COWES WEEK: Much more than a regatta

Published on March 19th, 2013

With most events in North America pounding their chests when they attract 100+ boats, Cowes Week in the UK has been pounding its chest since 1826. Now hosting over 1,000 boats and 8,500 competitors participating, Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight is much more than a regatta.

The spectacle that the racing provides, together with the vibrant festival atmosphere attracts over 100,000 visitors to Cowes during the event. The 2013 edition is August 3-10.

So what is this event doing that others can learn from? Aside from having what could be considered the gold standard for regatta websites, British commentator Andy Green provides some of the details that separates Cowes Week from the crowd…
Cowes Week is the largest participation sailing event in the world. Racing takes place over a 30 mile stretch of the Solent from Lymington to Chichester and the courses are by and large all set around permanent navigation and permanent sponsored racing marks.

The challenges of setting enough square upwind legs, ensuring classes don’t round marks at the same time or in different directions are enormous! For many years the Cowes Combined Clubs have set courses using pins and string on a huge chart, but this is now a back up to the computer technology that has taken over the same job – it’s still not flawless!

Cowes Week has always moved with the available technology. Receiving the course by text message has been in place for many years, signing on and off remotely is available as are up-to-the-second live results and handicap computation on TV’s all around the town.

On an event level, Cowes has always encouraged classes to host their championships, festivals or anniversaries during the week. This year the SB20’s have devised an exciting new Grand Slam event and the Solent Sumbeams (a Shields with a cabin) will be celebrating their 90th anniversary. Last year, the X-boat hosted its 100th anniversary as well as the Ultra 30s, Extreme 40s, IACC and IMOCA events giving the corporate hospitality and sponsorship end some of the glamour of the sport.

This year will feature many of the British Olympians weighing in a little heavier with precious metal around their necks enjoying sponsor obligations and great racing with owners and friends.

A fireworks display, which comes courtesy of funds raised through local merchants and donors, does a great job of involving a huge amount of non-sailors to get connected with the regatta festivities.
In Part 2, Andy comments on the type of racing that can be found at Cowes Week. Is it the typical windward-leeward fare or is it more diverse? With so many boats, can the racing be ideal, or do you go to Cowes Week with the anticipation that the festival atmosphere will leak onto the course? Read on…
The racing is not standard windward leeward, its takes place around the hundreds of navigation and racing marks around the Solent. Some of which are very spinnaker and varnished wood unfriendly! The tide can get up to 4kts in the main channels, so short tacking, cheating the tide and tide affected laylines are all commonplace. Navigation is very important. The smaller boats often have heads down with a pencil and waterproof chart, the larger boats often have two navigators!

Do Expect: One 2-3hr race per day. Starter cannons from the Royal Yacht Squadron line. Hundreds of boats milling around. Tide adjusted upwind and downwind legs.  Tight reaching legs. Cheating the tide. Big metal navigation marks straining under the tide. A huge variety of conditions- Sunny summer and 25kt sea breeze. Drizzle and rain (its England!) A different pub, party or posh ball every night. The smallest daysailer to the biggest racing boats. Excellent event efficiency.

Don’t expect: 3-4 windward leeward races a day. A course free from other boats, the same scenery every day. Only one bar! Early nights. The same conditions

People come to Cowes Week to race boats but also to explore The Solent, for those that haven’t been the body of water stretches from Soutampton in the North to Lymington and Chichester. The Isle of Wight marks the southern boundary of the Solent
In the final Part 3, Andy will comment on some of the incentives that have helped keep participant numbers high.
The event was pretty much full in 2007 with well over 1,000 boats. There was talk about splitting the event, but in the end numbers have eased a little with the economy. Cowes has been quick to offer some attractive deals, one of the most notable recently being a 20% discount for a previous entrant if they get a new participant entered. A ‘refer-a-friend’ deal. Early bird 10% discounts on houses, berthing and ferries are now commonplace. All sensible reactions that offer deals for the cost conscious racer.

* NEWBIE: Regular entrants to the regatta are able to earn a 20% discount on their entry fee if successful in attracting newcomers to the event.

* YOUTH: The first 15 crews to enter and confirm their entire team of under 25 year olds for this year’s event will have their entry fees covered by Aberdeen, as well as receiving team sailing kit and having the chance to compete for the stunning Under 25 Trophy.

* CRUISERS: Following feedback from many cruiser owners, a single day of fun and relaxed racing has been introduced on the final Saturday of the regatta (10 August) for boats rated under the Island Sailing Club Rating System (ISCRS). The day’s racing will cost just £30 and will take place over a relatively short course with a late morning start. The aim is to enable cruisers to experience the fun of Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week within a very simple race format. Any cruisers wanting more than one day of more relaxed racing with like-minded skippers can join the ISCRS class on whichever days during the Week are convenient to them.

* BIG BOATS: The biggest and fastest boats arriving in Cowes to take part in the Rolex Fastnet Race will once again enjoy a special three-day series of racing. The ‘Big Boat Series’ (IRC certificate with a TCC of more than 1.400 and with an LOA of between 18.2m and 30.5m) is likely to include a race around the Island, a 40 mile passage race, and a race around the Solent marks.

To create awareness of the event among young people, the regatta hosts a junior art competition. There is cash prize for the winner’s club, their art is showcased at Cowes Week and the winning artist receives a VIP hospitality day for them and three guests at the regatta.

This will be the third year of Aberdeen Asset Management’s five year sponsorship of Cowes Week, and they have been instrumental in ensuring consistently high entry numbers. One of Aberdeen’s objectives as title sponsor is to improve access to the event for sailors, which they have done by working with Cowes Week Ltd to help reduce entry fees and costs. Additionally, Aberdeen entertains around 1,200 clients and employees during the event, thus benefiting the local community.

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