BRITAIN at Cowes Week 2011

Intense racing, Red Arrow displays and live music marked the start of Cowes Week which kicked off on Saturday 6 August. BRITAIN joined over 1,000 competing boats and raced in the Extreme Sailing Series.

When I found out I had the chance to race on an Extreme 40 at Cowes Week, I was thrilled. It wasn’t until I saw a photo of one of these forty-foot catamarans careening along at what I’m sure was breakneck pace, with one of its two hulls a ludicrous distance above the water, that I became slightly apprehensive. Reservations aside, on Saturday 6 August I was Cowes-bound and jetting across Solent waters, ready to immerse myself in the festivities of Cowes Week, watch some racing, and, of course, get involved in the action of the Extreme Sailing Series.
A busy shoreline at Cowes 2011
I would be taking the ultimate tourist perch from the coveted ‘fifth man’ position on board The Wave, Muscat, a boat crewed by four international and Olympic sailors. After taking in a bit of the Cowes Week atmosphere, the afternoon suddenly picked up pace. I suddenly found myself clad head to toe in waterproofs, being whisked out to the boat, exchanging brief but friendly introductions with the crew, and being told to, “follow Nick – except for when we’re going downwind, then don’t. And when we say to go back, go back, and same to the front.” As I recall them now, the directions seem relatively straightforward, and yet somehow, at the time, they bore definite Greek undertones.

The shoreline at Cowes Week on Saturday 6 August
Five minutes later, we were racing. My main job was to scramble back and forth on the mesh netting between the two hulls at roughly the same time the crew did, to duck low enough to dodge the boom, and to avoid being on the bottom side when everyone else was up in the air. Before I knew it the race was over, I was unexpectedly exhausted, and had a cocktail of adrenalin and endorphins coursing through my veins. Then I was plucked out of the boat and the crew went out to do the same thing another five times, as they would over the seven days of Cowes Week.*

While not everyone will be lucky enough to race on board an Extreme 40, I can highly recommend watching the Extreme Sailing Series from the shore. As former Olympian and skipper of The Wave, Muscat Leigh McMillan explains, “The racing’s right next to the shore. It’s very short, very close [and] we’ve got the commentary, so there’s a better
understanding [of] what’s happening”.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in sailing a keelboat in next year’s Cowes Week, there’s no better time to get inspired than the next five days. This year’s 1,000 keelboats break down into 40 classes, with boats ranging from cutting edge hi-tech machines to classic day boats. Likewise, abilities range from amateur to Olympic and world class, which provides an incredibly unique racing environment. If you’re keen to get on board a boat but don’t have your own, you’ll need to keep an eye on the Cowes Week Crew Forum to locate boats looking for crew.

Crowds gather for the 185th annual Cowes Week

Finally, if you’re happy to sit back and enjoy the sailing from the shore, you’ll have more than enough to keep you busy. Each year, over 100 000 spectators flock to Cowes to watch the racing, enjoy the live music, witness the Red Arrow displays and, this year, to take in the world’s first Sail-In Cinema. Once you’ve factored in the smorgasbord of street theatre, restaurants, bars, performers, vendors and fireworks which bring Cowes to life each year in early August, you won’t even have time for a trip on board a giant catamaran.

*Due to 20 knot winds, the crew only raced four times on Saturday.