Sailing: Watching the best is proving no easy matter: Hugh Bateson finds it lonely viewing at Cowes despite some spectacular exhibitions of sailing

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The Independent Online
FOR the past 10 days, as elite a gathering as it is possible to bring together has been showing a sport at its highest level. The crowd figures are not recorded, but it would not have been a squeeze to assemble them in a few telephone boxes.

Six Olympic gold medallists, nine America's Cup skippers or helmsmen, and at least 10 world champions have turned on spectacular shows in the Champagne Mumm Admiral's Cup. The most recent races, for example, on Thursday, were sailing at its best. Big boats hurtling along within inches of each other (in one expensive moment, rather less), sunshine, spray, brilliant teamwork and hugely competitive racing. The only thing flat was the atmosphere.

The only way to watch the Admiral's Cup is to hire a boat (prices start at pounds 100 per day plus fuel for a small - and very wet - inflatable. There are no official spectator boats on which you can buy a day-ticket to watch) and slog away from Cowes towards Brighton for more than an hour.

The alternative is to take a five- minute stroll along the Parade to Cowes Green and watch the club sailors in action in Cowes Week, where the boats race within a couple of hundred yards of the shore.

This is not a new dilemma, of course, as the Admiral's Cup race director, Alan Green, knows all too well. 'It is important to us to provide racing which is interesting and accessible,' he said. 'But in planning a race there are a whole panoply of conflicting requirements.'

Sailing at the highest level now demands an absolute pinpoint precision of course-laying, which is not easy in the complex Solent. 'It is possible, but not during Cowes Week,' Green said. 'We did try to run races in the Solent during Cowes Week for a time, but we found that it did not work because of the interference.' There have been nearly 750 boats racing in Cowes Week every day.

The choice then was to opt for the best stretch of water they could find, long commute though it is. The organisers, the Royal Ocean Racing Club, had expected market forces to provide a suitable spectator-boat service, but Green added: 'I sometimes feel there is scope for us on the official side to be involved with that.'

But while Cowes Week and the Admiral's Cup continue to have a symbiotic relationship (the cup would be small beer without the surrounding attractions), the price will be spectator access. 'If we were to start with a blank piece of paper we would not have the same constraints,' Green said. And the world's best sailors would not be so lonely.