Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Friday, 8 August 2008 00:01 UK

Choppy economy rocks yachting set

By Mark Broad
Business producer, BBC News, Cowes

As the stream of corporate hospitality guests and sailors make their way off the ferry at Cowes, it could not feel further away from the worst effects of the credit crunch.

Yacht at Cowes Week
Sailing enthusiasts keep coming as firms stay away

Despite a year of financial turmoil, the streams of yachts heading out onto the Solent are still flying the flags of some of the world's biggest banks.

Back on land the main shopping street is packed with groups of corporate hospitality guests making their way round the designer boutiques.

And yet, though the well-heeled crowd may not yet be counting the pennies, there are some early signs that the slowdown is beginning to effect the very genteel world of Cowes Week.

Make do and mend

Tucked just behind the main shopping street in the town lie the workshop and offices of Spencer Rigging.

Michelle Warner, Skandia Cowes Week
We're seeing a trend in sailing towards chartering rather than owning boats
Michelle Warner, Skandia Cowes Week

The company has seen its profits surge over the past few years as money made in the City has been used to refurbish classic old sailing yachts.

On the wall of the workshop are the plans for the refurbishment of a 40m steam yacht with 23 permanent crew that is owned by a British businessman.

And while projects from the super-rich have kept companies like Spencer Rigging in business, the director of the company, Scott Rice, is beginning to see a change among his less affluent customers.

"Customers that might have been looking to buy a new boat a year ago are now looking to do up their current model," he says.

"We're in fact doing a very good business for people who want a new mast or rigging rather than buying a new boat altogether."

Corporate downturn

Back down at the quayside, the groups of corporate guests are sipping on lunchtime beer and wine in the tent of the yacht chartering business, On Deck.

Mike Williams, On Deck Chartering
We're probably 20% down on corporate hospitality side of things, but that's been made up by booking from sailing enthusiasts
Mike Williams, On Deck Chartering

The company originally started as a sailing school, but has now expanded into corporate chartering in the UK as well as in the Caribbean.

For this year's Cowes, the company has added six new yachts to its fleet. Judging by the families and corporate guests on their boats, the business is doing very well.

But the boss of On Deck, Mike Williams, has seen a change in the make-up of his clientele this year.

"We're probably 20% down on the corporate hospitality side of things, but that's been made up by sailing enthusiasts booking the boats as individuals," he says.

One of the other parts of Mike's business is the individual regattas the company organises for different sectors of business, ranging from the Banking and Finance Regatta in September to a race for the furniture industry.

"You would expect that these regattas would be hit hard, but because there are so many sailors within the companies, there are still plenty of entries for this year," says Mr Williams.

Skandia deal ends

As the mix of competitive sailors and adventurous middle-managers make their way back out to the yachts for the afternoon races, Cowes certainly feels more exclusive than it actually is, observes Michelle Warner, the commercial and marketing manager for Cowes Week.

Cowes Week
Yacht at Cowes Week

1,000 competing boats
8,500 competitors
100,000 visitors
First held in 1826

"You get everything from people who go to the formal balls and drinks parties, right through to people who are sleeping on their boats and going for a few drinks in the beer tents at the end of the week," she says.

However, the rising cost of fuel for boats as well as the soaring cost of food and utilities have forced even the well-off sailors at Cowes to change their ways.

"We're seeing a trend in sailing towards chartering rather than owning boats," says Ms Warner.

"If you own a boat you have to pay to maintain it and keep it berthed."

It's not just individuals that are cutting back. Businesses are also saving money by ending sponsorship deal with big events.

And for the first time in 14 years, Cowes Week is looking for a new sponsor after the financial services firm Skandia ended its long association with the event.

The company that runs the regatta says it is in discussions with a number of potential sponsors, but as yet there is no firm deal in place for next year.

Thirsty work

As the racing comes to end, the bars back on the shore begin to fill up with thirsty sailors and competitors, a hint that in spite of the gloom there are still those who feel immune to the economic downturn.

Champagne at Cowes Week
Many with money are immune to the credit crunch

Among the punters watching the live bands is a group of hedge fund managers who've chartered a yacht for the day.

"There's still a lot of money around here," says the skipper of the boat.

"The higher end does not seem to be feeling the pinch. In fact they seem pretty immune from the credit crunch."

And while the Pimm's and champagne continues to flow, it would seem that the waves of the credit crunch are not quite ready to engulf the Cowes regatta quite yet.

This story is broadcast on the PM programme on Radio 4 on Saturday, 9 August between 1700 and 1800 BST.

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