Crowds pick up at Cowes Week

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The Independent Online

Guy Barkley-Smith who, with Nikki, runs Sails café at the top of the High Street had a smile on his face for the first time in days today and it was matched by Lea Bennett, secretary of the Island Sailing Club as she popped into Sainsbury's next door.

Sails serves a cholesterolfest of a bacon sandwich, or potted shrimps if you prefer, and the Island is the launch point for hundreds of dayboat sailors every day, after they, too, have been tempted by bangers, bacon and burgers.

"There were worries at the beginning of the week but it started to pick up on Wednesday and Thursday. Things don't look quite as bleak as we all thought," said Barkley-Smith.

"We had noticed it was quieter," said Bennett, "and this may have been because of an increased number of boats going back to their home ports at the end of each day."

That saves on increased berthing costs in the specially laid moorings off the harbour entrance and, now that competitors can sign off by using a text message instead of in person, there is no imperative need to come ashore.

Bennett also notes an upside: "A lot of people have said it is more like it used to be, they think that is great, and say the atmosphere wonderful," she says. Beer sales generally may be down about 10 per cent. and mid-week the charge to enter the bar area of the main marina was hurriedly dropped. It has also been easier to find a table at one of the many restaurants.

Fewer corporate hospitality guests have also dampened demand for houses to rent. For the time being, some of Cowes has had to swap the gravy train for thinner gruel.

The centre of town has been slightly less crowded, perhaps because facilities at either end have been improved. There is a thriving community at Shepards Wharf, up the Medina River, and at the Sail for Gold Bar and other restaurants to the north on the Parade, and even further along at Egypt at the iShares Cup village Extreme Bar. Spread the load, ease the pressure.

Yesterday, there was enough sun to drag the shades from forehead fashion mode and to over the eyes glare-cutting duty, and there enough breeze to drive the 880 yachts round their Solent courses.

Not that there is not a permanent frown on the face of the week's director, Stuart Quarrie. He is confident that there will be a new title sponsor next year and has spanned the gap, following the departure of Skandia, by upping the entry fees by about 10 per cent., dipping into reserves, and levying a £75 per boat ‘non-sponsor' fee.

"That was not raiding the silver, it was using the reserves for their proper function, but we can't keep on doing that," says Quarrie, a straight up and down guy who prefers truth to spin. "We have a plan going forward which could include trimming a few of the frills. But, shoreside, the businesses have their own plans. That would be just the same."

Last year the world, and especially the financial world, was facing the abyss just as the Cowes Combined Clubs organisation which Quarrie heads was pitching for something under £1m a year for the title rights. Twelve months later and "what we are finding is that, whether the recovery is coming or not, most companies don't believe the world is about to end," says Quarrie, who will plunge straight back into an autumn selling campaign.

So, all's well that ends well and the collective sigh of relief expected over Cowes on the morning of the final day of Cowes Week should reflect a more general mood of optimism. The crowds were again thronging the High Street ahead of the evening's firework display. A good end to the week helps to encourage repeat business.

With six wins out of seven class one starts, Charles Dunstone has had one of the most successful runs ever in his 52-foot Rio in Cowes Week. Today he added the Rocking Chair Trophy to all the other silverware and the only man to beat him into second place was Peter Vroon of the Netherlands in Tonnere of Breskens.

At the other end of the scale the 75-year old Stuart Jardine is close to winning the Captain's Cup as best of the week in the X One Design. Other top performers are Graham and Stephen Bailey, not related but united in dominating the Etchells fleet, but Graham's wife Julia is lying third in a Dragon fleet led by Len Jones, chased by local stalwart Eric Williams.

The top three quarter tonners remain locked as tightly as ever, just one point separating them. Howard Sellars and Mike Till still lead in Bullet with Brett Lindon and Jamie McDowell 0.4 of a point behind in Diamond and Louise Morton one point behind Bullet in Espada.

The regatta finishes tomorrow with many yachts either winding down or preparing for the Rolex Fastnet Race, which starts on Sunday.