Billionaires come out to play – and Cowes drowns under a sea of super-rich visitors

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The old adage that the best way for beginners to get a taste of yachting is to stand in a cold shower tearing up £5 notes did not seem to hold much water yesterday, on the first day of the America's Cup jubilee.

The old adage that the best way for beginners to get a taste of yachting is to stand in a cold shower tearing up £5 notes did not seem to hold much water yesterday, on the first day of the America's Cup jubilee.

For one thing, the torrential squalls that drenched the south of England had charitably skirted Cowes, sparing the crowds who had turned out to watch the first races in a week-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the world's most prestigious yacht race.

For another thing, you would need a very much larger denomination note to do justice to the awesome cost of the boats they had come to see.

When a rope jams on a winch in a smaller vessel, one spectator explained, you take time out to free it. When it jams on one of these ocean-going thoroughbreds, the forces are such that you could not, even if you have time to spare. Instead you cut it – and, at £600 a go, that is the kind of decisiveness that can soon sink an underfunded team. Peter Harrison, who is heading up Britain's current challenge in the America's Cup, is thought to have set aside some £25m for his attempt to wrestle the trophy away from New Zealand in 2003, and that is considered mighty frugal when set alongside the lavish budgets of the American and Italian teams.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the jubilee should have attracted an influx of the super-rich on a scale that can rarely have been witnessed before on British soil. The roll-call of wealthy yachting enthusiasts here for the event is breathtaking. From tycoons to royalty, everyone who is anyone is either here or reported to be here: the oil billionaire Bill Koch, the pharmaceuticals billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, the Aga Khan, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Prince Henrik of Denmark, Patrizio Bertelli (head of Prada), Giorgio Armani, Gianni Agnelli – even the Duke of Edinburgh. Their collective presence has had a startling effect on a town not unfamiliar with conspicuous wealth. Reports that Southampton airport has had to turn away some of the countless private jets are denied by a representative of the airport. What is clear, however, is that demand for luxury accommodation exceeds supply. The organisers have chartered two cruise ships to anchor off Cowes to make up the shortfall.

The first day of racing might be described in the programme as "for all classes" – a reference to the magnificently byzantine regulatory divisions, but, at these levels, the sport is reserved for the mega-rich or the very persuasive. Which does not mean you cannot look on and dream. Don Mickleborough and John Sheridan, two veteran sailors from Sydney Cruising Yacht Club, had come a long way to do that and, as for most wandering up and down The Parade at Cowes, it was the J-Class ships that really made eyes mist over – three meticulous reconstructions of racing yachts from the pre-war glory days.

There are other stars here besides these sleek giants, redolent of Thomas Lipton's unsuccessful attempts to win back the prize for Britain. Australia II – the boat that finally ended America's unbroken domination of the contest and made Alan Bond a national hero – has been taken out of an Australian museum and shipped in for the event, complete with its original crew. The Danish Royal Yacht lay out in the Solent as well as Sea Cloud II – one of the largest square-rigged sailing ships in the world – hired to provide appropriate accommodation for members of the New York Yacht Club. And, no less striking, there are the state-of-the-art yachts of the billionaires themselves, such as Gianni Agnelli's Stealth.

But it is the J-Class yachts that come up first when you ask people what drew them there. "It's just the quintessential sailing yacht," said Bob Inch, who had come with his mother and telescope to watch the three J-class boats set out down the Solent.

Even the heretics appeared to have been converted; sitting on the shingle, staring through a three-foot brass telescope, Frank Nurse confessed that he was a motorboat man himself. "If God had meant us to sail, he wouldn't have given us diesels," he said, fortunately out of earshot of the more zealous spectators. Even he, though, conceded the extraordinary grace of the vintage giants – whose dominance of the sport ended when the Second World War forced a break in the contest and allowed owners some time to come to their senses.

When the America's Cup resumed after the war, everyone decided they should better limit themselves to losing small fortunes rather than vast ones.

When you throw this much money about, the locals are bound to get splashed a bit. Responding to criticism of the £225,000 that the Isle of Wight Council had put into the event (and which bought it into the heady company of Louis Vuitton, Prada and Hennessy as headline sponsors) the Royal Yacht Squadron pointed out, with grave nautical dignity, that yachting brings some £58m annually into the island's economy – an amount likely to have been considerably boosted this year. Some ratepayers' indignation will have been soothed, too, by the price of house rentals. One resident told me that £3,000 a week was the minimum starting price for a four-bedroom house. It was rumoured that Prada – sponsoring the Italian challenge for the cup – had set aside £20,000 a week for its crew accommodation.

Along the esplanade, several seafront houses had been commandeered for the big teams – their proud colours fluttered from the roof-top mastheads.

On the water, meanwhile, the action – such as it is – swiftly dwindles until it is on or just beyond the horizon in the welter of criss-crossing masts and sails. The radio commentary made up for lacking in certifiable fact ("I think I can see a blue spinnaker there on the mainland side") with a wonderfully poetic enthusiasm – most of it again aimed at the J-Class yachts.

When they finally made their way back up the Solent to the finish line – Endeavour leading from Shamrock V, Sir Thomas Lipton's last boat – you could almost hear the collective sigh of marine nostalgia.

The Cowes boys with their eyes on the prize

Gianni Agnelli, 79

The sprightly patriarch of the Fiat empire will sail on his ultra-modern yacht, Stealth, costing an estimated £20m. He is a keen follower of the yachting world

Aga Khan, 65

Theracehorse owner and leader of the Ismaili Muslim sect will race Shergar. He honeymooned aboard the yacht with German princess Gabriele zu Leiningnen

Ernesto Bertarelli, 34

The Swiss pharmaceuticals magnate, whose firm has made an estimated £700m, paid a rumoured £3.5m to lure Russell Coutts, winning skipper of the America's Cup

Patrizio Bertelli, 56

The owner of the Prada fashion chain is making his second attempt to claim the America's Cup. He is said to be spending £60m on his Prada Challenge boat

Bill Koch, 61

The American oil billionaire was the last amateur skipper to win the Cup, in 1992 off San Diego, at a cost of £34m. He is arriving on board America3

Prince Henrik of Denmark, 65

The prince will be in Cowes to follow the action and participate in several races. His yacht,Danebrog, will be anchored in the Solent

Giorgio Armani, 67

The Italian fashion designer, whose Armani Group last year made £653m, will be looking rather than racing at Cowes. He is a frequent habitué of the yachting scene

Alan Bond, 63

The disgraced Australian ex-billionaire changed the history of the America's Cup when hisAustralia II won in 1983. Completed a jail sentence for fraud last year