Sailing / Cowes Week '94: Tradition lives on at a very British affair: Satisfaction for the successful few

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The Independent Online
COWES WEEK '94 was not a vintage one, though it will be long remembered for less than flattering reasons by many, and as successful by those who won. Like a lot in British yacht racing, it is bumbling along in jolly party style, expecting a lot of allowances to be made for idiosyncracies which would benefit from some back-to- basics examination.

For a few, the week was already safe in the satisfaction cabinet before it ended. David Knight's Summer Pudding excelled in the Sigma 38 class, David Best came from Ireland to prove you can win top trophies in Class One on a bargain budget, Mike Eaton's new Class Three boat, Quencher, showed that the designer, Stephen Jones, has lost none of his flair, and the day boat classes, from the ancient X1 Design to the modern Etchells 22, offer great sport.

To win at Cowes you often have to defy the conditions in which the boats are asked to race. It would be surprising if there were not a few glitches when 750 boats in 24 classes are all trying to race in the same patch of water, but too often the competitors are offered frustration as much as challenge.

On the other hand, Cowes offers a known product, such as a start line which does not change even if a start somewhere else would produce much better racing, and a tendency for the committees which set the courses to give the bigger boats long legs into the middle distance. Having bought some hi-tech equipment and recruited some athletes with sailing brains, it would be nice to see them do something other than sit around doing nothing for great chunks of the race.

The secretary of the Cowes Combined Clubs was thrown to the wolves when the Britannia Cup race had to be abandoned because the fleet had been sent to a buoy which had been removed two years previously. But there were other factors to be taken into account - not least the Royal Yacht Squadron throwing the responsibility for decision-taking on to a protest jury when it was properly theirs.

The event started as a local affair and it has become rather more parochial again over the last few years. There are fewer visitors from neighbouring France and the Netherlands, and this year there was not a single US sail number to be seen.

Where the moorings at the entrance to the Medina River used to be full of large visiting yachts more concerned with socialising and spectating, there are fewer now, and those that there are nearly all ply the trade of corporate hospitality.

Once back ashore, the usual social whirl continues in the form of balls, cocktail parties and dinners, but, while the Yacht Haven has improved facilities and is a testament to some commercial optimism, the beer tent, burger bars, bungee jumping and loud music are all looking as though there has been another lurch down-market. And no-one likes to fork out 60p for a soft drink that can be bought retail at the supermarket 50 yards away for 25p.

Unflattering comparisons are made with Ford Cork Week, though how that would fare if it were to double in size to the proportions of Cowes Week would have to be seen. Certainly, the difference is not that Cork has a sponsor and Cowes does not.

Much has been made of the absence of a Cowes Week sponsor, but it is more of a virility symbol than a sine qua non for those who are taking part. For them the start line would remain the same, the fickle winds and all-conquering tides the same, and on aggregate the better guys would still come out on top.