Cowes Week, the world’s longest running regatta, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2026, and which wasn’t always the easiest event to follow from a competitor and spectators’ perspective, has now become one of the easiest – thanks to the creation of an innovative new app that puts all the information one could possibly need in the palm of your hand.
Many sailors will be very used to turning up at a regatta and being asked to scan a QR code to open a WhatsApp group that the organisers use for communications. Once upon a time these were open channels filled with general competitor chitchat as well as race information from the RO. Latterly, they have become broadcast only, but they are still extremely limited in their capability.
How, for instance, do you cope with a fleet of not 60 boats, but 600, spread across not half a dozen classes, but 40 different classes, all using the same race marks for their courses? In the case of Cowes Week, the answer was to write a dedicated event app and to tie that into the organisation’s entry system so that from start to finish the event team can use one database of information.
It has literally transformed the event from one that was very traditional (tradition is hard to get away from when you’ve been going nearly 200 years) into what is today, probably the world’s most advanced Corinthian regatta. Introduced in 2018, the app has now evolved to be a key element in the evolution of Cowes Week, consistently scoring very highly in competitor feedback surveys. In 2022, Cowes Week introduced a spectator version of the app as they seek to bring the event closer to the thousands of people who continue to gather on the sea wall in front of the Royal Yacht Squadron to watch the races.
The Spectator app means that people around the world can follow what’s going on, seeing results and news, videos and pictures through the app. From a commercial standpoint it also enables tailored sponsorship messages to be sent, by class where appropriate, and to spectators following worldwide. With Corinthian sailing becoming harder and harder to fund via sponsorship, bringing a new level of technology to the commercial aspects is vital. Sponsors today want data; they want access to a known demographic, not just flags flown on the dock and the Cowes Week App is proving its worth, both for competitors and sponsors. In fact, it’s revolutionising the event.
So how does it work? Every boat entering receives a specific code to activate the app. When the course setters finalise the courses for each fleet, these are automatically sent to every boat as appropriate. Long gone are the days of trying to scribble down a course, reading a course board on the Castle at the Royal Yacht Squadron or listening to a VHF radio whilst milling around the start area.
Having all the data in one system also throws up some interesting facts. As an example, boats racing at Cowes Week last year sailed 96,000 carbon-free miles across the near 300 courses set in the week.
For those sailors who haven’t raced in Cowes Week for some time, perhaps the biggest change is the huge flexibility that the app delivers to the event organisers in terms of start times and locations. The ethos is very much to start as many races as possible at the Royal Yacht Squadron as it’s still one of the great start lines in boat racing around the world. Indeed, finishing as many boats as possible off the Squadron with the cannons firing is also part of the goal. To see a boat get the winner’s cannon at Cowes Week is a vision of delight, no matter the size of the boat. Be it a TP52 or the winning boat in the Club Cruiser Division, high-fives and fist pumping is the order of the day.
Nonetheless, to get racing away as efficiently as possible in all sorts of different wind speeds does require flexibility and it’s now almost standard procedure for the regatta team to issue an amendment the night before if particularly strong or light winds are forecast, requiring a change in racing plans. The app ensures class start times and locations can be changed with absolute certainty that the data is going to be promulgated immediately and reliably to every boat in every different class. In 2022 this meant that all 37 classes got a race every day, even if, on the last Friday, it was necessary to make substantial changes to get the racing programme completed before an early morning land breeze died away. Without the flexibility delivered via the app that would have been impossible and it would have been a day of lost racing.
After an internal debate about making things too easy for the sailors the app does now include distance and bearing to each mark, and, as everybody on the crew can have the information, it negates the need for the tactician to be trying to shout the course up to the bow person over the breeze. Despite that, there were still some examples of leaders in the fleet going round marks the wrong way however, which goes to prove something, even though your scribe can’t figure out exactly what it proves!
Cowes Week also has some of the fastest results services in the sport, partly due to an army of volunteers writing down finishing information but also by having linked iPads on the committee vessels so that as soon as data is sense-checked it can be put into the system. (For those worried about accuracy another team double-checks the data before it is finalised.)
The app publishes new data every few seconds and finishing times are put in almost as soon as boats cross the finish line, so live results are available often before dock lines are tied off. Particularly in handicap racing, nobody wants to wait for hours to find out the final results. In fact, because data is added as boats finish, the fastest boats sometimes have to watch themselves slip down as new small boat timings are input, which correct out ahead on handicap. Results in almost real time! The results are shown by class and by day or overall, which for 37 classes in 2022 was a lot of data. In 2022 some 4,000 finishing times across the week.
How about safety? The app had a new feature added in 2022 which allowed yachts to declare that they were back on the dock having sailed the course within the rules, simply by pressing a declaration button on the app. As the laws about liability have changed over the years it’s incumbent upon event organisers to track boats and crew on the water ever more carefully, so there is an option on the app for boats who retire to notify the regatta team of that as well, all of which makes for a lower stress event for all parties.
Unlike using a public text system, of course, it’s much harder to blag your way around not having declared and then blaming it on the technology. The app knows who is on it at any time so a few hours lost in the beer tent and falling back on the “I sent it” line doesn’t work if you never opened the app while you were celebrating!
The app also has the full Cowes Week social programme on it and, with half a dozen yacht clubs as well as the whole town providing entertainment, knowing what’s happening and when is an important part of enjoying the social element of Cowes Week. As the organisers love to say, it’s a regatta not a world championship.
Each day has a theme: Women’s Day, Youth Day, Royal Navy Day, Charity Day, Family Day and the regatta team understands that delivering a brilliant week’s sailing is part of the requirement, but it has to be alongside a fun holiday for all the family. The ability to process results quickly also means that the regatta organisers have been able to bring forward the overall prize giving from Saturday afternoon to Friday evening. (Racing now finishes for all classes on Friday).
Following on from the opening party (sponsored by Mount Gay Rum… say no more) the overall Cowes Week prize giving is a really well-attended party night (sponsored by Musto and with music by Olympic medallist and now music maestro, DJ Covell) rounding out what remains one of the great regattas on the world circuit.
So, what do the sailors say?
‘It is the best event app in sailing by far’
‘The efficiency of being able to access absolutely any question about the event’
‘Very useful for navigators!’
‘I enjoyed using it!’