The Pickle Dish with an Engine: A Report from Cowes Week

/SW/ editor Dave Reed attended The King of Cowes, a one-day event in which reigning Cowes Week champions compete for the grand prize of a Volkswagen Touareg. "First Beat" from our August 7, 2007, /SW eNewsletter/

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Dave Reed

As a first timer to Skandia Cowes Week, it's impossible to not be overwhelmed. This ancient event is so massive in size, scale, and sheer number of boats and people that even if you tried your best you'd never come close to taking it all in. It is as much a regatta as a non-stop summer party with bands, stages, beer tents, discos, and for the upper crust, of course, ample black-tie balls and cocktail parties. Before the arrival of the Laser SB3 class- a 20-foot keelboat that's more dinghy than lead mine-no division at this annual regatta stood above the rest. But with 97 SB3s starting in the shadow of the Royal Yacht Squadron each morning, it's not difficult to argue that, on the water at least, the SB3s have stolen the show at Cowes Week.How did the SB3s come to own this regatta in merely three years? The boat itself is a superb, and simple sportboat, and the fact that German automaker Volkswagon has been pouring money into the class has certainly helped. For the last two years, VW has given each team a branded spinnaker; this year the company wanted more out of their sponsorship and, with the SB3's builder, Performance Sailcraft Europe, they came up with a scheme to solidify their presence in Cowes.Enter The King of Cowes, a championship of champions style of event held for the first time this year on the Friday before the big regatta began. Individual class winners from last year's Cowes Week were invited to compete for the proverbial crown. But this was for no chump change championship trophy, no ordinary pickle dish. The winner would walk-or rather drive-away with a Volkswagon Touareg, a small sport utility vehicle that goes for nearly $40,000. The runner up would take home a VW Eos, a small convertible coupe that retails for the equivalent of nearly $30,000. There was incentive as well for the owners who put up their boats (and crew) for use in the event: a new-boat upgrade for the winning owners, a new mainsail for the runner up, and much more.But here's the kicker: you'd think that with this kind of booty on the table, you'd be talking about a weeklong regatta with a minimum of eight races, or at the least, a multiple-day event with a minimal of five. But no, The King of Cowes is a one-day, three race gig. Repeat: three races.To see this spectacle-and the SB3-for myself, I arrived on the Isle of Wight, on the south coast of England, last Friday just in time to jump into a RIB and catch the series' second race, underway in a sunny 10-knot wind. In the RIB with me was David Graham, PSE's managing director (for the record, PSE now owns Vanguard Sailboats in the United States and intends to either import to or build SB3s in Portsmouth, R.I.). He looks on with an understandably smug smile. It had been raining for the better part of June, and on this day his bold event was going off with wind, sun, and without a hitch. The photoboats were loaded with photographers because there was nothing else yet going on in Cowes except for the Extreme 40 catamarans sailing their iShares Cup series. Graham had hired a helicopter to capture the 25-boat series on video, and had taken out an insurance policy in case the event hit a hitch. You can't crown a King of Cowes without any wind, and there was an estimated 300,000 Sterling Pounds and priceless time invested in the event. It had to happen, and happen it did, with the Alistair Richardson, winner of the Extreme 40 class last year, being handed the keys at an informal prize ceremony held just after the racing. Richardson's crew could only watch on as he popped himself on the hood with a big @#$%-eating grin and a magnum of champagne.Cowes Week is a big deal in the English media-as evidenced by the bustling media center in which I'm ensconced-and the King of Cowes got a healthy dose of coverage, including the BBC's most watched morning show. Richardson may have been crowned the King of Cowes, but in fact, it was the exploding Laser SB3 class that continued its ascent.