How to have a successful Cowes Week

Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week to give the regatta its full name, certainly for most dinghy racers that have only really sailed windward leewards all their life, is quite different. The racing will present you with a number of new challenges, all of which will require consideration. Putting together a successful Cowes Week program requires some preparation, and agreeing in your team how to best solve the challenges ahead. What it can guarantee is difficult start lines, complex tides, a large number of different classes racing with you, against you and across you, and navigational challenges. There will on most legs be a number of tactical options, with no definitive correct solution. You can however be assured that whoever comes out on top, has always done the best job.

1. Pre- regatta preparation

Make sure that you have the following equipment as a minimum:

Waterproof Chart (comes with your entry pack)
Chinograph pencil
GPS with marks uploaded
Echo sounder (or at least know which boats around you have one!)
Wet notes book
Tide charts – Winning Tides book, available from all Solent Chandleries
Tide times

2. Getting the course correct

Not as simple as you may think! Carefully read the SI’s as to how the course is being relayed to competitors as it may have slightly changed from the previous years. There will be a red or green flag displayed at the Royal Yacht Squadron haven to let you know in which direction the fleet will be starting, to the east or west. Make sure you see this, as this helps in preparing your start and thinking about tides and first leg strategy.

On the Squadron line, there are two ways to get the course:

1. From the boards – at the 10 minute gun the course boards will rotate around displaying a number of yellow/green and red symbols. These symbols represent the different marks and can be found on the course card. Red represents port rounding, yellow/green starboard rounding. Be careful when getting the course written down and it is probably best to let the helmsman just keep the boat from hitting all the other boats who are trying to do the same thing.

2. By text message – make sure when you enter you register your mobile phone and then you will get the course by text message. 5 years ago this was a bit unreliable, and I would have always advised people to use the boards. Now however, the text is sent out five minutes before the warning signal so you should have received it by the time the course boards are displayed. If not, use the boards.

Get the course written down and start planning the first leg. From the course chart, and/or your gps get your distance and bearing to the first mark.

3. The Race

If you can before the start, get the course laid out on the waterproof chart. Double check all the mark rounding directions, if it looks wrong, check again. From your Tide book get a feel for the key times in the day when the tide changes and the effect that will have on your race. Note that the tide usually turns earliest at the edges, sometimes by as much as an hour earlier than in the middle.

For strategy before the start you will only really have time to think about the first leg. Get the distance and bearing, and then have a think about where on the start line you want to start.

Take a look at where the first spinnaker hoist will be and what rounding it is. If the first hoist is at a starboard rounding, re-pack your spinnaker on the port side. Also remember this for the remainder of the race when dropping.

Downwind starts are something that most people haven’t done much of. With a large fleet of asymmetrical spinnaker boats, there can be merit in starting at one side – you will see that on the gun most of the fleet are simply blanketing each other and take a while to get going, or even just behind the front row as you can then power off over the top of the fleet towards your chosen side.

Staying inside “the cone” – on upwind and downwind legs it can be pretty hard to nail the lay lines correctly with the navigational and tidal challenges. The easiest way to give distance away is over standing marks. Get a feel for the cone leading into both upwind and downwind marks and if in doubt stay inside the cone until you have a positive identification of the mark and can make a more accurate call on the layline.

There will be a time when you think that everyone around you is sailing the wrong course – tempting as it might be to sail off by yourself to glory, check and check again – rarely are they “all wrong”. It gets a little harder when the splits in two!

The finish for white group is usually a boat moored in the moorings in Cowes roads, though this year with 2 races a day the first race will finish elsewhere. If we are sailing from the east then chances are we will need to sail through the ‘Norris Nadgers’. This is notoriously fickle with areas of no breeze and then unpredictable lines of breeze forming. Keep calm, patient and your head out of the boat.

When you cross the finish, note down your finish time, and the sail numbers of the boats ahead and behind you – you will need these for your declaration.

4. Other aspects

Weed – for some reason, during Cowes week the amount of weed in the Solent increases hugely. When you get weed on your foils it is soon apparent, and you now need to get rid of it. It is pretty easy to feel and see, so keep looking, especially if you feel slow.

Over 10 years of Cowes weeks, we have all tried numerous methods to remove it:

Weed sticks – I haven’t seen any that really work on the keel
Back-ups – certainly effective but costly.
Capsize – my preferred method, upwind or downwind, get a couple of crew to leeward and put the helm down – the foil lifts out of the water and this flow removes the weed.

Ships – Southampton is a busy commercial port and there will almost certainly be occasions during the week when a large ship will come across your course. Keeping alert and aware of potential issues is important. Be decisive, as an early decision is often key. But remember going across the bow of a large ship can be:

1. Dangerous – the ship has very little manoeuvrability
2. Illegal and result in a large fine (Check the SI’s what the laws and prohibited zones are)
3. Plain bad seamanship!

Shortened course – check the SI’s for the procedure. It rarely happens as it is big logistical exercise to get boats out to shorten course.

Cowes radio FM87.7MHz – some people keep this on. It can be entertaining and you can get some useful snippets of what is going on.

5. Ashore

So the race is done, you are back at the marina and tied up. Before all is done, make sure you declare properly. Now we are doing 2 races there may be a new process for how we declare for 2 so check this. Usually this can be done on your phone.

Check the results as this will often signify if there is an issue. If you have a query, go to the regatta centre and fill in a query form. Then you can have a beer and enjoy the social life of Cowes.