Sailing: Hurricane's leftovers to test Cowes competitors

Britain may be at play when a record 980 yachts, and about 6,500 competitors, open their account on a delayed first day of Cowes Week today. But they should be ready to work a lot harder tomorrow if the weather pundits are correct. The remnants of Hurricane Alex are on their way to rough up both the English Channel and the usually protected waters of the Solent.

Britain may be at play when a record 980 yachts, and about 6,500 competitors, open their account on a delayed first day of Cowes Week today. But they should be ready to work a lot harder tomorrow if the weather pundits are correct. The remnants of Hurricane Alex are on their way to rough up both the English Channel and the usually protected waters of the Solent.

With only a few more latecomers needed to push the total number of boats participating to over 1,000, it would seem that the grass roots of a game which is showing a few scorched brown leaves at canopy level is in good shape. There will be everything from 19 foot dinghies to 80 foot America's Cup veterans dicing with tides, rocks and winds which can all too often flatter to deceive. Just ask the biggest group, 79 of them, in one of the oldest classes, the XOD, designed in 1908.

Even years at Cowes tend to be slightly quieter than odd years, when the Admiral's Cup precedes one of Europe's biggest gatherings in what is normally the first week in August. That was pushed back this year because last week was scheduled to have the strongest tides for 150 years. Next year, for the 179th gathering, it will be back to normal and will follow a revised Admiral's Cup, which has reverted to three-boat national teams after cancellation in 2001. Any national authority will be able to send up to two teams and there will be only one big, handicap-rated boat. The other two will be a Swan 45 and a Mumm 30.

This is partly because an attempt to create a new, international system of calculating handicaps collapsed when the Americans walked away from their European partners, and partly because there are plenty of the 45s and 30s available. What is not restored is the Fastnet Race. That will still be staged at the end of Cowes Week, and the earlier Admiral's Cup series concludes with the 400-mile race round Wolf Rock for the two bigger classes, with a shorter race up and down the Channel for the 30s.

No such marathons for the 34 starts covering 40 classes this week, though the high octane classes competing for the two top trophies, the Britannia Cup and the New York Yacht Club Challenge Cup should be sent on a full day's work, with Peter Ogden, in the carbon black stealth bomber which is his new 60-foot Spirit of Jethou, determined to add the Britannia to his New York winning ways of 1999/2000.

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