Cowes Week a bridging of eras

Andrew Preece looks forward to a traditional yet diverse occasion

The Thames Barges left the Royal Yacht Squadron starting line at 9.30am yesterday, a full half hour before the meat of a day of vintage Skandia Life Cowes Week racing set sail for a day of millennial-style Solent racing, where improvements to the format are set against the tradition of one of the most venerable occasions on the British sailing calendar.

The Thames Barges left the Royal Yacht Squadron starting line at 9.30am yesterday, a full half hour before the meat of a day of vintage Skandia Life Cowes Week racing set sail for a day of millennial-style Solent racing, where improvements to the format are set against the tradition of one of the most venerable occasions on the British sailing calendar.

Thames Barges represent a bygone age and while they provided a compelling spec-tacle as they tracked west into a building breeze, the contrast with modern-day Cowes Week grows starker with each year. Out on the race course there is prize money, ashore there is a stage and a pumping sound system with live radio, event television and a new and improved marina area that accommodates the aftershow parties in a grander style too.

That is the peculiar attraction of Cowes: on a day like yesterday when the sea breeze kicked in from the South West, there is nowhere else that can provide the combination of taxing tidal racing with demanding navigational decision- making, followed by diverse after-show activity.

That is the reason why, at Cowes Week the city-types cross tacks with Olympic sailors afloat and rub shoulders with them ashore. The mix could not be more diverse.

This year there are already 900 boats entered with late entries still trickling in.

From the day classes like the X-boat, the Victory and the Solent Sunbeam, where longstanding experts are impossible to beat, to custom grand prix boats where the hired guns are sailing household names like Olympians Andy Beadsworth, Ian Walker and Ben Ainslie, offshore stars like Harold Cudmore, and Eddie Warden Owen, a new talent looking for a way into the major league.

But as much as Cowes Week is about the festival of sailing and life on the race track, it is always a place where the names from other areas check in to the main stream. Ellen MacArthur and Mike Golding are due in Cowes after a battering on the recent singlehanded transAtlantic race that MacArthur won. And Pete Goss is due to do a live link into the week on Thursday where he will hopefully be connected via satellite to the Atlantic where Steve Fossett and Grant Dalton will be gunning their maxi catamarans in an effort to break the transAtlantic record. And racing off The Green each evening will be two International America's Cup Class boats strutting their stuff in a first in British waters, hoping to gird the loins of a long-overdue British Challenge for what was, a very long time ago, a British trophy.

In all, Cowes Week is no different from the bygone years of the Thames Barge - it is still the most diverse sailing regatta in the sport - where competitors from all walks of sailing life come to race hard and hang out harder. There may be live links and two-tier beer tents and a growing hospitality fleet, but in the classes where racing is the name of the Cowes Week game, it is still just as hard to win a race.

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