This edited article about Cowes Week originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 707 published on 2 August 1975.
The annual Cowes Week sailing regatta at the Isle of Wight traditionally brings to an end the odd mixture of sporting and social occasions called ‘the season’ which embraces horse-racing at Ascot, cricket at Lord’s, rowing at Henley and tennis at Wimbledon.
Held in the first week of August, just before the landed gentry of the old days took off for their ‘official’ holidays marked by the start of the grouse-shooting season on ‘the glorious twelfth’, Cowes regatta was once a very exclusive affair indeed. One of the big events, the day-long Round the Island race, involves up to 500 yachts and the captains of ocean-going liners, which normally dominate the Solent and Southampton water, have to watch what they are about when these hundreds of little boats put to sea.
Cowes yachting has been under royal patronage since the reign of George IV and next year celebrates 150 years of racing. Queen Victoria saw the finest British yachts of the day beaten by a lone rival from the United States, America, in 1851, in the first race for the trophy now known as the America’s Cup. This Cup has been in possession of the New York Yacht club ever since, retained by United States yachtsmen against all challengers for nearly 125 years.
Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII, made Cowes a part of the royal social as well as sporting calendar, and his son, George VI, a keen sailor, was an active patron.
In more recent years, both the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles have sailed their own boats in Gowes races, but the most notable and successful competitor has been Edward Heath, just as famous as skipper of his ocean-going yacht Morning Cloud in international races as he was as Prime Minister.
Mr Heath was a leading contender in the annual Admiral’s Cup series of international races, held in odd years during Cowes Week. This year, as usual, the three-boat national teams competing for the cup will provide the highlights of the Isle of Wight events, beginning with a 240-mile (384 km) race across the Channel from Southsea to Le Havre and back and ending with the dramatic 605 mile (968 km) Fastnet event, which takes at least two days and nights.
But while the big yachts are battling out these prestige races, the smaller fry are constantly in action off the island’s shores in over 150 races for innumerable classes of boats.
Cowes becomes a floating town on these occasions and from dawn until the mid-morning start of racing, the Medina river, centre of the activity, can hardly be seen between the hundreds of hulls and decks.
Yet it is only comparatively recently that yachting has become a popular participant-sport for the masses. The advent of plastic hulls and do-it-yourself boat-building kits for dinghy sailing has resulted in an enormous boom in the past 30 years and it is estimated that there are now well over 2 million week-end yachtsmen in Britain.
There are very many classes of sailing boats, and usually seven are used in the Olympic Games competition, ranging from single-handed craft to those requiring a helmsman and crews of two or three people.
In Olympic events, the one demanding the most skill and seamanship is usually thought to be the Finn class, a one-design single-handed dinghy, in which each helmsman gets along with identical equipment which he uses to the best of his ability.
In this class, it is a Dane, Paul Elvstroem, who has proved himself the world’s outstanding sailor. He won his first Olympic gold medal at the age of 20 and went on to repeat his success in Finns three times in succession – an unprecedented feat.
The former King Constantine of Greece was also a noted Olympic sailor, winning the Dragon Class in Naples Bay in the 1960 Games.
But it is a former Royal Navy officer, Lt. Rodney Pattisson, who has proved the best Briton in recent years. This dedicated sailor won European and world championships in the Flying Dutchman before winning an Olympic gold medal at Acapulco in the Mexican Games of 1968.
Four years later, he repeated the feat at Kiel in the 1972 Games and was so far ahead, having won four of the first six races, that he did not need to sail at all in the last race.
Pattisson had the essential flair for ‘tuning’ a boat to its maximum potential before a race, and his meticulous attention to the tiniest detail of preparation was admired but never quite emulated by his rivals.
His superiority at Kiel was so marked that French newspapers spread the malicious rumour that he carried illegal radio and radar equipment in his boat to receive mid-race weather reports and shifts of wind and tides from his on-shore team-manager.
Top competitive yachtsmen nowadays train for their events physically as thoroughly as any athlete, weight-lifter, gymnast or swimmer.
Several years ago, another Briton, unbeatable in his class at British level, turned down a possible chance to compete in the Olympics because, he said, privately, he had no intention of “having to get up every morning to do a three-mile training run.”
And he said that as he sat soaked to the skin in a yacht club house having been ditched in the sea three times, righted his overturned boat and climbed back aboard to stay in the lead in a race eventually abandoned because of a Force 8 gale.
To the uninitiated, the start of a yacht race often seems to be utter confusion.
But to the competitor, the minutes before the start, marked by the hoisting of flags and the firing of guns 10 minutes and five minutes before the official ‘off’, are the most crucial when he has to stay in a good position without crossing the line. And at the same time he has to comply with the various rules concerning the right of way which, if ignored, can mean disqualification.
For the yachtsman, however, there is nothing to equal the thrill of getting first across the line when the starting flags go down with nothing ahead but the open sea and the sky.
This article and image(s) are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.