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Horseplayers have their Churchill Downs, golfers their Augusta. To yachtsmen the name that matters is Cowes, home port of Britain's Royal Yacht Squadron. Each year in August, the Royal and other Cowes clubs play host to the world in a week-long round of sailing and socializing that is the pinnacle of the yachting year. This month stay-at-home U.S. yachtsmen will attempt to match the Cowes Regatta with one of their own off Block Island. This is certain in time to become a great annual event, but it is equally certain that no other regatta will ever replace the Cowes that Photographer Gerry Cranham has depicted on the following pages.
IT BURST UPON US LIKE A STAR SHELL
The first time I sailed into Cowes was at the wheel of my yawl, Caribbee, after the finish of the Transatlantic Race in 1952. A cold drizzle fell from low, gray scud, peppering the gray caps of the Solent and finding its way through chinks in our worn oilskins. Over the bow the town looked gray, too, and it was dominated by a gloomy, squat, stone building which I recognized by the white ensign snapping from its flagstaff as The Castle of the Royal Yacht Squadron.
It was not a very auspicious introduction for a boat and crew that had sailed 3,000 miles with participation in Cowes Week as a major goal. We anchored in swirling tide, sitting on the rail like slightly damp gulls, and thought longingly of our native habitat. Just about then I began to discover that a normal English summer would be considered a national yachting disaster on our side of the Atlantic. But that was before The Week started.
A few days later, it burst upon us like a many-streamered star shell. We found ourselves in a round of parties by night and fierce competitive sailing by day. I discovered that the real lure of The Week is its combination of many facets, so oddly at variance with each other. Cowes is tradition, it is pageantry, it is glamour, it is spectator sport and participant sport, it is hospitality; it is discomfort, it is British snobbery and the stiff upper lip with a dash of Coney Island as seasoning. It also provides the damnedest challenge to skippers, navigators and crews that I, as a racing sailor, have ever encountered anywhere.
To protect Cowes, Henry VIII long ago built a small fortress where the Medina River flows into the Solent. The Royal Yacht Squadron, which was founded by a group of seagoing bluebloods about the time of Waterloo, took this castle over as a clubhouse in 1856, and it still stands at the center of The Week's activities. Yet of the multitude that fills the town to overflowing for these few days each year, only a fraction enters the sacred portals. Its snobbery was perhaps best epitomized by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who once said of his cousin and fellow Squadron member, King Edward VII of England, "He's off sailing with his grocer," the grocer being Sir Thomas Lipton, who dangled his Shamrocks offshore for many years before being admitted to the inner sanctum of The Castle.
During the Victorian era The Week was a showplace for huge yachts sailed by professional crews, but nowadays Cowes is peopled by a rugged, hard-driving group of small-boat sailors. Royalty is still represented by the Duke of Edinburgh, who sometimes includes Prince Charles in his crew, but the princes take their lumps with the rest of the fleet. And although The Squadron Lawn still boasts, in the words of American Yachtsman Bunny Rigg, some "Victorian relics in flat caps and moth-eaten uniforms peering through cobwebbed spyglasses, just like a Mary Petty drawing," many Squadron members now are out battling the elements.
Cowes Week falls at a time when the English summer traditionally "breaks." and there is almost sure to be a raging gale before the week is out. Capsizings and sinkings are common among the smaller classes, blown sails and dismastings among the larger, adding to the excitement of the gallery. For in England yachting is a spectator sport, and many boat watchers, clutching binoculars and brass spyglasses, come crowding into town during The Week. Races start and finish off The Castle, close in, to allow common folk massed along the waterfront a good look, and courses are laid out to keep the fleet in sight as much as possible. The Solent does its part by providing the trickiest watery stage in the world. Tides surge in and out of the English Channel with jet-stream force. My initial experience was at the helm of Caribbee, when I found 30-odd tons of yawl being set bodily to windward, running down a moored dinghy and almost being dismasted under the bow of an anchored man-of-war before I realized what was happening.
Add a checkerboard of sandbars, shoals and rocks to swirling currents and wind-against-the-tide seas, and yachting on the Solent becomes something of a hurdle race. But there are also large ships darting across the course, since the Solent forms the approach to Southampton, one of England's busiest seaports, and to Portsmouth, a major base of the Royal Navy. Finally, as floating contrivances from dinghies to ocean racers to 12-meters are going round the buoys at the same time, there are some monumental traffic jams. The Yachting World Annual noted in '62 with fine understatement: "The changes in the wind unfortunately caused considerable bunching at some of the marks and different classes became mixed."
Besides the Royal Yacht Squadron, races are conducted by the Royal Southampton, the Royal Thames, the Royal London, the Royal Southern, the Royal Corinthian yacht clubs and the Island Sailing Club. When the sails come down there is an equally busy social schedule. Drinking extends from tea on the lawn of The Castle to ale at the bar of the Island Sailing Club, with pink gins at every stop between. Evenings there are dinner parties and balls, so glittering ladies frequently step from a peanut-size pram dinghy into a waiting Rolls-Royce.