I spent the most pitch-perfect summer evening at the Classic Boat Museum in Cowes last weekend, celebrating 25 years of its existence and was utterly blown away by the place. It’s a treasure right in the very heart of both East and West Cowes with one of the most astonishing collections of boats and yachts alongside a trove of significant artefacts, documentation, heritage and scale models all beautifully curated spanning eras of nautical endeavour, telling the tale of mankind’s progression on the seas.
When you come to Cowes for the America’s Cup in 2028, (ahem), make sure you visit the place and lend your support. It’s a museum of not only national importance, but global too in my opinion, and whilst the local council offer peppercorn rent, it relies on generous benefactors to support it and grow.
And it deserves to flourish. The sailing world are traditionally good at supporting worthy causes – people with deep pockets tend to do the right things and now, more than ever, the museum is primed and ready to go to the next level and continue building on the most fabulous collection having got back on a stable financial footing under the guide of my sailing friend Mark McNeil.
Started by Maurice Wilmot, a racing sailor with a passion for restoration, he brought ten of his classics over to Cowes with a bold vision to create a boating and social club aside from his Dragon boat weekend racing. Having met local legends Brian Charlesworth and Ian Lallow, and with the support of the Isle of Wight Council, in 1996 Maurice started in a small shed down the River Medina near Newport. Sadly Maurice passed away in 2009 but the museum goes from strength to strength with the support of fabulous individuals determined to make it the greatest maritime museum in the world.
Today there are two sites open to the public – the Gallery in East Cowes for artefacts, photographic plates and historical records and the Boat Shed over in West Cowes that houses an astonishing selection of moderns and classics. The museum is run entirely by volunteers. Amazing people such as Rosemary Joy, a trustee, who has been there since the very start, beavering away unpaid to keep the lights burning, the artefacts curated and the curious coming through the door. It’s a thoroughly entertaining, inspiring and immersive experience for any of us with an inkling of interest in maritime history, heritage and tradition and for local schools it’s a vital resource linking the past with the present.
And centre stage, at least for me, were the remarkable America’s Cup artefacts on display. I felt as though I had died and gone to heaven. Rooms full of gems captured my imagination set beneath beautiful photography of our sport – I could have stayed in there all night. How lucky we are to have the America’s Cup and such brilliant photographers who dedicate their life to capturing our sport. And the curation, in its totality was first class. Breathtaking.
Wonderful pieces such as the Lawson’s History of the America’s Cup, Columbia’s Sail Book, a bronze bust of Sir Thomas Sopwith, rare plates of Sir Thomas Lipton, America’s course log from that famous race around the Isle of Wight (I wouldn’t have gone that close in at Yaverland), beautiful onboard photos of Endeavour, scale models of J-Class, IACC and 12 Metres and the pièce-de-resistance, a silver scale model of the Cup itself, given to Harold Cudmore by Bill Koch for his contribution to the winning campaign of America3 in 1992 and lent to the museum. What a collection.
And the Cowes glitterati were there to celebrate – even the current Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron showed up. It was a marvellous evening. Cowes in late summer is something of rare beauty and as the sun set in the far west and a rare-to-see-these-days cruise liner exited the Solent lit up by a thousand warming rays that shimmered against the cabin glass, we filed upstairs for a cold glass and to hear of the sheer hard voluntary work that goes into running a museum. It’s a monumental effort by dedicated people putting something back not only into the local community but into yachting’s history.
And if you’re a bored billionaire about to throw eye-watering sums at the America’s Cup…yes you…I know who you are and I know you’re reading this, how about stepping up, stepping in and taking the museum to the next level? Naming rights forevermore and when the Cup does come to Cowes, you will be able to bask in the glory of knowing you did the right thing and invite the team along for a rather wonderful reception. You know it makes sense. It’s an investment in the future and would be thoroughly rewarding and welcomed.
Places like the Classic Boat Museum are curated with skill and dedication by people putting something back into our sport and protecting its heritage. I applaud and thank wholeheartedly those that set out to make a difference and against the odds achieve the impossible.
Congratulations to the Classic Boat Museum and all those that selflessly dedicate their time and effort to this project on your first 25 years. I have a good feeling that the next 25 years will see the museum go from strength to strength.