Sailing: Cowes strives for even keel

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The Independent Online
THE GRAND PRIX racers of the Admiral's Cup left town nearly a week ago, but there has been little chance of a breather before the invasion began yesterday for Cowes Week. With 886 entries and more than 6,000 crew taking part, the biggest regatta in Britain is saying farewell to the 20th century with gusto. Even the weather forecasts are good for those who like to take plenty of Pimm's with their sport.

The town wanted to separate the events, not least because it gave them two bites at a lucrative cherry, and the Admiral's Cup competitors wanted to see their event both tightened up and contained to Cowes rather than having to relocate to Plymouth at the end for the Fastnet Race. The new format worked well, though the racing was better managed than the event's promotion. It remains to be seen whether Cowes Week suffers any loss of glamour by the Admiral's Cup's departure.

In any case, sailing in Cowes Week can be a hazardous business. There are plenty of rocks and sandbanks to snare the unprepared; and plenty of holes of the watering variety ashore into which the unwary can fall.

Cowes attracts the kind of wider-based support associated more with Derby Day or Wimbledon than, say, Ascot. The essential difference is that, instead of being a social occasion for spectators, they are also the players.

They come in all shapes and sizes and even the Maxi yachts have a more egalitarian air. Eight of them are of one design and crewed by an itinerant assortment of professionals, though there is still a handful of rich men charging up and down the Solent in their expensive toys.

However, Cowes remains largely the province of day and sports boats, with some of the classes the equivalent of racing Morris Oxfords - some make even Morris Oxfords look modern. Yet it would be unwise to underestimate the skill needed to win here. No class is easy and, as the week wears on and many are growing weary from the event's vigorous socialising, there is a group at the top that is sharp and serious.

All will be grateful for some luck, as will the organisers. The Solent tidal patterns are a powerful influence while the essential ingredient of sailboat racing is, of course, wind, and those setting the courses need enough of it at the right time if they are to keep the tight sequence of starts on schedule.

The pressure will be eased a little this year by moving some classes each day to a committee boat start line in other areas of the Solent. The reintroduction of what should be a straightforward logistical improvement has been accompanied by hesitant, almost apologetic, noises about taking some of the starts away from Cowes, though they all finish there.

The Royal Ocean Racing Club promised faster boats and lowered costs when it unveiled its Measured International Rating - MIR - handicap rule yesterday. The new system will compete with the US-administered International Measurement System (IMS), which has waned in popularity.

A lack of finance has scuppered the British team but 12 other entrants have met tomorrow's deadline for the America's Cup Louis Vuitton challenger yacht series in October. There are doubts about the Age of Russia syndicate, which has yet to notify organisers of its notice of entry. The first race of the round-robin challenger series begins on 18 October in Auckland. The defending champions, Team New Zealand, will race off against the leading challengers early next year.