Sailing: Crouch conquers time and tide: Burnham Week is celebrating its centenary and a special place in British sailing. Stuart Alexander imbibes its atmosphere

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IT HAS been a testing week for the 400 or so boats celebrating 100 years of racing on the River Crouch in the rural Essex hamlet of Burnham, even though last Sunday and Wednesday was lost to high winds.

Burnham's attraction - unlike Cowes, which is down at heel but pretends to be part of the social season - is that it covers the spectrum of yacht racing, from cheap dinghies to expensive cruisers.

Although the top boats no longer move up from the south coast as in the halcyon years of 1960 to 1975 before escalating travel costs, the strength of local support and continuing family traditions means the regatta is in good heart.

There is an element of perverse British determination for enjoyment no matter what the circumstances as the Crouch, not half so submissive as its name suggests, is swollen daily by the big Thames estuary tides and then emptied with a rush.

Burnham became a venue when, in 1892, the London Sailing Club in Hammersmith and the Corinthian in Erith took advantage of the Great Eastern Railway's expansion to serve the fishing and oyster trade.

The Royal Burnham Sailing Club (the prefix was attached in 1927) was established in 1895 and this year also marks the diamond jubilee of its one design of open day boats. The Crouch Yacht Club, for those who like to relax and imbibe the atmosphere while cruising, followed in 1907.

Latest of the four forming the joint clubs organisation is the Burnham Sailing Club, which was founded in 1930 and offered Wednesday night racing for people who worked in the local boatyards. Members, therefore, were stigmatised as professionals rather than gentlemen amateurs. They were not invited to the inner circle until 1968, perhaps because they maintain the tradition of not having a bar for the others to visit.

Today sees the race for the major event of the week, the Town Cup, which was donated by public subscription in 1927. It has been won by successive generations of local families and equally well-known names from further afield.

The brothers Phil and Ralph Herring shared the boat which won in 1956 and '57 and it was Tim, Ralph's son, and his wife Cathy who recorded the only hat-trick, beginning in 1985. From that golden period of 1960 to 1980, Ron Amey - all of whose boats took the reverse of his name - won five times in Noryema. Sir Maurice Laing won twice and, on his way to becoming Prime Minister, Edward Heath lifted the prize 20 years ago in Morning Cloud.

While the regatta attracts fewer from far afield, the Mancunian David Walters has brought his J39 Jackdaw. He has recruited a largely local crew to challenge a fellow J39 owner, Phillip Tolhurst, whose Warlord won nearly everything but the Town Cup last year. The early encounters saw Jackdaw's wings clipped.

The Herring family also features prominently in the records of the Crouch Yacht Club Challenge Cup. Now known as the Houghton Cup, Tim Herring's grandfather, Stephen, completed his own hat-trick, winning from 1937-39. Even that is topped by Hardy Barrett, four-times successful from 1929.