Dragons are the largest one-design fleet in Northern Europe, and at 75 years old are still going strong. Skandia Cowes Week hosts 31 of these classic dayboats

St Tropez was treated to what must be one of the most stirring sights in the world last year – 267 Dragons racing across the bay as the design celebrated its 75th anniversary. The fleet at Cowes isn’t quite that size, but with 31 entries they make an impressive spectacle battling for position in the Solent.

The classic lines of the Dragon draw a mix of sailors from across the world with 1,500 raced in Northern Europe alone, easily taking the title of largest European one-design fleet. Many of the modern examples come from Petticrow’s yard in Burnham-on-Crouch, run by Danish ex-patriate Poul-Richard Hoj-Jensen, twice Olympic Gold medallist in the Soling class.

Hoj-Jensen has been building Dragons at Petticrow’s for nearly 20 years, producing an astonishing 460 boats in that time. The demand shows little sign of dropping though – nearly 40 percent of the entry list for this year’s Skandia Cowes Week have been built since 2000, and the UK only holds 10 percent of the market. Hoj-Jensen, known to the fleet as ‘HoJo’, is sailing one of his latest builds during this week -Danish Blueleft the yard just three months ago.

Dragon sailors have one thing in common – experience. Many of them crewed Dragons earlier in their sailing career and are returning to an old love, while others see the classic one-design as a ‘grown-up’ boat, offering fierce competition between dedicated sailors with a high level of skill. One highly successful cruiser-racer skipper recently moved over to the Dragon fleet only to find himself struggling at the bottom – these guys are that good.

Results are far from a foregone conclusion in the Dragon fleet – Saturday’s race was won by Hoj-Jensen inDanish Blue, but a tactical error on Sunday pushed him back to an unaccustomed ninth place and left the field open to an upwind struggle between Graham Bailey’sAimeeand Gavia Wilkinson-Cox’sJerboa. Wilkinson-Cox finally took first place by a slender two seconds, but that kind of buzz can only be found in a one-design race. Strict rules have managed to keep the Dragon fleet clear of handicaps over 75 years – an well-maintained wooden hull has as much chance of first crossing the line as a modern Petticrow build. Bailey, who has just won today’s race, beating Hoj-Jensen by 50 seconds, described it as “Brutal racing. You have to accept the consequences of what happens when you race one-designs. This [Skandia Cowes Week] is a long week – the better boats will usually work to the top, but it can be a painful process.”

This uncertainty about final positions is one of the things that makes Dragon racing so exciting. Each crew has their strengths and weaknesses, and no-one will even attempt to predict a race outcome. Queried about his chances in this afternoon’s racing, Bailey commented: “HoJo’s is definitely the strongest boat, and if we get a 15-20 knot sea breeze he’s going to be hard to beat – he really is super-quick. On the other hand, with light conditions, local knowledge of the Solent really helps to win. That’s what wonJerboathe race yesterday – she’s got a great tactician on board and made some good decisions. Good for her.”

Gavia Wilkinson-Cox is certainly formidable opposition – she made a decision in 2003 to concentrate on her sailing, buyingJerboaand moving to Cowes to realise her dream. She has undertaken a punishing race programme with her regular crew Mark, and attributes much of her success this year to a winter’s sailing in Cannes.

She had lentJerboato one of her previous skippers to take to the 75th anniversary celebrations in St Tropez, and decided to keep the boat in Southern France over the winter. The result, she explained, was that “we had done 40 races our competitors hadn’t – we were able to start the season at full trot.” That’s not to say that she hasn’t had her setbacks however – in a criminal mystery at Cowes a fortnight ago someone set a RIB full of fuel cans at full tilt into the moorings, rammingJerboa’s transom and causing considerable structural damage. Luckily the RIB flipped and failed to explode, but it was only through some fast work from David Heritage Racing Yachts thatJerboawas able to compete at Cowes this year.

Dragons will be in the limelight of the British sailing scene next year, and Wilkinson-Cox is already planning. “I’ll be going back to Cannes in the winter to make sure we keep sailing, ready for the Edinburgh Cup and European Championship, both to be held in Cowes.” But despite her dedication, the sheer joy of Dragon sailing is for her, as others, enough. “I’m not someone who goes home and slashes my wrists if we don’t win. As long as we’ve done our best and sailed well, we’ve had a bloody good day on the water. Obviously we want to do well, but above all it’s fun. You can have a great time at any level in the Dragon fleet.”