Shorthanded Oceanic Racing at the Royal Western Yacht Club
Plymouth has 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 undefaced 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, from France and St Petersburg to Cape Town, Ceylon, South America and the USA.
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 series of races for J Class Yachts, an event which continued for many 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 first ocean race, the Fastnet, should be sailed under the burgee of the Royal Western Yacht Club in 1925 (Organised and won by the Club’s Rear Commodore, E.G. Martin). It was at a dinner held in the Club after the race that the Ocean Racing Club, later to become The Royal Ocean Racing Club, was conceived. 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 arrangements ever since.
It was in 1960 that the Club introduced an innovation that had a profound effect on oceanic sailing – short-handed races! In 1959 the RWYC responded to a request from Lt.Col. H.G. (Blondie) Hasler to organise a single-handed race against the prevailing winds and current across the Atlantic. The 1960 Observer Singlehanded TransAtlantic Race (OSTAR) was the result. Five yachts sailed from Plymouth to New York and, remarkably, all five finished with Francis Chichester coming first in Gipsy Moth III.
The second OSTAR (now from Plymouth to Newport, RI) in 1964 had a significant impact. The race was won by Eric Tabarly in Pen Duick II who, on his return to France, was feted by the public and honoured by President de Gaulle. Out of this grew the French obsession with long-distance single-handed competitions.
This was followed in 1966 by the first Twohanded Round Britain and Ireland Race (the RB&I), and in 1981 by the Twohanded TransAtlantic Race (or ‘TwoSTAR’) – and so the tradition was established.
After the 1976 OSTAR, the Club came under pressure from the ‘experts’ to reduce the numbers of boats and their size, and, with the threat of intervention by the authorities, the Club had no choice but to introduce some restrictions. These were widely interpreted by the French press as anti-French and the Route du Rhum was created with no restrictions (which were however introduced for subsequent races). Despite, or perhaps because of, the restrictions, the 1980 OSTAR was vastly oversubscribed by the ‘Corinthian’ sailors and in 1978 the Club introduced a Twohanded Transatlantic event (with less restrictive limits), to be raced in 1981, to accommodate the sailors who had been denied a place.
The OSTAR, RB&I and TwoSTAR were set on a four cycle where they gained a formidable international following and established many famous names of sailing. The OSTAR and RB&I continued to the present without a break. The TwoSTAR, however fell victim to the growing French calendar of oceanic events after the fourth race in 1994. It was revived in 2012 and raced again, alonside the OSTAR, in 2017.
After the 2000 OSTAR the Club decided to split the fleet and run one race in 2004 for the heavily sponsored, professional, 50ft and 60ft monohull and multihull “grand prix” classes and a second race in 2005 for the rest of the fleet. Subsequently the Club decided that it could not afford to run the professional event without the commercial support it had received for the 2000 OSTAR and Offshore Challenges Events Ltd. was licensed the rights to run the “Transat” for the “grand prix” classes. Two Transats were run, in 2004 and 2008, from Plymouth to Boston, then OC Sport Pen Duick ran a Transat in 2016 this time to New York.
The OSTAR, now the Original Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, continued in 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2017 and the sixteenth edition of the Race will take place in 2020, along with the seventh Twohanded Transatlantic Race. These races will be a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the first singlehanded transatlantic race in 1960. The Club continues to promote the ‘Corinthian’ spirit 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.