Cowes has long been known as the epicentre of the English yacht racing scene. With its position at the centre of the Solent, and interesting and challenging waters to be sailed virtually on the doorstep it's not surprising. The fact that it's on the Isle of Wight adds to that feeling of actually arriving somewhere offshore, as opposed to just coasting.
For the visiting small craft mariner, Cowes harbour offers all tide access, and berths are relatively easy to obtain and reasonably priced. For the cruising yachtsman Cowes is best avoided during Cowes week which happens every year at the beginning of August. The place is packed, prices are higher, and there is general mayhem on the water.
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Any kind of approach to Cowes from a northerly direction needs a thorough study of the precautionary area shown on our Central Solent chart. Huge and heavy ships make their way to and from Southampton passing through this area of concern. The unfortunately positioned Bramble Bank blocks their direct access to and from Southampton water, and means they have to execute a lumbering turn virtually right off the entrance to Cowes.
The photo "Playing with the Big Boys" in our gallery shows the size of these levithians literally dwarfing the Red Funnel car ferry, let alone your yacht. The entrance to Cowes Harbour is via a narrow, buoyed, deepwater channel that runs close to the western shore. This channel is much in use by fast and slow ferries, and there are very strong cross tides to be taken into account in the approach. Pilotage details for the approach are now given:
Associated British Ports are in charge of the traffic and safety in the critical precautionary area, and introduced some time ago the notion of a moving exclusion zone in front of and to the side of ships transiting this area. Forget all ideas about power giving way to sail, these monsters are constrained by draft and wouldn't stop for miles even with their engines full astern. We've quoted direct from ABP Southampton in the interests of safety and avoiding any confusion, find the full text in the expandable "More Information" section of this page.
Close approach and entry:
The regulations mentioned above are there to prevent serious accidents, and it makes sense to digest them thoroughly if planning to pass through this area of concern. Once in the approaches to Cowes switch to VHF channel 69 for Cowes harbour radio.(Harbour office 01983 293952) Vessels over 30 m are required to radio in before entering the channel. The speed limit in Cowes is 6 kn over the ground (not through the water).
If approaching Cowes from the East or West the behaviour of the tide across the entrance needs to be understood unless you want to be sailing on the spot for some time, going nowhere. From approximately one and a half hours before high water Cowes to three hours after there exists a strong West going set outside of Cowes harbour, and at springs it can reach 4 Knts. This West going set can even carry an influence into the harbour itself as far as the red can number four Buoy (Fl(3)R.5s). Approach from the West is best tackled after this period, i.e. from around an hour or so before LW Cowes, and always aiming to be in at least an hour before HW Cowes.
The five hours of easterly going stream are not as fierce, but still need attention if approaching from that direction. If approaching from the East a new Small Craft Channel was been established in the summer of 2012 in advance of the ongoing work to build a new breakwater. New buoyage has been placed to give navigational assistance in avoiding the Shrape Mud and this is shown on the chart given in this site. Despite this buoyage you need to be aware that there is not much depth between the new red Shrape Mud can buoy and the East Breakwater so to arrive there in a boat with a 2m draft at LWS would not be a good idea. Coming from the North or NE, shape your course east of the Bramble Bank and make for the Shrape Beacon aiming to to turn WSW and a half West about 50 yards off it. Head for the new red can (Fl.R.5s) aiming to leave it half a cable to port and then, cautiously aware of the depth, turn towards the green and red buoys marking the entrance to the new channel. The limits of the new channel are marked by yellow conical buoys to starboard and yellow can buoys to port leading one through the Small Craft Moorings and into the main channel. Care should be taken through these moorings as you can be set into them by the tide. Approaching from the West keep a good offing from Egypt Point with its rocky outcrops, taking note of the northerly black/yellow Cardinal buoy (Q) moored off here. In the summer there may well be moorings laid in the Solent off the Royal Yacht Squadron, leave these to starboard and pick up the green conical number one buoy (Q.G) and it's red can number two counterpart (Q.R) and turn SSE into the main channel for entry into Cowes.
When approaching the entrance buoys keep a good eye out for the Red Funnel ferries and fast cats, either preparing to leave harbour or approaching the entrance channel. In summer the entrance always seems extremely busy with small craft, and you can't help noticing the historic Cowes Castle on the Western side (c/w UPVC windows and conservatory, see note in history section). This magnificent building is home to the Royal Yacht Squadron, and the tiny little harbour that has recently sprung up in front of the club is for their use exclusively. Should ferries be moving keep right over to the starboard side of the Channel, and a close eye should be kept on the Jubilee pontoon for any signs of activity by the fast cat should one be moored there (see photo 11). This photo clearly shows what you'll encounter in the approach channel...this is no place to be messing with sails.
Otherwise it is simply a matter of moving in with the clubs, pontoons, fast cat berth, and the marinas all on your starboard side. Near the marinas be prepared for inconsiderate yachtsman emerging without a thought for the traffic, or worse still backing out blind. At night the outside edges of all these pontoons and berths are marked with green lights (check the charts) but note there is no further green buoyage until the region of the Folly Inn. On the port side lie a multitude of small craft moorings just outside of the channel as marked by the red can buoyage. Anchoring is not allowed within these moorings, and strangers should keep out of this area. A westerly going tidal set can in some circumstances be felt as far as the red can buoy number four (Fl(3)R.5s).
If proceeding up River the next obstacle to be dealt with is the Chain Ferry, lurking just around the blind bend, shortly after passing Shepards Wharf Marina on your starboard side and the car ferry terminal at East Cowes on your port hand side. The Chain Ferry is supposed to give way to shipping, but seems to clank its way back and forth as it pleases. To be fair the driver of this contraption would need to have x-ray eyes to see what's coming from the North when the ferry is berthed on the West Cowes side anyway. Main thing is in your approach towards the ferry from whichever direction be very aware of what the tide is doing underneath you. Stopping and stemming the tide should the ferry be moving is a practical solution if the tide is against you. If the tide is under you it may be necessary to execute a quick U-turn in order to stem it. In normal circumstances the chains of the ferry lay submerged in the seabed, but when it is pulling its way across especially in strong tidal situations these chains can rise much closer to the surface. Never try and cut in front of it as the chains are pulled up tight in that direction, and give it a good berth astern too as although not visible the chains may not be that far under the surface. The tide can run outwards through this restricted area at up to 4 kn and it is not unknown for unwary skippers of sailing yachts to find themselves ignominiously pinned against the side of this ferry. Photos number 15 and 16 show this beastie, particularly note in photo 16 the chains.
Vessels over 30 m and very large unmanoeuvrable yachts should call "Chain Ferry" on VHF channel 69 to advise of their approach, and just because you're past the ferries doesn't mean you may not encounter ships. The chain Ferry area always seems to be a bit of a bottleneck.
Once past the chain Ferry the run of the River is very clear with firstly a large fuel pontoon to starboard, then the UKSA. Opposite on the eastern bank lies East Cowes Marina. The best water is on the Western side of the River once past East Cowes Marina, and then swings towards the eastern bank in the region of Kingston Quay which is easily recognisable chimneys and power station. From here on to Newport is covered separately.
For the yachtsman or motorboater, Cowes offers a large choice of visitors moorings, many of which are under the control of the harbour authority... Trinity Pontoon, the Town Quay, Shephards Wharf, and Venture Quay. Other mooring options include Cowes Yacht Haven, and past the chain ferry, East Cowes Marina and further harbour authority pontoons. Several boatyards with moorings, and the UKSA complete the picture in the Cowes area. These are all now described with contact details and visitors mooring fees are covered:
Next up is the spindly landing stage, Trinity Pontoon. The outside of this can be used to land and pick up, and certain areas of the inside can be used for an overnight berth with permission of the harbour authorities. Water and electricity are available. These two facilities can be clearly seen in photo number seven. The disadvantage of the Trinity pontoon is its exposed position, and the constant wash from passing traffic and ferries. The cost of the Trinity pontoon is £2.00 per metre overnight, with short stays of up to 4 hours (between 10 AM and 4 PM only) charged at £1.00 per metre.
Next up on the starboard side comes the Town Quay, just to the south of the fast cat Terminal. This is really only suitable for smaller shallow draft craft and can be seen in photo number 11. Prices for the Town Quay are as above, and Cowes Harbour Control are on VHF channel 69 or 01983 293952. They now have their own very useful website:http://www.cowesharbourcommission.co.uk/
Cowes Yacht Haven with it's wavescreens comes up next, again on the starboard side. The Marina has few residents with plenty of visitors berths and is open 24 hours a day. The place is geared up for " events" and at these and other peak times can become very crowded with much rafting out required, and possibly booking in advance necessary. A berth here during Cowes week will definitely require booking in advance and a fat wallet to go with it. The protection inside is reasonable but in spite of the wavescreen winds from the northerly quadrant and passing traffic can cause a bit of rolling. Berthing prices here are £2.96 per metre per day on Fridays and Saturdays and £2.45 per metre per day Sundays to Thursday's. Short stays of up to 4 hours are around 0.97 p per metre. Contact Cowes Yacht Haven on VHF channel 80 or telephone 01983 299975, with a link to their site below:
All the normal facilities will be found here with water and electricity on the pontoons, waste disposal, showers, toilets, and launderette. The site is very central for the town also. Boat services include a 30 tonne travel lift, with specialists in all fields available nearby. Check the directory.
On the eastern side to port another new facility has sprung up, set up by the Harbour Authorities (a not for profit organisation), who are aggressively expanding their mooring operations to capture market share. Their prices are reasonable and any initiative to provide further visitors mooring space is to be applauded. This new offering Venture Quays lies on the eastern side just to the north of the East Cowes car ferry terminal. These pontoons lie immediately in front of the large hangar with the Union Flag painted on it's shutters. Water and electricity are available here. Contact details for the harbour authorities have already been given. This pontoon looks very exposed, and virtually open to the North and north-east.
Switching back to the Western side immediately after Cowes Yacht Haven comes Shepards Wharf, again under the control of the Harbour Authorities. Visitors moorings are available here on pontoons with walk ashore access, water and electricity on the pontoons together with showers and toilets. Prices here in the summer months are £2.60 per metre per day with a surcharge for multihulls. Short stays are charged at £1.00 per metre. These are weekend prices, Sun to Thur nights are a little cheaper. Electricity is available as an extra. There is a large working boatyard here with a 40 tonne travel lift, and storage for dry sailing. Other specialist services are based at this yard, see directory. Not as central for the town, but still an easy walk. Contact details for the harbour authorities have already been given.
Once past the chain ferry there are two possibilities for mooring on the starboard side, the first being the Medina Yard. This outfit doesn't maintain visitors berths as such but will allow visitors to use it's pontoon if space is available. Prices are £2. per metre which doubles in Cowes Week. Call the yard on 01983 203872 to check availability, with a link to their website below:
In the River two isolated pontoons belonging to the harbour authorities can be used by visitors. These are clearly marked and called Whitegates pontoons, one on the eastern side before reaching East Cowes Marina, the other on the Western side off the Medina boatyard. No real facilities available on these pontoons, but a very reasonable £1.20 per metre overnight charge and frequent water taxi services right to the heart of town.
On the eastern side lies the unmissable East Cowes Marina, which is absolutely huge, complete with luxury yachtsman's residences ashore. This Marina can accommodate around 150 visiting boats of quite some size, certainly up to 20 m. The setting past the chain ferry is a bit less frenetic, and certainly more sheltered. The disadvantage of this spot is that it's a long way to the fleshpots of West Cowes, involving a hike through an industrialised area, and a trip across on the (free) clanking chain ferry. The easier alternative is probably the water taxi providing a regular service for a very reasonable £3.00 return. There are some local facilities available in the Marina and nearby, so don't be put off. Berthing charges are £3.06 per metre per night at the weekends and £2.75 Monday to Thursday reducing to £1.80 per metre in the winter.Contact them on 01983 293983 or on VHF channel 80 callsign " East Cowes Marina". A link to their website is provided below:
All the usual facilities are provided with electricity and water, showers and toilets as well as laundry. WiFi is available here. There is a Chandlers nearby, and a pub restaurant virtually on-site.
This just about concludes your mooring options at Cowes, anchoring is not really possible anywhere in this area. The other option is to carry on up River towards Newport and this is described elsewhere.
Individual facilities available at each berthing place have already been described, and this section deals with the more general facilities available in the Cowes area.
Fuel is available alongside at Lallows and 24 hours a day at the Yacht Haven but the largest bunkering facility is the fuel pontoon just south of the chain ferry on the Western side, and this facility is used by the lifeboat so one can assume the fuel is good and clean. Gas is available here too.
Water is available at the Marinas, and if on a harbour authority pontoon with no facilities it should be possible to water up at Shepards Wharf, the best plan is to enquire with the harbour authority.
Bottled gas is available at East Cowes Marina, the fuel pontoon mentioned above, and various other outlets including Hursts ironmongers.
Virtually all kinds of hauling and specialist work can be carried out in Cowes, as a glance at the business directory will show (I have had a 60 Ton MFV hauled and repaired in West Cowes). Sail makers, riggers, upholsterers, engineering, hydraulics, electronics........ just about anything you can think of can be fixed or built here.
An impressive list of yacht clubs make Cowes their home, but as far as I'm aware only two welcome visiting yachtsman (arriving at Cowes on board their own vessel) to use their premises and facilities. The Island Sailing Club is at the south end of Cowes Parade, telephone 01983 296621, link to website below:
The other welcoming club is the Cowes Corinthian YC, just south of the Yacht Haven. They have their own private pontoons outside the clubhouse, but unfortunately non members will need to find somewhere else to park their dinghies. They can be contacted on 01983 296333, and a link to their website is provided below:
Any other clubs in the Cowes area will be found in the directory, and should any of these offer hospitality to visiting yachtsman if they let us know they can be included here.
Shoreside facilities are a bit thin on the ground in East Cowes, however there is a Sommerfield's and Allday's for provisioning and a cash machine, post office and pharmacy.
West Cowes can fulfil all provisioning needs, with a reasonable sized Sainsbury's in the High Street and the Co-op supermarket by the bus terminal. All the major banks are represented with cash machines, and Internet access ashore can be found. There are any number of Chandlers, mainly of the fancy yacht clothing variety. Useful stuff for the boat may be found at Pascall Atkey, an interesting an ancient looking shop. Slightly away from the main drag in the non pedestrianised bit will be found a really good yacht paint supplier, covering all the popular brands with good stocks. They are just a bit further on from Becken of Cowes, the photographers. Some of the specialists may take a bit of tracking down, but they are here... check the directory.
Transport islandwide is covered by Southern Vectis, with a small bus station at Terminus Road, and Newport bound buses call at the Red Jet terminal. Ferries go to Southampton, but unfortunately there is no direct rail connection by the ferry terminals, with the station being a cab ride away.
There are several slipways in Cowes, including Watch House Lane, Market Slip, Sun Slip and Spencer Thetis Wharf. In general these are all small and tight of access, okay maybe for dinghies. More popular perhaps is the slipway at the Folly Inn, covered in a separate article.
Do you run a marine related business around this harbour ? If you're not already in our directory why not put yourself in ? If you are in, why not say something more about yourself ? The link below provides full info....It's FREE and you can do it yourself NOW.
The visiting sailor will find no shortage of things to do in Cowes. Museums include the Sir Max Aitken Museum, in the Prospect, a prominent pink building in Cowes high Street. This houses an impressive collection of maritime memorabilia. The Cowes Maritime Museum (Beckford Road) has on display two of Uffa Fox's boats. (Uffa Fox was a real Isle of Wight character, and a great designer being responsible for the Fairey Atlanta an extremely unusual and capable boat).
For the kids the Isle of Wight Model Railway Exhibition and Museum at the parade may be worth a visit.
Eating out is well catered for in Cowes, with anything from a donner kebab up to fancy Italian all on hand. From fish and chips through to Indian and Thai, not forgetting seafood... it's all available here, as are pub meals.
It would not be my place to recommend one pub or restaurant above another, and in general a recce ashore with a thirsty and hungry crew will soon locate suitable establishments for all tastes and pockets. A couple of links are provided below nevertheless for further investigation: