Sailing with the Royals

By Lew Toulmin

by Lew Toulmin

Where can you wake up to a 21-gun salute, sail with some of the world’s best yachtsmen, watch exciting yacht races just offshore, visit the summer palace of Queen Victoria, attend a nautical evening church service with the Duke of Edinburgh and pub crawl and party late into the night? Only one place: Cowes!

For 51 weeks of the year, Cowes is a quiet, yachty town of 19,000 on the north side of the Isle of Wight, just off the south coast of Britain. But during the eight days of Cowes Week, the town is inundated with 1,000 racing yachts, 200 spectator boats, 8,000 enthusiastic yachtsmen and tens of thousands of spectators. It is the biggest participatory sailing event on Earth, and it pulls in sailors, cruisers and people interested in nautical affairs from all over the world. In 2005, Cowes Week will run from Saturday, July 30, through Saturday, Aug. 6.

The town of Cowes probably got its name from a herd of cows that used to graze above the village in medieval times. Cowes Week traces its origins to the early 1800s, when wealthy, aristocratic Londoners began to holiday on the Isle of Wight. At first they amused themselves by betting on informal races between fast local revenue cutters, smuggling luggers and pilot boats. By 1815, however, these holiday makers began building their own vessels and formed a yacht club. In 1817 the Prince Regent joined, and soon the club was given the title of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

The squadron became a sort of informal reserve for the Royal Navy, and by the mid-1800s it boasted dozens of large vessels mounting a total of more than 400 cannon. Flogging was practiced on many of these vessels — remember that the next time your crew at sea or on shore rebels! On one occasion, two RYS yachts collided during a race, and their military-style crews proceeded to board and attack each other’s boats with cutlasses and axes.

From this quasi-military background, Cowes Week has evolved into a civilian mega-event sponsored by the Royal Yacht Squadron and nine other local yacht clubs. These clubs are organized into the Cowes Combined Clubs, and the event is sponsored by Skandia (a British financial services firm) and other corporations.

What to expect

The heart of the event is the racing, which takes place every day in over 40 sailboat classes. These one-design or open classes include vessels ranging from 19 to 65 feet or more in length overall.

Beginning at 10:30 a.m., races start every five minutes from a start line extending out from the RYS clubhouse, a small castle built by Henry VIII in 1538. Most classes finish at the castle three to five hours later, and there is usually a leg that runs right along the shore so spectators have a great view of the action. Classes can be sent around any of 900 predesignated, computer-designed courses in the historic Solent, the 3-mile-wide, protected body of water between the Isle of Wight and England.

Events which take place during Cowes Week usually include the following:

• Tours of visiting Royal Navy vessels. I saw HMS Glamorgan, a tough destroyer that survived a direct hit by an Exocet missile during the Falklands War.

• Visits by royal yachts and mega-motor yachts of the rich and famous. The Royal Yacht Britannia used to attend each year before she was retired to Scotland. But the Royals still come, often visiting aboard private mega-yachts and sometimes participating in the racing. Anne, the Princess Royal; Prince Edward, and ex-king Constantine of Greece usually are keen racers.

• Evening church services, with the lesson read by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Admiral of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

• A huge, 35-minute fireworks display.

• Balls given every night by the 10 participating yacht clubs. Some of these balls are open to the public or to visiting yachtsmen with reciprocal club memberships.

• Extensive pub crawling and partying aboard the rafted-up yachts.

• Visits to Osbourne House, Queen Victoria’s huge palace overlooking the Solent; this is open to the public.

• 21-gun royal salutes fired from the RYS battlements. Twenty-one brass cannons are used for the salutes and for starting the racing classes. The 3-foot-long cannons were taken off the “miniature” yacht Royal Adelaide, built for the children of King William IV.

While chartering or sailing during Cowes Week can be quite fun, the local conditions are very challenging. The four tides per day may rise up to 13 feet; tidal currents can run up to four or five knots; winds can vary from a flat calm to 40 knots in a few hours; temperatures can range from 45°F at night to 80° during the day, and, of course, the English weather can change from glorious to a drizzle to pouring rain and back to glorious in a few minutes.

Join in the fun

If you want to participate, a good way is to go through the individual sailing classes. These are listed on the Cowes Combined Club website, www.skandiacowesweek., under “news and info – results archive – 2004 – class results.” Use this page to “select a class” that is participating at Cowes and is familiar or appealing. Then locate the class secretary via Google or on the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) website, The RYA usually provides the class secretary’s contact information, and you can approach this official for possible open berths. You can also see the “forums – crewsearch” section on the website. Or you can just show up and haunt the docks of Cowes for berths.

For novice racers, a class like the Contessa 32, Sigma 33 or Prima 38 might be appropriate, since these have keels (less tippy) and larger crews (so your individual skills are not so critical as on a very small vessel).

If you want to charter a spectator boat, see “forums – boats and RIBs (rigid inflatable boats)” at www.skandia For spectators who just want a place to stay and watch on shore, see the list provided on this site under “shoreside – places to stay.”

Cruise ship voyages which could tie into Cowes Week include Queen Mary 2 from New York to Southampton, July 17-23, or round trip from Southampton to Rome, Aug. 15-27; Queen Elizabeth 2, round trip from Southampton to the Mediterranean, July 18-30; Sea Princess, round trip from Southampton to Iceland and Norway, July 9-23, and Constellation, round trip from Dover to Norway, July 16-30.

When I paricipated in Cowes Week in the late 1990s, the most amazing event I saw was a hotly contested race of 50-foot ocean racers. The class started at the RYS castle and dashed out to the Needles at the western end of the Isle of Wight. The leg on the way back took the class right along the waterfront, where I was watching intently. (The water is very deep just offshore, allowing even deep-draft vessels to sail close by.)

The racing yachts sailed by only a few yards away, just barely under control in the 30-knot winds. A wise spectator muttered, “Those lads had better take down their spinnakers or there’ll be trouble soon.”

Just then a blast of wind split one of the spinnakers and the yacht rounded up, out of control. She was instantly rammed by another yacht which had been following close behind. Water poured in and the first yacht sank in about 30 seconds, about 100 feet from me.

Luckily, no one was hurt, but the bank balance of the owner was a bit damaged, since it cost over £20,000 to raise the boat from the 60-foot bottom!