local photographers restless for drama and incident. Too restless.

The Sydney to Hobart is often described as the "Everest of yachting": so treacherous can be the Tasman Sea that only the bravest and most experienced "yachties", as they are known in Australia, dare to compete in an event in which six competitors died in 1998. The start, however, when thousands gather in the sunshine to drink chilled white wine and to watch the yachts sailing in stately procession out of the harbour is traditionally an occasion of benign celebration.

And so it was this year, despite the intermittent drizzle - until, that is, moments before the official lunchtime start of the race (as elsewhere in Australia Hayden and Langer were bludgeoning their way towards match-winning centuries), a sudden and devastating storm blew in to transform Sydney Harbour into a seething whirlpool. The opening of the race, in the ensuing chaos, was rather like one of those grands prix - the best grands prix, it must be said - that begin with screeching tyres and a multiple pile-up. The conditions were horrible. Two leading contenders collided, sending a yachtsman overboard; while on my boat - which, instead of returning to the harbour, was in my opinion recklessly tracking the pre-race favourite, and eventual winner, Alfa Romeo - I feared that I was about to become the second man overboard, as we were battered by the waves.

It was therefore with much relief that I arrived the next day in becalmed Melbourne, where there was little wind, the sun was hot and England were once more conspiring to lose a game of cricket. The real fascination of the match, however, had little to do with what took place on the field - such as the continued brilliance of Michael Vaughan, or the increasingly eccentric captaincy of Nasser Hussain. It was, rather, all about the indestructible optimism of the self-styled "Barmy Army", that bawdy band of travellers who follow the English cricket team wherever they go and who this southern summer have so enthralled and bewildered Australians.

The army took great delight throughout in taunting Brett Lee, Australia's thrilling fast bowler, who may or may not have a suspect bowling action. Late on the second and third days, in particular, following much drink, they would collectively chant "no ball" as he entered his final delivery stride. This prompted a humourless riposte from the Australian opener Justin Langer, who suggested that the army understood nothing about cricket. "Most of them are about 50 kilos overweight, too," he said.

That last observation may be true; but the Barmy Army, as they stand in their thousands, singing, drinking and dancing in the often destructive heat, should, in the last analysis, be celebrated. They should be celebrated for their humour and persistence, and for their recognition that, as this injury-blighted English team showed by fighting back so courageously on the final morning of the match, the meaning of true glory in sport can sometimes be discovered only in defeat.