David Pugh finds an excellent social scene, seaworthy cruising boats and big-grin racing

After watching the honed streaks of carbon fibre that habitually haunt Skandia Cowes Week, it’s easy to write off the some of the more traditional boats as the ‘slow’ fleets. Compared with the raw power of the IRC Class 0 fleet perhaps they are slow, but that’s no barrier to having an adrenalin packed race, as I found yesterday.

Despite the huge numbers of Contessa 32s in the Solent area, only about 25 regularly race. Class captain Robin Holland described the way the fleet works as: “Primarily we’re 500 people who enjoy each other’s company, secondly we all own one of the most famous boats in the world, and finally there are 25 maniacs who go racing every weekend.”

One of the latest additions to the Contessa maniacs is Richard Clark, who raced his first Skandia Cowes Week in his boatCarolinalast year. I joined Richard three hours later than originally planned thanks to yesterday’s race postponement, and found her crew impatient and ready to go. “There isn’t anything much that I wouldn’t take one of these boats out into,” Clark said. “We’d definitely have raced in that wind.”

As we headed out into the remains of the chop generated by the morning’s fresh northerlys,Carolinabegan to live up to the design’s reputation as a wet boat, but with such low freeboard the feeling of speed was immediately apparent as we began to pile on sail. After taking a good look at the start and choosing an appropriate sailplan, we joined the throng milling around ready to start, when a 10 minute postponment was announced. The reason was obvious – carving through the fleet in a welter of spray and towering sails cameICAP Maximusas she crossed the line to smash the monohull speed record for sailing around the island.

Delays over, we began the race on a fast reach, breathing hot on the tail of this week’s favourite to win.Blancohas been owned by the Rouse and Vanner families for two generations, and given her impeccable race form Richard decided that his best option was to track her. “If you’re racing against the boats at the top of the fleet, it gives you a high target to match your boatspeed to,” he explained. “Lower down the fleet you tend to be satisfied with less.”

Less was not an option forCarolina, who had so far hovered around fifth place in the 14 yachts racing in the class this Cowes Week – most of the others have opted to sail to Fowey in time for the Royal Regatta. In charge of the crew was David Feltham, who in conjunction with the bowman James Marlow made continual calls on sail trim, boat balance and best course through the fleet. Lapses of concentration are not an option.

Despite starting a little to leeward ofBlancoand the other lead boats, we kept up well during the race, even gaining a little onBlancowhen she chose to tack in order to peel to her No.1 genoa as the wind faded, and Feltham’s calls on mark roundings were consistently good. Not everything was perfect and at one point we dropped to sixth place, but regained it asATVstruggled rounding the penultimate mark. As we bore off around the final mark for a reaching finish, we held onto the spinnaker to haul in the distance between ourselves and the boat ahead,Blue Shark, nearly catching her to finish less than a minute behind. Then it was back to UKSA’s ‘Contessa City’ for a few beers between crews, all enmity forgotten.

Racing Contessas requires just as much concentration as any other fleet in Cowes and the competition is just as strong. If you’re looking for a class with an excellent social life and seaworthy cruising boats which can still send you in from a race with a big grin, look no further.