Cowes week is the largest and most prestigious sailing regatta in the UK. Beginning way back in 1826, the yachting race has been held every August on the body of water separating the UK from the Isle of Wight – named the Solent. The race is based on the Isle of Wight itself, in the town of Cowes. Cowes week brings yachting and boat enthusiasts from all over the world for an 8 or 9 day long sailing event and party. An average of over 35 different boat races take place on each day.
The yacht races at Cowes Week encompass boats big and small, among scores of different categories. Accompanying the sailing action is a week long celebration of fireworks, parties, grand balls, outdoor marquees and restaurants catering to every taste and drawing spectators in by the thousand.
For everything you need to know about Cowes Week sailing regatta, read on. We have all the info right here!
The History of Cowes Week
Sailing became a popular sport in the UK during the reign of King George IV. His personal interest in what was a gentleman’s pursuit resulted in the formation of the Royal Yacht Club, which oversaw the first ever race in Cowes. The first race began at 9:30am on the 10th of August, 1826. The King put forward a golden cup worth the royal sum of £100. Thus began the Cowes week tradition which has followed the same principles, virtually unbroken, right up to today.
In the 1800s yachting was the preserve of rich gentlemen who hired a crew and skipper and raced big cutters. It was only after World War II that yacht racing began to lose some of its elite prestige and became accessible to a wider section of the populace. Smaller yachts of around 40 feet that could be skippered alone became popular and sailing really took off. Since 1946, Cowes week has been run by a committee from the town of Cowes, along with one representative from each of the UK’s Yachting Clubs.
Among the big prizes at Cowes week is the Queen’s Cup. It was first presented in 1897 by Queen Victoria, in the year of her Golden Jubilee, and won by the Latana, the biggest boat in the race weighing in at a massive 165 tonnes. After the turn of the 20th Century the cup strangely disappeared and was never seen again until Captain Jones discovered it in a junk shop in 1937! Today the cup is awarded to the class O winner of the race which takes place on the first Saturday of Cowes Week.
These days a standard Cowes Week sees some 900 boats competing in 35 different starts a day. Add to this another 200 to 300 boats spectating and you can imagine the bustling scenario on the waters of the Solent. Cowes Week forms a crucial part of the traditional UK social calender.
In the evenings the sleepy town of Cowes is transformed into a week long carnival, with live music, food plus public and private parties for everyone. As with many traditional sporting events, there is a strong elite element to the Cowes Week party-going and it is traditional to have some members of the British Royal Family in attendance. Aside from this, Cowes week attracts literally thousands of visitors each year and the event is organised to provide excitement and entertainment for everyone.
Cowes Week Rules and Regulations
Boat races in Cowes week are separated into two classes:
- The White group which caters for the smaller, open, day sailing sport boats.
- The Black group which is the category for large boats that usually have cabins.
All racing boats have a rating and Cowes uses two different rating systems to judge the races, all of which can be studied in detail on the Royal Ocean Racing Club home page.
- SBR is a ratings system designed for small sports boats. There are many different ratings to reflect the many types of boat design. While there are SBR classes which encompass a number of designs, some sport yachts may need their own individual rating.
- IRC is an international rating system designed for classifying larger boats. The exact workings of the ratings system is governed by a secret formula, tightly guarded to prevent competitor exploitation of the variables. Cowes week uses 10 different IRC ratings from class 0 to 9. Class 9 is the smallest while class 0 was first introduced in 2007 to categorise super fast racers over 14 metres in length.
The yacht racing courses are freshly designed on each day. Tidal movements, the weather and the speed of the yachts to be racing all have to be taken into consideration. Races usually begin at the Royal Yacht Squadron line, follow a course demarcated by markers (known as cans) and finish either back on the same line (for the Black Group), or on the Skandia barge line (for the White Group). The exact details of each race are broadcast over VHF (Very High Frequency) radio and sent via mobile phones to registered competitors.
If you wish to enter Cowes Week as a competitor, you can register online at the Cowes Week official website.
How to get the most out of Cowes Week
If you are planning to visit Cowes Week for the first time we have some handy hints and tips to make sure you get the most out of your visit.
- Watch the action from the shore side at the Green right in front of the Esplanade.
- Catch the start of the sailing regattas, usually at around 10:00am. A great place to watch the starting action is from between the castle of the RYS (Royal Yacht Squadron) and the cannons. You might want to wear ear plugs!
- Tune in to Cowes Radio as they do an excellent job of covering the event each year. Coverage is live and available on any FM radio.
- Know the wind direction as this will affect the best viewing spot. If it is easterly, watch from Cowes parade and if it is westerly, position yourself on the grass or the sand at the Green.
- Enjoy the shore side once the yacht race has started as you will not be able to see much of the ensuing action.
- Catch the finale at around 4:30 pm the regattas are usually coming in to the finishing line so get back to the Royal Yacht Squadron to cheer them in.
- Get on a spectator boat, these can be booked from June onwards and are a great way to enjoy the race as up close as it gets (without actually being a competitor). You can book on arrival in Cowes but this will be on a first come first served basis.
- Dress sensibly. Remember this is still the UK we’re talking about so be prepared for changeable weather. Carry a light waterproof jacket with you even if it’s sunny and clear in the morning.
How to get to Cowes Week
Cowes is located on the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. There are a number of ways to get there from nearby towns on the English mainland and these places are all within easy rail, bus or air travel from London.
Getting there by Air
The two major airports nearest to the Isle of Wight are Eastleigh Airport in Southampton or Hurn Airport in Bournemouth. You can fly to both of these from London Airports. You will then need to take a ferry to the Isle of Wight (see below) There is also a Heliport installed in Cowes especially for Cowes Week.
Getting there by train
By far the easiest thing to do is take a train from London Waterloo to Southampton. You can then take a direct ferry straight to Cowes (details below).
To Cowes from Southampton
The quickest way to Cowes Week from the UK mainland is the direct ferry running to Cowes from the city of Southampton. Check out the ferry timetable at the Red Funnel website. You will need to book a place on the vehicle ferry if you plan to take your car to Cowes (not advised) but as a foot passenger on the Red Jet ferry it is generally not required to book in advance.
Other Ferries to the Isle of Wight from Portsmouth
Yarmouth is another port on the Isle of Wight. Passenger ferries run from Lymington to Yarmouth. Alternatively you can catch a ferry from Portsmouth to Fishbourne or Portsmouth to Ryde (no cars). You can see details of all these services at Wightlink Ferries homepage.
Where to stay at Cowes Week
Accommodation is in limited supply and goes at premium rates during Cowes Week. We strongly advise booking in advance. Here are a few useful numbers of Cowes Week Accommodation agencies to get you started.
A Base Ashore
Windrush, Baring Road,
Cowes IW PO31 8DS
Tel: +44 (0)1983 281891
Mob: +44 (0)7809 299874
Cowes Accommodation Agency
3 Park School Cottages, Beaulieu,
Hampshire S042 7XF
Tel: +44 (0)1590 616 216
Fax: +44 (0)1590 616 216
Wight Accommodation Hotline
Tel: +44 (0)1983 813 813
Fax: +44 (0)1983 823 022