Sailing: Modern tides propel yachts into space age

The mobile phone is the new must-have item in yacht racing as Cowes Week catches a 21st century breeze, writes Stuart Alexander
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The Independent Online

A deafening chorus of double beeps should be heard from one side of the Solent to the other for nearly two and a half hours from 10.15 this morning and for a consecutive eight days. People irritated by mobile phones should stay well away.

Skandia Cowes Week is embracing the 21st century and even the style of racing is shifting its focus away from traditions that go back to the early 1900s, to the technology of the aerospace age. This is Britain at play but with edge and attitude.

The beeps will be text messages to mobile phones telling competitors in each of the 38 classes racing against each other which racing marks to go to and in which order. There will, of course, still be lovingly polished brass cannons booming in its orderly gundeck row in front of the Royal Yacht Squadron to signify the warnings and start times.

These will be accompanied by flags expertly broken out with split-second accuracy, and there will still be local sea scouts turning huge boards, for those close enough to see them, full of obscure graphic and code flag signals to back up the course instructions.

All this excitement may, or may not, be accompanied by enough wind to send a record 1,030-plus yachts into heated battle - the forecast for the first three days is for rather gentle conditions - so, whatever the wailing from high street retailers or the reports of a slowdown in the rise in house prices, the grass roots of a fairly high-priced equipment-dominated sport is in healthy order. With 8,000 pairs of wellies making their way to pubs and beer tents for the post-race discussions, security is a major headache, especially given the piles of kit bags thrown carelessly into mounds.

The previous highest turnout was 1,002 in the America's Cup 150th anniversary celebrations of 2001, and last year there were 984. To reinforce the optimistic state of the game, there are 285 entries for the Fastnet Race, the offshore classic which starts on 7 August and which achieved such notoriety in 1979 when, with 303-strong entry, 19 people lost their lives in storm conditions. Four others also perished. By 1999 there were still nearly 100 fewer but by the last race in 2003 there were 234.

Not that this high turnout means that all is sweetness and light in the world of yacht racing. After the feast of five medals in Athens last year, the Olympic classes are taking a bit of a breather, though Ben Ainslie, with two gold medals and a silver already to his name, is taking time off from his America's Cup duties with Team New Zealand to return to the Finn single-handed dinghy European Championship at the end of this month.

Worldwide, the structure of yacht racing remains a mess. For years the world governing body, the International Sailing Federation, has failed to provide leadership and grip; its anarchic members, the national governing bodies, do not want to be governed themselves; and a confused population of players - many of whom, particularly in the United States, do not know the difference between sport and recreation, championship and competition - leaps from one fashion to the next.

But no one could say that about the X One Design fleet. While the millionaires import crack crew to negotiate tricky tides, lurking rocks and shallows with major acreages of sail area, the biggest entry is in this old-fashioned wooden yacht, also known as logs or dugouts, designed in 1908. With a competitor list whose ages cover every generation, this is one of the most difficult classes to win.

In contrast, the Laser SB3 represents the modern appetite for affordable high-performance sailing. There are 67 entries for this three-up 20-footer designed by Tony Castro. Often the £20,000 cost is shared, as are running costs. They can hit 20 knots, good crew work is rewarded, and they are a sign that modern-era boats can rival the old stagers in numbers. The king is not dead, but the princelings - fitter, faster but rarely furious - are establishing their own domain.

The Cowes races to watch

Of the two most coveted trophies - there are more than 250 to be won - one is the Britannia Cup, presented by King George VI in 1950. It can only be contested by the Class 0 big yachts and is over a course usually within the Solent on Wednesday.

The New York Yacht Club Challenge Cup was presented a year later - 1951 - on the 100th anniversary of the yacht America winning the race round the Isle of Wight for the trophy which became the America's Cup. Once again, the highest-rating boats will race within the Solent on Thursday.

Racing round the island also on Thursday will be a fleet of Open 60s with celebrities including David Coulthard and Davina McCall. Less anxious about personal publicity will be a hatful of Olympic medallists, happy to be sprinkled among the fleet.