“Believe me my young friend there is NOTHING – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
so said Ratty in Wind in the Willows
While the Island’s interior has plenty to offer visitors, one of its beauties – particularly in the summer – is the fact that you are never more than a few miles from that infinitely versatile playground: the sea. The Isle of Wight has something for everyone, from serious sailors who flock to compete at Cowes Week, to kite-surfers whose breathtaking ‘flights’ amaze spectators at each autumn’s Wightair Festival, to intrepid toddlers navigating the shallows in inflatable boats securely fastened to washing lines played out by anxious grannies.
Cowes and Cowes Regatta
The Cowes Regatta held each year at the beginning of August was instituted in 1826 when the Royal Yacht Club presented a Gold Cup of 100 sovereigns to be contended for by vessels belonging to members. In their Memorials of the Royal Yacht Squadron, M Guest and W.B. Boulton record that at that first regatta
Along the fence in front of the King’s house carriages were drawn up filled with elegant females, and in the forecourt of the Yacht Club house the bluejackets were assembled in anxious solicitude to welcome the victor and present him with the Gold Cup……
Even in those days ‘the bay and roads were crowded to excess’ but the authors could not possibly have envisaged the 500,000 visitors and 8,500 competitors that the event now attracts. The whole town is en fete with street entertainment, live music, shops opening late, bars and barbecues spilling out onto the streets, boat trips, complementary ‘taster’ sailing lessons and a spectacular fireworks display on the Friday evening.
Cowes also sees the start and finish of the Round the Island Race at the beginning of Jubne. Known as the ‘Grand National of the sailing world’, it originated in 1931 with 25 entries (the winner was a 22 foot Cornish fishing boat). Nowadays upwards of 1600 vessels take part ranging from classic yachts to state-of-the-art sprinters. Early risers can catch the start from Cowes between five and six am, and there are a number of other vantage points round the island, including St Catherine’s Point, Culver Down and Ryde Pier. The current record holders are Mike Slade, four hours five minutes and 40 seconds in a mono-hull, and Francis Joyon, three hours eight minutes and 29 seconds in a multi-hull. Both records were set in 2001. The stragglers come in after dark.
Cowes also hosts the Powerboat Festival which sees teams arriving from all over Europe to compete in 11 races over four days, including the Powerboat PI World Championship British Grand Prix.
Yarmouth and Old Gaffers
The Old Gaffers Festival, held each year at the end of May or beginning of June, is a gentler, more nostalgic affair. The word gaffer derives from the rig: with a gaff rig the mainsail is held by a spar at the top (the gaff) and the bottom (the boom). The first race took place between three boats in 1958 but nowadays around 1,400 boats compete. Good views can be had from the pier, the beach and the common and this pretty little harbour town takes on a carnival atmosphere with a beer tent, food stalls and numerous entertainments ranging from rock and roll bands to Punch and Judy.
The Seaview Yacht club has a fleet of 13 keel day boats called Mermaids which are available for charter by non-members. Less keen sailors may prefer to buy a pint from The Old Fort and sit on the sea wall watching these beautiful boats racing each Wednesday and Thursday evening from April to July.
Once the summer season starts the Mermaids are replaced by Seaview One Design dinghies in the evening race, but the convenient proximity of The Old Fort to the sea wall remains the same.
Enjoying the sea at Bembridge
X-isle Sports offers lessons in kite-surfing, surfing, wind-surfing, wake-boarding, water-skiing and sailing.
Silver Beach is a good place for shrimping; at high tide the marina has endless interesting comings and goings and on winter weekends you can watch the mad brave fools sailing Illusions.
Bembridge is also the starting point for the Fort Walk.
Surfing the West Wight
The West Wight has the best surfing. Compton Bay is good for boogie boarders, surfers, experienced wind surfers and there is also a safe sandy beach. Boards can be hired from Wightwater Adventure Watersports which is based at Lake, midway between Sandown and Shanklin and also offers courses in kayaking, sailing, surfing, wind-surfing and multi-activity fun sessions.