Cowes Week 2009 – According to the Laser SB3 Fleet

What is the point of Cowes?  There are no windward / leeward courses, only 7 races in a week and the racing quality can be...well...patchy, maybe?

And yet...Cowes is one of the World’s great regattas, high up on any racing sailor’s ‘must do’ list. The razzmatazz and buzz of the High Street, the pomp and splendour of the Squadron, those East Cowes girls, the rock bands, the parties.  Stand outside the Pier View for 5 minutes and you can be guaranteed to bump into old friends from earlier days, sailing gods and more then a few SB3 mates past and present. Down at Sheperds, where the SB3s hang out, we have our own private little marina, probably the longest bar in the world, a nightclub and even a daily spit roast.

But it’s the racing that puts Cowes so high up the global sailing racing wish list. It’s seriously on another level, kind of like play station but on difficulty 103. First of all there is the getting of the course, this will consist of typically 9 or 10 two digit code letters that you have to convert into actual racing marks and then locate on a Solent chart. But it’s not released until the 5 minute gun – either by a text message or by the display of weird coloured symbols on a board that you can’t read from more than 30 m – and the line is about half a mile long. The line itself is always skewed – so you have reaching starts, downwind starts and very occasionally a boring old windward start. The PRO, resplendent in his RYS blazer and tie, will admonish the fleet for recalls over the radio in those plumy tones redolent of 1920s BBC radio broadcasts.

Anyway, once off – there is the 66 boat fleet to deal with and the first mark to find. Almost certainly its way way over the horizon and the best you will get from your navigator is to ‘head for Portsmouth’. Next comes the tides – they are ferociously strong but wholly inconsistent. They will run one way and the opposite direction a few boat lengths away. Get it wrong and you don’t bounce off an inflatable mark – you clang into a giant rusty buoy leaving indelible green / red streaks down your topsides – a sort of Cowes Week badge of honour.

And then... the 600 other racing yachts, often all seeming to head for your course or cross you at right angles when you are planing along just on the edge of broaching... or the giant super tanker or cruise liner that hoves into view just when you think the race is in the bag. Or the flukey winds. Having mastered all that – there is still the desperate ‘Norris Nadgers’ that have been know to make a grown man weep. They sit a mere 100m from the finish line, with their own mini climactic zone with winds destined to convert that hard won podium place into 20 places lost. So – to say it’s testing is an understatement – Cowes Week is one of the supreme challenges of sailing.

So what exactly did happen?

Saturday was a typical British summer day, lashing with rain, grey cold seas and 20 knots or so. The second leg looked like a broad spinnaker reach but turned into an arm wrestling contest for the trimmers – a tight tight reach that went on for miles. Roger Hudson’s young SA team in Spirit of Cape Town prevailed, ahead of Geoff Carveth (bidding to win his first Cowes Week) and Jerry Hill in third.

On Sunday Messrs Carveth and Hill built up a big lead – but then Cowes posted its usual left field challenge. Amendment 4 of the SIs – which had been printed on a slip of paper and hidden somewhere in the registration pack between cosmetics and clothing freebie leaflets – announced a mark change. And so all but 11 SBs sailed off in the wrong direction. The canny ones who had picked up the change included Neilson Shark Bite – who won, Pelican Racing 10 in second and eDigital Research in third. As, as you can image, there were heated discussions and a record protest against some 50 odd boats. But at Cowes – results are results and the wrong coursers were DSQed.

After all the debate – Monday provided a more satisfactory race, and World Champions Carveth and co made their mark – winning ahead of Guy Jackson’s fresh faced team of Solent Uni students and Andy Oddie’s ‘In your Pocket’, before the fleet headed out for Katie’s cocktails.

The first three days had provided some good racing in 10 – 15 knots but on Tuesday the wind blew. And did it blow! Gusting 30 knots in some parts of the Solent, the SB3s had a roistering day with great planing and over powered beats. Carveth in Pro – Vela.com dominated with The South Africans second and Jerry Hill third after Darling Associates had taken a time penalty.

Many thought the wind had settled in for the week, but Wednesday became one of these Cowes marathons – a 6 hour race with black flag start, 360 degree wind shifts, a prolonged calm period, full tidal cycle and a giant container ship to contend with. An early casualty were the 3 Sad Old Blokes. Sad they certainly were, as they got the time wrong resulting in an accidental black flagging that ruled them out of a podium place. Pro – vela .com won again, ahead of the tenacious Darlings and Dave Hudson’s City of Cape Town in third. The after sail party was a little tense being affected by heated debates about weed sticks, but a few beers and handshakes settled matters out of court.

Stars of Thursday were the crew of Finitor 7 – so engrossed were they in pre start course finding, that they forgot to remove their outboard. A few hours later, we were through those Norris Nadgers and Colin Simmonds had won on the water, but was alas OCS: leaving City of Cape Town to win, 3 Sad Old Blokes and the Darlings in third.

Friday’s last race saw any one of 4 boats being able to win. Carveth had a significant points advantage but was carrying the retirement from the wrong mark episode. Darling Associates had posted a consistent set of top 10 results and had the two South African boats hard on their heels. The Squadron, who know about these things, had decided the wind would shift 30 degrees and set a course accordingly. But the shift never came leaving a rather tame reaching course. The banning of the weed sticks had produced some interesting de-weeding techniques. Best of all was Sarah Allan’s downward plunge into the Solent with legs akimbo around the rudder. The South African head first lowering of their bow man was equally impressive.

The 3 SOBs went out in a blaze of glory winning ahead of the Simmonds team (who had somehow managed to sail with 14 family members over the week) and with I14 Champion Martyn Jones in third.

At the end The Pro-Vela.com team prevailed giving Geoff Carveth his first Cowes Week, followed by Darling Associates – whose navigator Alastair-the human gps- has completed 38 consecutive Cowes Weeks and the young RSA team led by helmed by Tariq Jacobs and managed by Roger Hudson.

And so...on to Cascais where the entry closing date has just been extended... be there, according to reports from the “Brits Abroad” at the Portuguese Nationals, it REALLY will be worth the road trip! Bring it on!

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