Cowes' royal connections brought about the start of leisure sailing as we know it...
The first races were hosted and organised by the Royal Yacht Club, later the Royal Yacht Squadron. The same traditions still prevail, but after the end of World War II, seven clubs and the town regatta committee have jointly organised the racing over eight or nine days. Today, representatives from each club form the Cowes Combined Clubs (CCC) committee which, with Director Stuart Quarrie and Chairman Peter Ralls, has the task of planning and running the regatta each year. Also traditional is the attendance of members of the Royal Family, and an extensive social programme organised by the various clubs and classes participating in the regatta.
It is thought that the small town of Cowes owes its reputation as a major yachting centre to the building of a small boat called Rat O’Wight on the banks of the river Medina (which runs through Cowes) for the use of Queen Elizabeth I. But that wasn’t the start of leisure sailing as we know it. The Dutch were the first to get the bug and Charles II was presented with a Dutch-built yacht, which he sailed on the Thames. It was not until 1820 when the Prince of Wales became King George IV, that his interest in yachting resulted in the Royal Yacht Squadron being formed 13 years later and the first racing took place at Cowes.
Until 1914 the big cutters and raters raced, while between the wars there were cruiser handicap and local one-design classes, although the 6-metres, 8-metres and 12-metres attracted the most racing interest. After 1946, when for a few years there was a revival of big yacht racing, ocean racing classes started to predominate, especially after the first Admiral’s Cup was competed in 1957 and the two ocean races that start and finish the week, the Channel and Fastnet races, began to gain in popularity. Because the Fastnet Race is held in odd-numbered years only, another offshore course is sailed in even years to attract ocean racers to the regatta.
With its Royal connections, the week has traditionally attracted the rich and famous, as well as a broader audience, given that the timing fits in with the quintessentially English summer social schedule of rowing, horse racing, tennis and sailing. For competitors, shoreside entertainment revolves around the various yacht clubs in Cowes that hold balls, parties and cocktail parties. For many sailors the Yacht Haven, at the heart of Cowes Week, has become and evening entertainment haunt, with live bands, large bars and a shopping area. The social traditions of Cowes go hand in hand with the racing and for those taking a break from hectic work, the evenings can be as attractive as the racing itself.