Arena: Fading glory of a water world: 14. Cowes: Stuart Alexander explains the allure of the home of British yacht racing which revels in fame for a week

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The Independent Online
FOR MUCH of the year it is quiet going on deadly quiet, a small town struggling to maintain an island economy. But for a few summer weeks it is a sporting venue known by the world, crowded with people in curious clothes, mixing daytime sport with night-time frolics.

The Queen's husband can be seen taking a stroll down the narrow high street while his yacht lies at anchor, reached by immaculately managed little ferries called pinnaces. All man and womankind is on parade, providing an intriguing combination of toff and tat that so aptly reflects the home of British yacht racing, the little harbour town of Cowes on the north shore of the Isle of Wight.

Much of its Victorian glory is faded, some of its fade is glorious. The annual regatta follows the racing at Goodwood and brings to an end the so-called 'season' which also includes the social gatherings of Ascot, Wimbledon and Henley. The bygone era is given further authenticity by Gordon's-polished chaps in mess jackets accompanying diamante-strewn ladies to one of the many balls. The modern era is given full rein by the surly responses of the sandwich vendors, the untrained service in the restaurants, and the fly-by-night way in which some of the retail shops change their colours and contents.

This Saturday Cowes opens its doors - or some of them, because class is still important here - for the Cowes Week regatta, which started in 1812, born out of efforts by cross-Channel smugglers to elude revenue men. Now it lays on eight days of racing for 700 boats, perhaps 5,000 crew, and attracts enough long-limbed racer-chasers, plus ordinary spectators, to double the population of the town.

There is nothing finer than to stand on the terrace of the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club and look down on the Solent, the entrance to the River Medina, and the castle which is home to the Royal Yacht Squadron. Next door, the Royal London mainly keeps itself to itself and nearby the Island Sailing Club sells temporary membership tickets and welcomes the often far-from- flush devotees of the smaller kinds of day boat. The Cowes Corinthian, at the less fashionable end of town, wants to see success for yachting and does all it can to achieve it.

As an arena, Cowes has much to offer, to the simply curious, to the enthusiastic amateur, to the professional sailboat racers. But Cowes itself is only half the story. It is the stretch of water that divides the island from the mainland, the Solent, that is the playing field.

Cowes provides the terraces, the odd grandstand, and all the support facilities. Its mixture of middle-class gentility, unashamed snobbery and work-boat roughened hands is a heady one, irresistible, and yet the actual race track is far from ideal. The Solent is a comfortably protected piece of water, guarded at its eastern end by the forts at Portsmouth, entered at the western end by the Needles and overlooked by the grim Hurst Castle, which imprisoned Charles I.

In between there are plenty of places to go, so you can spend your life pottering about in its shelter. But the tides are fierce, rising and falling twice a day, the wind can be fickle, and there are lots of hard bits to hit on either side. Every year boats are forced to head for shallow water, although that increases the risk of going aground.

It is like playing tennis with a concrete wall just three feet from the tramlines. If you do not go aground when racing in the Solent you are not really trying. But don't try too hard. The Irish skipper Harry Cudmore had the delicate task last year of letting the King of Norway know that he had sunk the yacht he had chartered from him. Incidents like that cause much mirth in the places where the races are re-run over pints of wallop and Pimms. The beer tent in West Cowes Marina, overnight parking lot for the boats and dormitory for low-budget crews, is crowded with burned faces, baggy shorts which pre-date Sampras, and crew uniforms which have kept the polo and rugby shirt embroiderers machining into the night.

The bread-and-butter, pots- and-pans high street - St Tropez this is not - leads to the organising office of Cowes Combined Clubs, the consortium of island and mainland clubs which used to arrange races for a day but now jointly provides people to set the courses, check the starts and adjudicate the finishes. At the turn up the hill is the Squadron, still unable to make up its mind about being in the mainstream of yacht racing or having nothing to do with the outside world. From its platform the race officers call across the narrow promenade to an area containing a tall flagstaff with hoist ropes and a line of brass cannons.

In charge is the signalman, Peter Scott, who fires the cannons at five-minute intervals and, helped by neatly pressed sea scouts, runs up the signal flags as each of 23 classes of yacht start their race for the day. It is a free show which runs every morning from 10am and culminates on the Friday night with the firework display enjoyed by almost as many people on boats anchored in Cowes Roads, as those on land crowding the roads of Cowes.

(Photograph omitted)