Site Search

Cowes Week, Up Close and Personal

PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 14 September 2010 17:25

Seafarers Ale, Habib's first ride of the week, was sponsored by a brewery that donates to the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute). Photo credit Rick Tomlinson

Cowes Week is the longest running regatta in the world, dating back to 1826. It is held every summer in the Solent, usually in the first week of August. This year, in excess of 700 boats were negotiating the quirky double tides in The Solent, making it the biggest regatta series for 2010, bar none.

The stretch of water between the British mainland and the Isle of Wight is one of the most complex and busy sailing grounds anywhere. On a typical day at Cowes Week, there are about 35 different yacht races going on and along with spectator boats and other craft, there are often over a thousand boats in the narrow stretch of water—including commercial shipping, ferries and hydro-foils. The variety of sailing craft racing at Cowes Week is quite unmatched; historic dinghy designs such as X-boats and Darings, high performance Extreme 40 catamarans and modern America’s Cup yachts, match racing.

I decided it was high time to do some real sailing. Now don’t get me wrong, hooning around on the back of a carbon-fibre rocket ship is a common occurrence for me and I fully appreciate what a lucky son of a gun I am. But watching professionals sail awesome boats and taking part yourself are two different experiences. I decided to get on some boats and get stuck into the crew, into roles where I was a little out of my depth.

Jeff Blue originally comes from New Zealand but now lives in England and owns a fast, fun Farr 45, Expresso Martini. Designed by Bruce Farr and formerly known as the Corel 45, the class has proved extremely popular in The Solent. Often eight are out racing, year round. There is no restriction on professionals but the majority of the crew is not paid to race. However many of them work in the boat building industry so boat handling is first class. And many of the crew are up for a fair bit of R&R after racing.

Jeff’s boat was entered at Cowes week as Seafarers Ale, as the boat was sponsored by a brewery that donate to the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute}. I thought that would be a good way to start! I knew most of the crew and although they had not raced too much as a team, there was no shortage of talent.

Chimera, Ian Loffhagen's Harrier 31, sailed with just four crew. Photo credit Rick Tomlinson

We timed our run to that start well but got pushed into tide by other boats. Tide in the Solent is a crucial factor, especially in the Western Solent where it can run at over four knots. The 33 strong fleet was cheating the tide and there was plenty of boat on boat action as we short-tacked up the mainland shore. The Western Solent is very scenic with unspoilt views of Lymington, Beaulieu and the New Forest but the beat against the tide was a long one. It was several hours before we rounded the top mark, off Yarmouth. We were sailing with twelve people, and upwind almost everybody is on the rail, so besides the charge across the boat during tacks, most of the crew are just hiking out.

Downwind is a different matter, with just about everybody getting involved. Communication and co-ordination become two key areas, especially in maneuvers. It’s a bit like formation dancing and when everybody is in tune, you get a great sense of satisfaction. Running back down towards Cowes gets a bit frantic; the closer you get to the centre of the Solent, the more traffic you get into and there were some pretty close encounters.

It was a long race, about 26 miles, I had not done a lot of big boat sailing for a while and I was pretty stiff by the time we got to the dock. After a good meal and a single beer, it wasn’t long before my head hit the pillow. But not before I thanked Jeff Blue for an excellent day on the water with great company. Jeff Blue’s crew are extremely good sailors who more often than not are stuck inside a boat building shed, not the best view of a marina. For them, Cowes Week is a chance to get out on the water and do what they love and have a few beers afterwards.

My next ride was a brand new experience for me. In my work as a reporter I had held onto the back of high performance multihulls, but I had never actually sailed as part of the crew.

Ian Loffhagen is the racing manager for the Royal Ocean Racing Club and he invited me on board his Farrier 31, Chimera, a cruising trimaran. Ian manages some very high profile races such as the Rolex Fastnet Race, but he loves to race Chimera whenever he can. Ian has had some big wins with Chimera, including the Round the Island Race and the Scottish Peaks Race.

“Chimera is a mythological three-headed beast, so it seemed an appropriate name for a trimaran,” laughed Ian as he showed me around and pointed out the different control lines and sails on board. “We don’t need an army of people or a lump of lead to keep us up right.”

Chimera had just four crew including Ian and myself. Helmsman was Graham Goff, a highly accomplished multi-hull sailor, and his daughter Lucy, who sails a Laser Radial and like me was new to multihulls. We got off to a cracking start and after a couple of clever moves, Chimera was extremely well-placed in the fleet. I found myself trimming the headsail, something I rarely get to do, Graham was calling some of the trim and I began to get absorbed into the role. Upwind was surprisingly quick but short tacking was a bit of a showstopper. Still we could literally go right up to the island shore, which did alarm a few fishermen on the beach!

Racing with Ondeck on Mount Gay Rum day

Downwind was electric. As the masthead asymmetric filled we shot off like a scolded cat, leaving the monohulls around us in our wake. I spotted some friends in a keelboat; as we blasted past them at twice their speed, they looked impressed at how fast we were going. One of the most pleasant surprises was how comfortable a cruising catamaran is to race. There is no hiking out to strain your back or cut the circulation off to your feet. Standing on the windward hull doing 15 knots of boat speed with a kite sheet in your hand is a great way to spend an afternoon.

After sailing we had a couple of beers at the Sail for Gold Bar, on the waterfront next to the famous Royal Yacht Squadron. The live music was only blotted out by the sound of gunfire from the brass cannons on the Squadron line. One of our competitors joined us on the trip back to Port Hamble. (He had been to court charged with speeding on his motor-bike, quite apt for a multihull sailor!). As we sped back across the Solent we went straight across the Brambles Bank, leaving the keelboats to go around it. Keelboat sailing has learnt a lot from multihulls, especially with regards to foil shapes and asymmetric sails, but it does attract a different sort of competitor. You don’t see a lot of designer sunglasses and branded clothing on the multihull brigade, as they prefer a more low key approach in the quest for speed. And I wouldn’t mind betting a high proportion of them enjoy Star Trek movies, as they boldly go where no man has gone before.

Cowes Week goes on for eight days without a break, and I am pretty sure there is no other regatta in the world that does that. But I decided to have my own personal lay-day and enjoy the delights of the capital of the Isle of Wight. Cowes stretches along both sides of the Medina River and High Street is full of sailing-orientated stores and a lot of pubs and restaurants.

The High Street of Cowes

During Cowes Week, the Extreme 40 catamarans race off Egypt Point, just west of Cowes. There is a full on grandstand and bar for spectators to watch these awesome machines, flying at unbelievable speed around the race track. One of the great concepts for spectators is that they can scream right up inshore. However no one was quite expecting to get such a close view of Groupama smashing into the sea wall!


One of the most fascinating places in Cowes is relatively unknown, The Sir Max Aitken Museum. The magnificent 18th Century sail maker’s loft, where Britannia’s mainsail was made, was acquired and restored by Sir Max Aitken in 1947. Today, with its traditional splendour, the building boasts Sir Max Aitken’s personal collection of nautical artifacts. One of the many magnificent oil paintings in the loft dates back to 1820 and depicts the Battle of Trafalgar by the artist, Thomas Buttersworth. It dramatically depicts a large group of French battleships engaged with a single and smaller British ship of war. What fascinates me about the picture is that the British boat is smaller and has a sail configuration that allows it to be close-hauled. It is peppering the larger less maneuverable French ships with cannon shot. In essence, this is exactly what did happen but the picture has been deliberately over-stated, a piece of 19th century propaganda.

Yachts and Yachting editor Gael Pawson, with the Auld Mug.

The museum is available for private hire and was the setting for a bunch of journalists to have our traditional Cowes Week get together. We also had a very famous guest, the 100 Pound Cup better known as The America’s Cup, which arrived during the first course and left shortly after dessert. The silver claret jug fitted perfectly into the surroundings.

My last day racing at Cowes Week was with Ondeck. The company is a one-stop shop for people and companies who want to experience life on the water and they operate all over the world, including Charleston, South Carolina. The fact that the day was sponsored by Mount Gay Rum was of course a mere coincidence.

Spirit of Diana is a Farr 65 crewed by a skipper, mate, deck hand and fourteen guests, most of whom had very little sailing knowledge. They made up for it with a heap of enthusiasm, and watching people come to grips with sails, control lines and winch handles for the first time was a great experience. Throughout the day you could see them improve and learn new skills. Although we all had a few bumps and bruises, a few shots of rum afterwards acted as an excellent remedy.

Cowes Week is not really one regatta but many regattas combined. In many different ways, the experience differs from one person to the next. There is a huge variety of sailing and enough entertainment ashore to suit just about everyone. Probably one of the main reasons that the regatta is so successful is that the primary objective of the organisers and the sailors is the same; to have some fun sailing in an historic and interesting place.

Editor’s Note: Louay Habib is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in the UK who writes for some of the most prestigious magazines and clubs all over the world, including the Royal Ocean Racing Club and the Volvo Ocean Race. With over thirty years of international yacht racing experience, Louay has been part of many winning teams and represented England in the Rolex Commodores Cup in 2004.

Posted: 2010-09-06 13:26:59