Wight Life

Cowes - Sacred and Profane

by Neville Braybrooke

Picture of Cowes

HOIST THE SPINNAKER ...' 'Watch his port tack ...' 'Tighten that sheet ...' All through the summer Cowes has been preparing for its 160th Annual Regatta, which began on the last Saturday of July. For Cowes has long been recognised throughout the world as the capital of yachtsmen.

It was here during the Regency that salt-water racing first began. True, there are records of races held on the Solent in the mid-18th century, but it was not until the Prince Regent had patronized the sport that it gained, in the Islanders' minds, a royal seal of approval. So not surprisingly, as soon as he became king, the local Yacht Club was renamed the Royal Yacht Club. Then after his death, by order of William IV, its name was changed to the Royal Yacht Squadron. Today any member of the Squadron owning a yacht of more than seven tons is entitled to fly a White Ensign.

The Squadron's home is West Cowes Castle. It is one of the town's first landmarks that you can pick out from the water. Incorporated in the castle is one of the forts which Henry VIII had built to protect the Island. The other, at East Cowes, has fallen into ruin — and is much harder to spot.

These forts in the early chronicles of Wight it is said 'will cow any Spanishe or French enemie': hence the derivation of the town's name.

On the bastion in front of the Squadron there are twenty-two brass cannons taken from HMS Adelaide. (A few years ago one was stolen but has since been replaced.) They are used to start the big races and fire Royal Salutes. The main D-day operations in 1945 were planned from here, and I can remember when the Solent, just before the invasion, was solid with landing-craft. It is just as packed during Regatta Week. For this is one of the few places where during Regatta Week you can see a water traffic-jam. In the early evening, trying to find a dinghy or launch to take you out to a party on a cabin-cruiser or yacht can be as hard as trying to find a taxi in the rush-hour.

The Squadron is only one of the many clubs taking part in the Regatta. But by a long chalk it is the most exclusive. The story of how Sir Thomas Lipton was refused membership because he had made his money in trade has been told scores of time. What is perhaps not so well-known is that his sponsor was none other than Edward VII.

Before I lived in Cowes, I had the impression from books that the golden days were all pre-1914. Now I know better. Sacred Cowes is a phrase that can be said in two tones of voice: it can be said in a measured hush, as if one were in church — or it can be said with an intent to 'knock' —sacred Cowes! I suspect that the tone of hushed reverence grew because for a long time yachting was believed to be the pastime of kings and millionaires. Certainly, had you looked out on the harbour sixty years ago you would have found four reigning monarchs in their yachts — The Tsar, the Kaiser, the King of Spain and Edward VII.

Cowes Regatta, of course, still remains an occasion — even if no longer quite on the Edwardian scale. The Britannia rides at anchor flanked by the warships of various nations; millionaires from Newport Sound, in Massachusetts, sail over to compete for the different cups, and newsagents increase their orders for copies of the Financial Times. Yet if you look at the Cowes waterfront today and compare it with the pre-1914 scene, one of the great changes to be noted is the number of yacht clubs that have sprung up. Some such as the East Cowes and Cowes Corinthian cater chiefly for the dinghy class of racing craft, whilst the Island Sailing Club — the largest of its kind in Britain — was especially founded 'to promote sailing and racing in small craft'.

Every day during the Regatta there are races for every class of boat, among them Flying Fifteens, sometimes nicknamed Flying Foxes because of the part Uffa Fox played in their design. This January, I saw one advertised secondhand for £180. So, for those who are not millionaires, who are prepared to save a little and work hard on their boats during the winter, the golden days need not be in the past. They can be in Cowes now.

In Regatta Week everyone takes to the water. 'Ships Provisioned' reads the notice at one grocers. From the Victoria Parade the Saucy Sal pleasure boats run twenty-minute trips to see the Britannia. 'I hope the Queen won't be angry with us', my grand-daughter said to me last year as we pulled away from the jetty. Even the most landlubberly take to the water — if only metaphorically. I recall a retired stockbroker to whom I was introduced when I first arrived on the Island, who had never been on the water but who kept referring to the fore and aft of hishouse: later, when his wife joined us for drinks, she said that she had been preparing a meal in the galley. But the best piece of sea-upmanship I ever heard was when I was standing on a club slipway. Two men in oilskins were talking to each other: 'What sort of day did you have?' one asked. The man next to me drew himself up and there followed a pause; then, measuring his words with a kind of desperation, he answered: 'I tried to make a cringle in the clew of the jib, but I couldn't rime it out with the fid.'

When I told this to the poet Stevie Smith a few months before her death, she was so delighted by the sound of the words that she thought they should be turned into the opening lines of a poem. Unfortunately she never wrote it. Perhaps someone else will. Translated, the lines mean: I tried to make a hole in the corner of the jib-sail, but I couldn't work it through with the wood pin.

If Cowes lives, talks and breathes nothing but sailing all day, then at night during the Regatta it maintains its old tradition and dances until the early hours — or, to quote from a Regency hand-bill 'until Phoebus brings in the dawn'. The older established clubs all hold balls, and each in turn tries to rival the others in splendour. Another tradition is the firework display on Friday, which marks the last evening of the Regatta. In the late afternoon the police seal off the roads into the town, and as dusk descends everyone converges on the Victoria Parade. A marine band plays, while a roaring trade is done in ices, hot dogs, balloons and Union Jacks.

I remember coming back from Southampton one year on the last ferry. I sat in the saloon, looking towards the Cowes waterfront. When the first fireworks went off, some rather half-hearted clapping broke out. Then as we drew nearer to the shore, the saloon suddenly emptied and everybody rushed on deck. Those who were Islanders knew the best and biggest fireworks had been kept until now, and as the ferry steamed past the Victoria Parade, so, from pontoons moored below, rockets were fired in quick succession, while above us stars multiplied, changed colour and slowly floated downwards. Everywhere was the smell of gunpowder and a thin layer of ash covered everying.

There is a saying amongst the town's shopkeepers that when the last rocket has burst, autumn has begun. Yachtsmen take it with a pinch of salt.