It’s called a Regatta, but that’s an understatement if ever there was one, for this yachtfest is Cowes Week, the time of year when the inhabitants of the English town of Cowes on the Isle of Wight, rent out their houses, kennel the dogs and cats, and disappear. The ‘yachties’ are about to descend on the Island for what the glossy magazines call ‘the week of the year in the sailing calendar.’
Although the town will never again play host to the reigning monarchs of four countries as they did in 1909 when King Edward VII of England, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, the Tsar of Russia and the King of Spain visited with their yachts, there is consolation in the whiff of serious money that comes with today’s royally rich. Oil barons and City whizz kids crowd the pavements of the narrow streets and swig vintage champagne from bottles as they stagger from one party to the next. Old salts and wannabe ‘yachties’ dressed with impeccable regatta cred. stroll the narrow streets with polished brass telescopes under their arms, as the bemused local population looks on in wonderment.
During the Regatta, over 800 boats and around 9,000 crew members will descend on this small town in the south of England. Cowes is not just for international yachtsmen, however. Non-sailors also flock to the island to enjoy the atmosphere, to sit on the beach and gaze at the coloured spinnakers that dance on the waters, to join the pleasure boats that sail around the competitors, and to gawp at the great, glossy yachts of the world’s billionaires, anchored offshore. Nor is boating on the stretch of water that separates the Island from mainland England, the Solent, confined to just these few highlighted days in the year: the number of sailing clubs tucked away in every harbour and cove has led to the south coast being dubbed Marinaland.
For the visitors who decide to join in the spirit of Cowes Week, dressing to look the part is easy. Stalls line the pedestrianised streets during the eight days of the Regatta and are on hand to sell overpriced tee-shirts, navy sweaters sporting capstans and anchors, and peaked caps festooned with enough braid to satisfy a Ruritanian General. Blue and white are still the colours of choice, but wannabe sailors should beware of the striped matelot look much favoured by minor celebs.
The genuine articles are available in the somewhat old-fashioned local shops that make no effort to look stylish or enticing, favouring instead a turn of the century faux ‘ships chandlers on the quayside’ look as befits Queen Victoria’s island.
But Cowes Week is about more than dressing up. It is an exhilarating mix of world-class sailing, jazz, rock n’roll, and brass bands, clowns, unicyclists, and street theatre. For the people who want to take a break from watching the more than 200 races during the Regatta, there is constant entertainment in the Yacht Haven where there are food stalls, a huge beer tent, and music from live bands that play day and night.
‘The diamond in the Solent’ is how this 23×13-mile island has been described, not only because of its shape but because of its safe, sandy beaches, great pubs and restaurants and a range of resorts to beat anything Continental Europe has to offer. And with an excellent transport system, everything is within easy reach.
The beauty of the Island as a venue for sailing events is that there is so much to see and do away from the coast. There are a wealth of activities on offer and whether by car, bike, public transport or on foot over the miles of bridle paths and downland walks, the island is easy to explore. With ultra-fast catamarans and jet-propelled boats making the crossing to the mainland in 10 and 25 minutes respectively, if the need for a faster pace should arise, day trips can easily be made to places like Portsmouth, Brighton and the great cathedral cities of Winchester and Salisbury.
Away from the main yachting town, messing about in boats is best indulged on the six-mile stretch of sands at Ryde or the glorious crescent of golden beach between Sandown and Shanklin. In the classic villages of Bembridge and Seaview you will still see and hear the sights and sounds of long-forgotten English summers as children play cricket, tennis and deck quoits, for this is an island where families with children feel comfortable, where the swimming is safe and the beaches are clean. It boasts not one, but two, dinosaur museums (it’s not called Dinosaur Island for nothing and fossil hunts are a regular occurrence), Blackgang Chine claims to be the oldest theme park in the country, and there is a wonderful zoo at Sandown where rare tigers are bred and the cubs are a great hit with children.
The Island from the Sea at Sunset
The Isle of Wight has now firmly established its reputation as the venue for the premier pop Festival which takes place in June. It was the venue in 1970 for the first major pop festival in Europe when, for a few days, 600,000 young people with bells around their necks and flowers in their hair lived the dream of the dawning of Aquarius. They had dance-ins and love-ins to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, The Doors and just about every other rock and folk musician who could get to the Island. It is said that this was the final break with the influence of Queen Victoria who spent a large part of her life on the Island at her Osborne House home, from 1851 until she died in 1901.
Modernity is found in the indoor and outdoor swimming pools, fitness centres, surfing, canoeing and body-boarding at many beach venues. For the adventurous, there are hang-gliding schools, bungee jumping and flights in small ‘planes around the island. Half the island is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty and its 80 miles of trails and 60 miles of coastal paths are perfectly laid out for walkers. There are forests, downlands, medieval villages, valleys and shady creeks, and enough museums, Roman villas, castles and manor houses to keep culture vultures happy for weeks.
But if you come for the sailing and to mix with the ‘yachties’, if you want to be considered one of the sailing fraternity you should be wearing a team shirt – preferably one of last year’s. So, if you are thinking of coming back for the celebrations in 2019, make sure that you get hold of one of this year’s shirts.
And if you manage it right this week, if you manage to look the part, to walk the walk and talk the talk, you might get invited to one of the yacht clubs to watch the fireworks on the last night. But if not, you can watch them from the beach with the rest of the happy holidaymakers, join in the last night celebrations which may go on until the wee small hours or just sit it out in one of the great eateries on the Island. For despite its social cachet, this yearly celebration of England’s sea-faring heritage is for everyone.
Lendy Cowes Week 2018: August 4th – 11th. Official website: www.lendycowesweek.co.uk/