Beginning on the first Saturday in August and ending before the Glorious Twelfth, the first day of grouse season, Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight has been the most British, and most opulent event in sailing since 1826. Now horribly dubbed the Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week, the world's largest regatta attracts royalty, yachties, professionals, and racing hopefuls to the waters of the Solent, the strait that separates mainland England from the Isle of Wight.
The regatta has grown enormously since 1826. This year, more than 1,000 boats are set to race in up to 40 different handicapped, one-design, and multihull classes every day for eight days. The mixture of classic and ultramodern boat design is unique to the event. Several classes that raced more than 50 years ago are still racing today: Dragons, Flying Fifteens, Redwings, Sea View Mermaids, Solent Sunbeams, Swallows, Victories, and XODs (X One Designs). New classes are also introduced as they increase in popularity.
All the yacht clubs in the area pool their resources to make Cowes Week happen, but the granddaddy of them all – Royal Yacht Squadron (which organized the first Cowes regatta) – has its headquarters in a castle dating back to Henry VIII. The members-only club is decked out with paintings of yachts and portraits of famous Squadron members (lots of kings). Every room has a notebook listing the artifacts in the room ranging from a footstool that once belonged to George IV to the small painting of Napoleon stuck in a corner.
The Royal Yacht Squadron is never open to the public nor does it offer membership to women (although that is up for a vote at the next members meeting). This proved problematic when Queen Victoria – who lived a stone's throw down the island at Osborne House – wanted to visit the place where her son (Edward VII) spent so much of his time. The Squadron created a makeshift room off the back steps by throwing up a corrugated iron roof and then invited the Queen to tea. This room, now glassed in on three sides sans the iron roof, is known as The Platform. This may be the most exclusive room in all of England, but it doesn't have the best view of the race.
Just a bit east from Cowes is the lovely Victorian-era village of Seaview, home of the Sea View Yacht Club – founded in 1893. Secretary Jamie Nimmo describes Sea View as the home of the spinnaker, which was first used on a yacht named Sphinx and called the sphinxter, a name that may have changed either through phonetic evolution or because it sounded naughty. The yacht club's bar is the ideal place to grab a drink before finding a view of the races and, ideally, a member to talk to you about racing history.
If you can't make Cowes Week, you'll have to wait a year and shoot for the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round The Island Race, which takes place in June. The course? Counterclockwise around the island. Last year 1,459 boats entered the 50-nautical-mile race, arriving at the finish between 3 hours and 43 minutes and 15 hours and 1 minute later.
More information: Cowes Week 2013 will run from August 3 to August 10. Race enthusiasts who want to get a bit closer to the action can climb aboard the spectator boats that leave from the mainland three times a day.