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6 August 2001, 12:21 pm
Report From Sunday
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Skandia Life Cowes Week
Cowes, Isle of Wight

The hard bit about Skandia Life Cowes Week is knowing what to watch. With over one thousand yachts racing in 35 classes, the choice is mind-blowing, writes Ed Gorman.

This year has been no exception as the world's biggest regatta got off to a cracking start with two superb days over the opening weekend and with sails spread as far as the eye could see, up and down the Solent.

On Sunday - day two of the eight-day festival - the forecast rain held off and blue skies were the order of the day with a punchy southwesterly providing almost ideal racing conditions. Out and about on the official press boat we watched the usual eclectic mix of boats fighting for rights on a crowded Solent - the sort of scenes that have come to typify this extraordinary event.

Over on the Hillhead shore, the Farr 40 one-designs were revelling in their own windward-leeward racing. At one point, as two of these tippy-looking thoroughbreds headed at pace for the windward mark on starboard, we suddenly noticed a small dayboat on port crossing in front of them. It looked like the crew of the smaller boat were going to end up in the tide in a classic Cowes Week smash which would have sent their boat to the bottom, until they just made their ground. The dayboaters blithely carried on, looking remarkably cool in the circumstances.

Minutes later, over towards the Isle of Wight shore, the most famous 12-Metre of them all, Australia II, was trundling down towards the finish of the Class 0 contest with Skip Lissiman at the wheel. She looked much as she must have done back in Newport in 1983 when she made history with her 4-3 America's Cup victory over Dennis Conner's Liberty.

Dangerous as it can be, America's Cup racing does not involve nipping in and out of tight corners in waters infested with smaller boats taking part in other races. Twelves are heavy and relatively slow and not particularly manoeuvrable. Lissiman was bearing all this in mind as he bought Australia II back towards the finish area off the Squadron in only her second race at Cowes.

As we watched, the Australian spotted a 35ft Class 3 boat crossing ahead of him on starboard. In one of those heart-stopping moments, Australia II at first stood on but then lurched hard to the right - almost too late to avoid a collision - as Lissiman and his afterguard decided to take avoiding action at the last minute. The great yacht slowly bore away and the moment passed to the relief of crews on both yachts.

Australia II went on to take fourth place on handicap, (beating Richard Matthews's 1987-vintage Twelve, Crusader, by three-and-a-half minutes on the water). Ahead, line honours had unsurprisingly gone to the biggest yacht at Cowes this year, Mike Slade's Round the Island record-holder, the 90ft Skandia Leopard.

The sleek Reichel-Pugh sloop is an awesome sight rolling along under her vast acreage of sail - allbeit with a non-overlapping headsail - as she powers to windward. There are 20 people on the rail and five others working the cockpit. At the wheel, it's the Europe class Olympic gold medallist, Shirley Robertson, and guess who is talking the tactics - none other than Ben Ainslie, who looks the part as he steps to leeward to check that Leopard is clear ahead as she rocks along for the line.

Having been involved in a collision on Saturday, Ainslie was taking no chances this time with Mike Slade's magnificent new toy. The big boat finished no less than 22 minutes ahead of John Caulcutt's modern America's Cup Class, High Voltage, but on handicap she dropped to a disappointing 16th. Finishing a minute later than Caulcutt was Kit Hobday and his well-drilled team on the Farr 52, Bear of Britain, a performance which was good enough to secure them their second consecutive win.

There is no doubt the regatta has a special buzz about it this year. The background of recent success in British sailing - the Olympics, the Vendee Globe and the launch of the GBR Challenge for the America's Cup - have given sailing in Britain a huge lift and all summer the number of boats entered at events on the Solent have been up on previous years.

While there are more boats than ever at Cowes, the shoreside facilities have improved markedly and the general presentation of the place is definitely up. Perhaps at last Cowes is on the way to doing itself justice as the capital of British sailing.
Ed Gorman/News Editor
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