SAILING: Cowes embarks on stiff test: Strength in depth of Britain's top-line racers likely to be exposed

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The Independent Online
COWES is busy, full of new confidence, bustling with more than 700 boats, and setting out on what may not be a vintage Cowes Week but promises stiff enough competition at the club racer level for anyone who wins to feel that they have achieved something.

Once the Admiral's Cup became too serious to risk playing with the rest of the fleet on the off-days, the level of competition for prestige trophies such as the Britannia Cup and the New York Yacht Club Challenge Bowl fell. Even in this, not an Admiral's Cup year, the strength in depth of Britain's fleet of top-line racers has diminished.

Among the 63 Etchells 22s, there are people who have pockets deep enough to race much bigger boats. But they prefer the short, sharp contest that is so much easier to manage, and the astonishing growth in the class is also a testament to the disillusionment with those who claim to lead the sport in Britain.

Even the impressive Etchells numbers will be exceeded by a much more sedate old lady, the X One designs. Sixty-eight of them are booked to do battle for the Captain's Cup.

The Mumm 36s will also be sailing as a class, having just finished the Commodores' Cup. The boat, chosen to be the obligatory design in future Admiral's Cups, is a pretty expensive proposition to campaign at the top level. But it has broken the parochiality where each country had its favourite designs and ignored foreign products, which stifled true international competition.

The soon to be defunct Medina Borough Council has given pounds 100,000 of support because no one will come in with the sponsorship needed, and the town makes quite a lot out of yachting and tourism.

But that does not mean that the game is on the wane. Rather, the powers that run the week have never properly understood the difference between sponsorship and patronage, and that their first duty to the sponsor is commercial, not reasons of prestige.

Bombay Sapphire have provided pounds 10,000 and the Sports Aid Foundation has also contributed to the collection plate. All in all, the event looks healthy and many years of setting terrible courses has failed to dampen spirits.