Cowes week sails into jamboree of beer and music: Steve Boggan reports on a sea-change that is threatening the famous regatta's image

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The Independent Online
IT IS almost midnight and a large man in cut-off jeans is being urged by the Cowes yachting fraternity to complete his first bungee mission. 'Jump, you bastard, jump,' sings a large section of the crowd to the tune of On Ilkley Moor Baht 'At.

The man steps forward, to the roar of the mob, then steps back. While the crowd boo, a couple are locked in a drunken kiss on the dance floor outside the Fosters' beer tent.

The bungee man loses his nerve and the crane is lowered. There are more boos but this is a yachtie set so there are no insults, just nautical expressions. They chant that he is an anchor . . . or something.

Cowes week is in full swing; 5,000 competitors, 750 boats, 15,000 spectators, sunshine, champagne, Pimms, blazers and sail upon sail upon sail. It is the 168th time the regatta has graced the northern shores of the Isle of Wight and during the day it is a magnificent spectacle, a sporting event of the highest calibre featuring some world's of the fittest and most talented crews.

At night, however, those without membership of the Royal Corinthian, the Royal Yacht Squadron or the Royal London clubs face an evening of loud, rowdy boozers until 2am. Even the pubs serve until 12.30am.

Playing hard has always been a feature of the regatta, but now some feel the character of the event is at risk. Ask any veteran of Cowes and he will snort: 'Not as good as it used to be.'

The problem is one of sponsorship, money and the 'types' who now attend what was once a sedate week for the upper classes and the true yachtsman.

Two years ago, Land Rover withdrew its sponsorship of the event and no big name has been found to replace it. Medina Borough Council stepped in with pounds 100,000 to ensure the event took place, but the redevelopment of the old marina, now called the Cowes Yacht Haven, has brought in a more drunken, louder crowd than usual.

At night, burly bouncers check for the ultra-violet handstamps slapped on punters as they enter the haven. There is a McDonalds stall; a Guinness stand with a giant inflatable pint; an Anglo-Indian restaurant box; barbecue stalls; a stage for live bands; a night-club; and, of course, the vast Fosters' tent.

Great fun if it's what you want - but some feel it is changing the face of Cowes week.

Eric Williams, 47, a highly-respected yachtsman with 10 championships in two classes over 34 years, is despondent.

'It has become a jamboree,' he said. 'It used to be much more sedate and more geared to racing but now it is more young people-orientated with more drunkenness and loud music. The character has changed, too. It was very gentlemanly, but now you see more cheating.'

According to Len Thomas, 60, director of Projection Yachts Ltd, of Nurston, South Wales, the halcyon days of the regatta are over. 'It used to be much better,' he said. 'The best years were in the early to mid Eighties. You used to get 19 countries taking part in the Admirals Cup. Last year, there were only four or five. Now there seems to be more interest in the beer tent.'

John Ross Smith, secretary of the Royal London Yacht Club is less gloomy - he says increased attendances at his club suggest that the recession is over - but he describes the marina development as one 'for the masses'.

'It's good in a way,' he said, 'because it keeps the Hooray Henrys away from here.'

And the Hoorays, or worse, the aspiring Hoorays, are everywhere. You may not know the difference between a Sigma 33 and a Contessa 32; you might think a spinnaker is an exotic bird, but you can easily fake being a yachtie.

Upturned collars, fleecy snugs, unworn jumpers tied by the arms around the neck, deck shoes, and Bing Crosby skipper caps are all you need.

Labels are as important as kit. Regatta, Musto, Henri Lloyd - prices and tags that say something about you. The kit-freaks overdose here, too, whether or not they get their feet wet.

On Tuesday night, outside Reefers sailing shop on the High Street, two middle-aged men and a woman were attracted to a a Kevlar buoyancy aid.

'That's what you need,' said one of the men, pointing at the pounds 60 lifejacket. 'Why?' asked the woman. 'So you don't sink,' said the other man.

'But why Kevlar?' asked the woman. The answer that it was lightweight, high-tech, the in-thing, would have been too easy.

'Because it's bullet-proof,' the first man said at last.

'Better get three then.'

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