New Events, Innovations and Faster Yachts Help the Sport Unfurl Its Sails

Artemis Ocean Racing Rick Tomlinson

By William Lyons, Dow Jones & Co, Photo: RORC/Rick Tomlinson

 

In the crowded waters off the Isle of the Wight, within a fathom of the starting line for one of the world’s oldest sailing regattas, the view is one of chaos. A combination of complex wind patterns, powerful tides and ever-changing conditions has attracted what feels like every sailor, racer and yachtsman in Europe to Cowes, this tiny harbor just off the English south coast.

Onboard Artemis Ocean Racing, a 60-foot sailing yacht, the crew, under the instruction of skipper Dee Caffari, make final preparations. Weaving through the armada of vessels, the yacht picks up a moderate southwesterly wind and is off, sailing east toward Osborne Bay, a sheltered inlet off the Isle of Wight where Queen Victoria spent many summers at her beloved Osbourne House. The goal is to return ahead of four other yachts to the finishing line just north of the Royal Yacht Squadron via an 80-kilometer sprint around the island, thus emulating the original course of one of the oldest and best known trophies in international sailing—the America’s Cup.

“To race around the Isle of Wight will always remain special,” says Ms. Caffari, who in 2006 became the first woman to circumnavigate the world alone and nonstop against the prevailing winds and currents. “The course is simple but testing. No matter what wind direction, the crew sails at all wind angles, making them work through the sail wardrobe and trim on all points of sail. This is physically demanding, but is also tactically testing, as there are strong tides and local effects to consider when racing.”

This is vintage Cowes. Over the course of the eight-day event, more than 100,000 people will visit the island, as 8,500 competitors—the majority of whom are amateurs—take part in a variety of races on a mixture of classic and modern boats.

“It’s a wonderful celebration of our sport,” says Shirley Robertson, the first British woman to win two sailing Olympic gold medals at consecutive games in Sydney in 2000 and Athens four years later. “In terms of racing, Cowes is unique. One has to contend with the busy Solent waters, with bodies of sand and rocks as well as commercial shipping, which provides a real test of one’s sailing ability.”

Sailing enthusiasts are in for a double celebration over the next two years, with next summer’s London Olympic Games and the America’s Cup a year later—events many hope will act as a major fillip for the sport.

Next month, the English coastal city of Plymouth hosts the America’s Cup World Series, a nine-day event that is part of a new professional sailing circuit. The series, held in different port cities around the world, will culminate in 2013 in a best-of-nine series between two teams in San Francisco Bay. The London 2012 Olympics, meanwhile, will host sailing competitions in Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour, along England’s southern coast. These join a busy calendar of European sailing regattas that includes the nine-day Kieler Woche in Kiel, Germany, in June, featuring up to 2,000 yachts; Barcolana in Italy, held in October; and Cork Week, a biennial regatta in Ireland that will next run in 2012.

Organizers are hoping the events will help establish sailing as a spectator event with widespread appeal.

“There is a huge amount going on next year,” says Stuart Quarrie, chief executive of Cowes Week Ltd. In a bid to tap into an anticipated rise in interest, he said Cowes is planning to launch an online television channel that will transmit real-time racing from the regatta to a global audience, already plugging in through the regatta’s website. “It is amazing how many thousands of people, sitting in offices all over the world, are taking part in following the events of Cowes Week.”

Ms. Robertson, who presents CNN’s monthly sailing TV program “Mainsail,” says that the quality of coverage has improved in recent years. Boats participating in the America’s Cup now have onboard microphones and tracking devices, allowing viewers to hear the race and experience it close-up. “It’s expensive to film,” she says. “To film well, you require helicopters, balloons and onboard waterproof equipment. It is similar to motor racing—if you watch motor racing, you only understand it if you have an understanding of the sport.

“The live footage is great,” Ms. Robertson adds. “The audio linkup means you hear them yelling at each other and you get a feeling for the pressure they are under and the dangers of sailing these boats.”

Advances in technology have not only brought viewers closer to the action, they have also had an impact on the design of the boats, with a new class of yachts that are faster and more agile. Today’s races demonstrate that speed. The Extreme Sailing Series, which runs throughout the Cowes regatta, showcases some of the fastest yachts in the world, as 12 Extreme 40 catamarans with sailors from 15 different countries compete in what has become a high-octane event.

Events such as this and the World Match Racing Tour, a professional yacht racing series in which teams compete against each other for a $1.75 million prize, also aim to attract a new generation of sailing fans. “Whether we like it or not, sailing is a minority sport in the global scheme of things,” says Jim O’Toole, the CEO of the World Match Racing Tour. “We are all fighting for the same thing: new venues, sponsorship money, media and general public awareness.”

To contend with the challenging marketing environment, Mr. O’Toole has introduced innovations such as cameras on the bow, stern and mast of the yacht, as well as onboard commentators complete with helmet cameras. “Everything that the America’s Cup coverage has used for filming, we have done at most or one of our events,” he says. “What the America’s Cup is able to do is to take all the technology, use it all of the time and make it bigger and better.” He adds that the changes have increased audiences.

The crowds at Cowes line the ramparts of the Royal Yacht Squadron, eager to catch a day’s sailing ahead of the finish of the Artemis Challenge. As the yachts make their way out of the Cowes Harbour toward Old Castle Point, French team PRB, skippered by Vincent Riou, takes the lead—choosing a line close to the shore. As the yachts pass Bembridge Ledge toward the east of the island, the speed picks up, reaching 28 knots at some stages—as fast as a speedboat. The conditions—strong winds coupled with favorable tides—allow the Imoca 60 to sail a fast course round the south of the island.

Entering the Needles Fairway, past the row of three distinctive stacks of chalk that rise out of the sea, the channel becomes narrow, with shallow water on either side. On Artemis Ocean Racing, Ms. Caffari instructs her crew to hoist the spinnaker, but a run of bad luck follows and two spinnakers are ripped, allowing their competitors to race past as they sail to the finish line. Artemis Ocean Racing may have finished behind PRB, but their time, at just over four and a half hours, is still less than 20 minutes off the world record.

“I love the chance to sail around the island, as every time it is different and every boat deals with it in a different way,” says Ms. Caffari. “I never stop learning and love the thrill of sailing around the Isle of Wight and getting tested to capacity.”