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Meraid Griffin on what to expect from Cowes Week

PUBLISHED: 15:12 01 August 2014 | UPDATED: 15:12 01 August 2014

Crowds watching the race at Cowes Week. Getty Images

Crowds watching the race at Cowes Week. Getty Images

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There may be a part of Cowes Week that is all high society balls and champagne but as Meraid Griffin discovered, it can also make for a brilliant day out

Firework display. Photo by Rick TomlinsonFirework display. Photo by Rick Tomlinson

Strawberries, Pimms, hats, frocks and champagne. It’s almost the end of the English ‘season’ and I really want to go to Cowes Week. Sandwiched between Glorious Goodwood and the Glorious Twelfth (the first day of the grouse shooting season), the regatta has been running since 1826.

I have toyed with the idea of going since I sailed to (and settled in) Hampshire almost three years ago. Double Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson first arrived in Cowes at the tender age of fifteen expecting everyone to be wearing blazers and smart trousers.

I imagined that too. I felt intimidated by the prospect, unworthy. Could someone like me go? Would it be a bit la-di-da? How would I get in?

I met Shirley at UKSA headquarters and we went sailing on the Solent. There we were, two blondes in a boat, both mothers of twins and born under the sign of Cancer.

“I love how the town comes alive in the run up, watching the marquees go up and the townsfolk getting into the spirit,” says Shirley, who has lived in Cowes since 2000.

Her job as a commentator for CNN and the BBC takes her to events all over the world but, as she says, “there aren’t any as special as Cowes.”

When I started looking into the whole Cowes experience a little more, I kept hearing about the high society balls and, living in Hamble, had overheard a few Royal Southern Yacht Club members talking loudly about them in my local.

It all sounded very glamorous, another world, so I looked up Debretts guide to British Etiquette and read about Formal Dinners and Balls where one mingled with royalty and nobility.

I felt apprehensive but still harboured a secret desire to go to the ball. What would it really be like?

Shirley, a huge smile breaking across her tanned face, said: “I’ve been to them all. It’s all themes and fun and I love that they serve breakfast. The clothing has changed a lot over the years. You should see the photographs at the museum in East Cowes. I don’t know how the women sailed in dresses and heels.

“But it’s the people, stories and boats that make Cowes what it is. It’s fantastic. There are some people in ball gowns and others wearing shorts and boots.”

Ian Walker, another double Olympic medallist and Skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s new Azzam Volvo Ocean 65 yacht, relaxed on my sofa, sipping tea a few days earlier. “When I think of Cowes, I think beer tents, music, partying. It’s great. There is another side to Cowes of course,” he said, as if reading my mind. “The Balls! I’ve done countless Cowes Weeks and have never been to one. Not my thing.”

What about the racing then? “The most exciting thing is that the courses aren’t always true, you don’t have perfect windward leeward courses, but for me that’s half the fun. It’s more like a treasure hunt. It’s something completely different to what you do all year.”

As an excuse to crack open a magnum of champagne, Azzam will have its ‘official launch’ on Cowes Parade on 6th August. Painted red, yellow and silver with a falcon on the sails, the yacht’s graphics encapsulate everything that is loved in the United Arab Emirates. Azzam means determination in Arabic and is also the name of a Sheikh’s favourite falcon.

The following day is Ladies Day and nothing at all like Royal Ascot. There’s no need to go to the milliner or to order haute couture and leave the heels at home - that’s not what Cowes is about. “It’s about celebrating women on the water,” says Shirley defiantly.

One to watch this year is an all-female crew from Team SCA’s (Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget, a leading global hygiene and forest products company), five of whom are British including Hampshire’s Dee Caffari, Sam Davies, and Libby Greenhalgh.

The team have entered the Volvo Ocean Race for this year but will join Ian Walker’s crew on Azzam to put their boat through its paces before taking to the high seas.

It might be a good idea to book an hour long jaunt in a spectator boat for some close up action and some excellent camera shots or if thrills and spills float your boat, climb aboard a RIB for a blast on the Solent.

With a beer tent, wine garden, beach bar and three pop-up villages around town, there’s food and drink aplenty. Melted Belgian chocolate on homemade churros and the chance to drink bubble tea does it for me.

Then there are spicy lamb wraps, buffalo burgers and pulled pork baps cooked on sizzling grills and smoking BBQs. Not to mention paella, mackerel, whitebait and other fishy titbits for a real taste of the sea.

Live music with a chilled vibe will be playing from 2pm, livening up in the evenings once the racing is over; and Sunday is Family Day with painting competitions, flag making and street theatre adding to the fun.

If conversation turns to sheets and shackles, Britannia, the official charter and hospitality partner operates a scheme to turn up on the day and go racing. Simply call in advance on 02380 458900 to book your spot. Last minute race entries are taken up to 5pm the day before a race starts. You’ll need to do this in person at the Regatta Centre. And on the final Saturday there’s a Taster Day costing £30.00.

Down at the Yacht Haven, UKSA, the event’s official charity will provide hour long experiences, where you can jump aboard a keelboat to learn the ropes as you sail with celebrity skippers, from soap stars to Olympians.

If you’ve always fancied racing a boat, but want to stay dry, then Gutter Boat racing could be for you. Make your boat from anything; just ensure it fits within the dimensions of an A5 piece of paper. Blow your DIY vessels along water-filled gutters to get your name on the Champions Board.

For these activities UKSA suggest a small donation. Find out more at http://uksa.org/ or to enter a gutter boat email, gutterboatracing@uksa.org.

For relaxed sophistication with a nautical feel, the shops in Cowes offer a break from the action. As quaint inside as they are on the outside with their bowed glass fronts are Jolliffes Gallery and coffee shop - a gorgeous example of Art Nouveau architecture.

Beken of Cowes photography is popular with yachtsmen the world over, the gallery displays and sells classic sepia-toned images and the bespoke wooden cameras used in the early 20th century can also be seen.

There’s fashion from familiar names and unique boutiques too. The smells coming out of Nectar, the honey story, were incredible, with aromas of beeswax and bounty of the beehive filling the air.

For the chocolate connoisseurs, handmade chocolates can be found at Chocolate Mad Cowes. I can state here that the salt caramel is to die for.

Wine Therapy will get you through the most nail biting of races with 32 samples, which can be tasted from a selection of 350 wines from around the world, including some from the chalky South Downs. And you can find almost anything at Cameo of Cowes, from Christian Louboutins to Panama hats and perfumes - it’s an Aladdin’s Cave full of old lost property.

Perfectly placed for people watching, Tiffins traditional style café serves sandwiches, pastries, croissants, tea and coffee. The Coast provides a relaxed and informal setting for coffee, cake and snacks. Choose from Italian, Thai and Indian, Portuguese, Chinese and British cuisine at one of the many restaurants and bars.

Cowes attracts royalty, stars and celebrities in their droves so don’t be surprised if you find yourself rubbing shoulders with Ewan McGregor or even the Duchess of Cambridge, who is bringing baby George to his first ever Cowes Week.

Now, where do I book my ticket? Hooray, no ticket required - unless of course you’ve got your heart set on going to the ball.

Look to the skies

The Blades Aerobatic Display Team will be performing on Saturday 2nd August and on Friday 8th August, The Red Arrows will demonstrate their speed and agility in the air. The firework display is un-missable so make sure you’re part of the crowd. Red Funnel and SS Shieldhall both offer cruises to see this spectacular event on Friday 8th. Red Funnel 80’s style fun cruise departs from Southampton and tickets start from £26.50. A short trip from Cowes will cost £10.00 for adults and £5.00 for kids. Both excursions can be booked online at www.redfunnel.co.uk/.

From Southampton, climb aboard Steam Ship Shieldhall and join her Jazz band, the Shieldhall Stompers, for a nostalgic fireworks night. Adults, £41.00; Children, £20.00. Book online http://ss-shieldhall.co.uk/ or from the Ticketline 
0844 357 2329.

Getting there

Take Red Funnel’s Hi-Speed Jet (25 minutes, foot passengers only) from Southampton to West Cowes, Adult standard return £22.80, Child £11.40 or the car/passenger ferry from Southampton to East Cowes (60 minutes). Adult standard return £15.90, Child £8.00, over 60’s £10.00. redfunnel.co.uk.

WightLink (wightlink.co.uk) runs ferries from Portsmouth to Ryde (passengers only), combined tickets include bus travel on the island Adult £23.00, Child £11.50; to Fishbourne (cars, prices vary) and from Lymington to Yarmouth (car/passenger), combined tickets Adult £21.00, Child £10.50.

If you’re racing, a dedicated ferry service operated by Bluefunnel will take you directly to Cowes from Lymington. Departing from Lymington at 08.30am, singles £10.00, returns £18.00 and £126.00 for an 8 day pass. Ferry departs Cowes at 18.30 each evening.

A Southsea-Ryde hovercraft link (passengers only, 10 minutes) run by hovertravel.co.uk will also be available. Day return tickets cost £17.50 for adults and £9 for children.

For further information visit www.aamcowesweek.co.uk or call 01983 295744

Top Tips

For pure atmosphere, head straight for the Royal Yacht Squadron. Stand between the Castle of the Royal Yacht Squadron and the cannons. You might want ear plugs. You’ll see who got the best start and which boats were over the line. Every ten minutes, you’ll hear the race officers giving their countdowns and calling the starts from the battlements. Take a picnic on the Green where you can watch all the boats finish under spinnaker at the end of the day.

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