Cowes – love it or loathe it?

The man manoeuvring in the queue for the fuel pontoon at Falmouth took one look at our port of registration on the transom, and let loose a flood of abuse about people like us from Cowes. He was accusing us of queue jumping – we weren’t. Elsewhere, another sailor looked at the town name and added “arrogant bastards” to his complaint about where we were parked on a pontoon.

 I may well be getting paranoid, but since moving our sailing base to Cowes 5 years ago I’ve been wondering whether the mere name sometimes prompts the sailing equivalent of the “posh boy” jibe at David Cameron’s cabinet. In distant parts of the British Isles I’ve caught myself apologising for the name Cowes on the transom. Not any more.

Having spent many seasons based on the East Coast (and quite a few in the West Country and Scotland) I was not expecting to move to Cowes. I’d seen the sailing clubs lined up like a John Cleese sketch along the shore (the Squadron looking down on the Royal Corinthian and Royal London, those two looking down on the Island Sailing Club and all of them looking down on the Cowes Corinthian up the river). There’s also the great weight of tradition, the royal connections, the classic pictures of Edwardian ultra rich racing their J-Class yachts, the monied party atmosphere of Cowes weeks, the boats sponsored by City firms – all of that and much more.

We happened to find and buy our latest boat in Cowes, and organised a temporary mooring there while we thought about where to base her: back to the east coast or somewhere on the south coast for a change. One day we had a friendly call from the harbourmaster asking whether we’d like a permanent pontoon mooring, because the boat and its previous owner were well known to him, they had been there a long time, and we’d be very welcome to stay on. The bigger surprise was in the price: less than we would be paying for a swinging mooring in a bleak and exposed position outside the not very friendly Suffolk Yacht Harbour on the River Orwell, where we’d kept a previous boat. So we stayed.

Cowes, despite its cliché tag as the Mecca of Sailing, is not in fact expensive. This must have much to do with being on an island, which adds to travel costs and time. The Meccas now for most of the year are the Hamble and Lymington. If you don’t do rushed weekend sailing, and mainly cruise away from home, the extra hour each way and the expense of the ferry to Cowes are less important.

Furthermore, we have never been anywhere in the last 30 years with so many excellent marine service businesses available, from stainless steel fabrication to electronics and general shipwright work. My impression is that they are significantly cheaper than the same services on the Orwell. They’re also improving the outer harbour at this moment, with a massive new breakwater for protection from the North-Easterly gales to which Cowes has until now been exposed.

And what about the posh boy jibe? Well, we haven’t tried to join the Royal Yacht Squadron (we’re not admirals, posh or super rich) but the co-owner has joined one of the other clubs and found it pleasant and hospitable. If you don’t want to join a local club or try to get into smart Cowes Week parties, it’s still a great and surprisingly economical place to base a cruising boat.

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