Sailing; Serious players playing for fun

Andrew Preece hears how Cowes Week still attracts the world's best sailors
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IT was the first day of Cowes Week yesterday. To most of the professional sailing world Cowes Week is a monumental irrelevance offering no world ranking points and no passport to greater things, but to a wider sailing population, success in one of the 32 classes brings a curious status that transcends sailing boundaries. Just as an Olympic medal holds value across the sporting board, so Cowes, which aligns itself in the social calendar with Henley, Ascot and Wimbledon, ships a gravitas of its own back to the City and beyond.

And it's a big social gig too. Royalty and the snooty yacht club balls are set alongside the heaving bars of the Cowes Marina where pristine crew uniforms are defiled through nights of relentless drinking, dancing and reliving the crucial moment of the day where the close call was pulled off or the opposition left gawping in awe at a brilliant spinnaker peel, gybe or slam dunk.

Some 830 boats and more than 5,000 sailors can't be wrong and while other provincial pretenders to the crown like the Scottish Series or Cork Week can boast burgeoning popularity Cowes is Cowes and always will be - largely because it always has been. The magisterial presence of the Royal Yacht Britannia may be missed, but the Royals still come in force.

But out on the water there is serious racing of a kind. Massed and uncontrolled starts, tortuous courses and the capricious nature of the central Solent do nothing to dampen the competition, where year-long pride is at stake. And in among the myriad dayboat classes with designs unhoned by the march of technology, the classes in which success requires skill and low cunning in equal measures, in among the class of 40 production cruisers populated by charter crews and corporate junketeers, in among the hotchpotch of handicap races you will find the odd thoroughbred. The chances are that at the back of the bus will be a hotshot sailing, uncharacteristically, for the fun of it.

Chris Law is a serious sailor. He is ranked No 2 in the world match-racing rankings and has pretensions towards the America's Cup in under two years time. His week's holiday from the professional circuit will be at the helm of Mike Slade's 80-foot maxi Longobarda. "Mike is an old friend and he asked me to do the trophy races with him," he said. "I'm not doing any other private-client sailing this year, I'm concentrating on my match racing but I'm doing the Queen's Cup today and the Britannia Cup on Wednesday and the New York Yacht Club on Thursday."

For Law, who races professionally, the chance to boost the coffers is also a motivation, although his attack on the pitch is tempered somewhat by the festival circumstances. "For this sort of thing I usually get about pounds 500 per day plus a retainer - you can get more when you race grands prix abroad - but the important thing here is not to break the boat or hurt any of the crew. We've got 28 guys on board, some of whom I won't know and if we win but we break a guy's finger then we won't have done well. There's a lot of boats out there and actually it scares the shit out of me."

But if Law is doing it for the money and the pleasure of sailing, with Slade, a client of seven years and "now one of my best friends", his former America's Club skipper Harold Cudmore is sailing to support his local event. "I live in Cowes," says Cudmore, "and I enjoy the spirit of the week. Cowes is a bit of an obstacle course but it's the pros on holiday."

Cudmore, who sailed his first Cowes Week 25 years ago, will steer the former grand prix 50-footer The Full Monty which has been chartered by Peter Harrison and renamed Russe Noir for the week. Harrison and his friend will be joined by six of Cudmore's professional cohorts, although for Cudmore the attractions ashore will be all too compelling. "I'm very much involved in the social scene, sometimes to the detriment of the sailing," laughs a man who will definitely not be making the nightly pilgrimage to the regatta offices on the seafront to check up on his results.