America's Cup pair add to Cowes class

Glamour, fanfare and fear help to make this week the event of the sailing year

There should be racing today at the opening of Cowes Week as the highlight of Britain's yacht racing calendar once again attaches itself to the tail-end of what used to be called "The Season".

There should be racing today at the opening of Cowes Week as the highlight of Britain's yacht racing calendar once again attaches itself to the tail-end of what used to be called "The Season".

The racing, of course, depends much on the weather, with the action having been disrupted on the opening day for the last three years due to the wind being too benign.

Entries are a healthy 900, which is up on average, and in total 10,000 people are expected to descend on what the Isle of Wight likes to think is the home of world yachting. Some of those people will be prepared for a series of hard physical and intellectual tests, some just as keen on the obstacle course of a crammed party diary, some just to strut up and down.

Fighting to be the focus of attention will be the more glamorous boats like the pair of America's Cup veterans, Johnnie Caulcutt's Right Time, formerly the 1992 Il Moro di Venezia, and Richard Matthews' About Time, formerly the 1995 Tag Heuer. Both men hope that the presence in British waters of a pair of relatively recent America's Cup-class yachts will help inspire a British challenge for the Cup in New Zealand in 2002/3.

To allow people the opportunity of seeing what they look like, the two boats will stage exhibition races off the Green every evening and, for those who are up early enough this morning, the same stretch of water will host, for the first time, a Thames Barge race. Be there by 9.25am or miss the start.

Present from an earlier era will be Don Wood's 12-metre America's Cup yacht Italia, while the 90ft Skandia Leopard 2000, Mike Slade's latest yacht, is one of the biggest built in the UK since the grand days of the J Boats in the 1930s.

There is the continuing and unmistakable fanfare for the average man which Cowes manages to create. There are hundreds of boats involving thousands of competitors who enjoy their sport drawn from a limited budget. While the downside has been the proliferation of branding and logos which is so irksome, this has not spread through to the many classes of day boats watched each morning by the crowds on the Green. These boats carry between two and four crew most days, some would call both middle-aged - and the races are fiercely fought.

There will be a total of 40 36-footers chartered by companies or groups of friends from the Sunsail holiday fleet, and one of them will be an entry crewed by seven Emirates Airlines captains, plus a stewardess. The skipper is Joe Gillespie and the stewardess will be working the foredeck instead of the flight deck.

There is no question of a dog-fight on the water with the rival presence of United Airlines. As part of their support for some of this year's Olympic representatives they will step on to on a 60-footer which will be helmed by Soling skipper Andy Beadsworth and tactically guided by Star representative Ian Walker, fresh from helping Adrian Stead win the Tour de France à la Voile so convincingly.

The experiment of using separate start lines, consisting of committee boats in other parts of the Solent to ease congestion on the Royal Yacht Squadron line, was such a success that it will be continued this year, but an innovation will see the big boats excluded from Wednesday's competition for one of the most prized trophies of the week, the Brittania Cup. To help the promotion of a new handicap rule called IRM, only those boats competing under that rule, primarily 40-footers, will be eligible.

The town is its usual self, half hooray, half hesitant, and bracing itself for seven days of the sort of High Street mayhem which has politicians wringing their hands, police overstretched, and private security firms scratching their heads.

A dedicated local radio station, Cowes Radio (106.2) which has been on the air for 15 years, is joined for the first time by a television broadcast service, only the second such local licence ever granted by the ITC.

Overall, the event is in very good cheer as it starts a new century. "We are consolidating on what we did last year while always trying to improve the racing management," the director of Cowes Combined Clubs, Stuart Quarrie, said looking out of his window at good racing conditions yesterday.

"We are in good heart and good financial heart. Skandia Life is sponsoring us for at least two more years and the supporting sponsors are all bullish." A change of century, but business a usual.

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