Few organising bodies in international sport can claim to have been founded over 175 years ago. Even fewer still play a leading role in their sport but The Royal Western Yacht Club is one of them.
The Club was founded in 1827, when to go to sea for fun and not out of necessity was considered at best unusual and, by many, even eccentric. But Plymouth had for centuries been inseparable from every kind of maritime adventure and it would have been even more surprising if the city had not given birth to one of the world’s first yacht clubs.
Founded as the Port of Plymouth Royal Clarence Regatta Club in 1827, it became the Royal Western Yacht Club in 1833. Its original aims were to hold an annual regatta, to organise an active social programme and to stimulate improvements in naval architecture through yacht racing, and the Club still holds to the principles of those original aims today.
In those early years the Club’s principal strength proved to be in long distance cruising. Its members’ yachts, wearing the Blue Ensign, a privilege given to them in a Warrant granted by Queen Victoria, were to be seen in the farthest corners of the globe.
At the same time the Club’s active involvement in racing grew consistently. As well as running an annual regatta the Club was soon organising an annual race series for J Class Yachts, an event which continued for over the years until 1934.
Yachts competing in such races never ventured too far offshore. But Plymouth had been the traditional starting point for the voyages of Anson, Drake, Cook and many other great seafarers so it was, perhaps, only natural that the world’s first ocean race, the Fastnet, should be sailed under the burgee of the Royal Western Yacht Club in 1925. The Fastnet remains one of the ocean racing classics for fully-crewed yachts and the Royal Western Yacht Club has been instrumental in organising the finishing ever since.
In 1960 the Club introduced an innovation that had a profound effect on oceanic sailing – short-handed races! The 1960 Observer Single-Handed TransAtlantic Race (OSTAR) was the result of a request from Lt.Col. H.G. (Blondie) Hasler to organise a single-handed race against the prevailing winds and current across the Atlantic. Five yachts sailed from Plymouth to New York with Francis Chichester coming first in Gipsy Moth II. This was followed in 1966 by the first Two-Handed Round Britain and Ireland Race (the RB&I), and in 1981 by the Two-Handed TransAtlantic Race (or ‘TwoSTAR’) — and so a tradition was established. In 2020 the Club will be celebrating 60 years of shorthanded oceanic racing with the anniversary edition of the OSTAR accompanied by the seventh edition of the TWOSTAR.
The Club continues to promote the ‘Corinthian’ spirit in the OSTAR and the RB&I ensuring that the races are not limited to the heavily sponsored professional competitors, but offer amateur and semi-professional sailors an opportunity to develop and express their talents.
The Club had not been ignoring domestic racing. Following a lull after the last J Class Series in 1934, competitive sailing restarted in the 1950s. 1954 saw the first Plymouth to Fowey race followed by the first Plymouth to St Malo in 1956 – both races became annual events. Triangular races to France and the Channel Islands and several Armada Cup races to Spain were held in the ’80s and ’90s and the Club built up the seasonal races series now held in Plymouth Sound in addition to the offshore series.
The Club also played host to many national and international championships, including the Sigma 33 Nationals in 1991 and 1995, the J24 Nationals in 1991, 2013 and Nationals and Europeans in 1997, the J80 Europeans in 1999, the National Championships in 2002 and 2005, the J24, Seascape 18 & MOCRA Nationals in 2015 with many more events since then.
Over the years the Club has occupied a variety of premises. In 1837 the Club occupied its first clubhouse near Millbay docks, moved to Elliott Terrace in 1866 then to the Hoe (next door to the Grand Hotel) in 1882. This building was destroyed, along with all the Club’s silver and historical records, in the bombing of 1941. The Club had used the former West Hoe Baths and Reading Room on Grand Parade since 1890 and a new building was opened there by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1965. Space limitations led to the Club’s move to its current premises in Queen Anne’s Battery where the new clubhouse was opened by HRH The Princess Royal in 1989.
Notable events in the Club are listed here.