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 until 1934.
Yachts competing in such races rarely ventured too far and while offshore events were held these were typically cruises or special event races and none were repeated on a regular basis. 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 Club should turn to ocean racing.
The change occurred when the Club’s Rear Commodore, George Martin, read an article by Weston Martin on the Bermuda Race (which had been run regularly since 1906) in which he had competed. Martin resolved to create a similar race on this side of the Atlantic.
The Club Chronicles entry for 1925 records what happened –
” . . . However, another sailing event was yet to come, and on 15th August a race, under the Club Burgee, started from Ryde (Royal Victoria Yacht Club) to round the Fastnet and finish in Plymouth Sound.
A veteran English yachtsman, Weston Martyr, had been offshore racing in America for some years, and on return home in 1924 had been surprised to find no offshore racing this side of the Atlantic. He wrote enthusiastic articles to the yachting magazines which caught the eye of the Rear-Commodore, E. G. Martin. A Committee of three (initially), George Martin, Weston Martyr and Malden Heckstall-Smith (editor of Yachting Monthly) was duly formed and the Fastnet Race was born.
Yachts of international classes were barred, and a rule stated:
‘No restrictions will be made on the number of amateurs carried, but no more paid hands will be permitted than can normally be accommodated in the fo’c'sle.’
Seven yachts started: Jolie Brise (Martin) 44-ton ex-pilot cutter, Fulmar (R.E.Y.C.) 38 foot, Bamba IV (Ray Barrett) 20-ton aux. ketch, Saladin (Ingo Simons) 34-ton ex-pilot cutter, Gull (H. P. F. Donegan) 18-ton cutter, Jessie L (C. J. Hussey) 27-ton cutter, and North Star (M. Tennant) 36-ton ketch. All seven completed the course, though the last two named had officially retired. Jolie Brise won in 6 days 1¾ hours
At a dinner at the Club after the race, Martin proposed the formation of an Ocean Racing Club and it was formed then and there. Martin was later elected Commodore and presented a Challenge Cup. In a letter to the Chairman of the Committee he writes:
‘I have given a Challenge Cup to be sailed for yearly over the Fastnet Course which we chose this year and proved to be most satisfactory. It so happens that I am the holder of the Cup for the year, and it would give me great pleasure if the Committee of the Royal Western Yacht Club would consent to keep it with the other silver in the dining room … Under the conditions of the deed of the gift, should the Ocean Racing Club cease to exist or no race be held over the course during three successive years the Cup passes to the Royal Western Yacht Club at my death.’ ”
The ‘Ocean Race’ became the Fastnet race and continues to this day with the RWYC providing support for the finish (albeit much reduced since the introduction of better communications and trackers).
The next oceanic race that the Club introduced had a major impact on the sailing world.
Firstly it was truly oceanic – westward across the North Atlantic into the prevailing wind and current, and secondly it was for a single crew – no professional hands, no race ‘heavies’.
‘Blondie’ Haslar’s concept was simple; one man, one boat against the ocean. A test of seamanship with the objective of encouraging the “development of suitable boats, gear, supplies and technique for single-handed ocean crossings under sail”.
Predictably the yachting establishment was shocked. Hasler had difficulty in getting sponsorship and a yacht club to organise the race. Eventually he and Francis Chichester approached the Royal Western who agreed to provide the necessary support and created a Singlehanded Transatlantic Race (STAR) committee under the chairmanship of Jack Odling-Smee.
So, thirty five years after the first Fastnet Race, at 10 o’clock on 11th June 1960, Blondie Haslar, Francis Chichester, David Lewis and Val Howells set sail from Plymouth; “cross the starting line from west to east, leaving the Melampus buoy to starboard then to New York by any route”. Five days later Jean Lacombe followed them out of Plymouth. So began The Observer Single Handed Transatlantic Race (OSTAR). Every four years, the now renamed Original Single Handed Transatlantic Race, starting in Plymouth and finishing at Newport, continues to be one of the principle blue water races of the world for corinthian and professional sailors.
Blondie Haslar then suggested a twohanded race around Britain and Ireland. First raced in 1966 and on a four year cycle since, today’s Round Britain and Ireland Race follows an almost identical route. The race starts and finishes in Plymouth, with compulsory forty eight hour stops in Kinsale, Barra, Lerwick and Lowestoft.
A third shorthanded race was introduced, in 1981, in response to the overwhelming demand for places in the 1980 OSTAR. Making the race twohanded allowed the Club to accept larger boats than were permitted under the restrictions that had been placed on the singlehanded race.
The new race, which obviously became known as the TWOSTAR, also ran on a four year cycle fitting in between the OSTAR and the Round Britain.
In the late 1990s the race was discontinued when the overloaded professional shorthanded race calendar gave skippers little opportunity to enter it. However, the reduction in ‘Grand Prix’ classes in the early 2000s and the successful move by the OSTAR back to its Corinthian roots spurred a revival in the TWOSTAR.
The Club continued fully crewed oceanic racing over the years including such notable events as the ‘reverse’ transatlantic from Manchester, Massachusetts, to Plymouth celebrating the Club’s sesquicentennial; the Parmelia Race, a pursuit race from Plymouth to Western Australia, celebrating the voyage of the barque Parmelia to the Swan River; a series of ‘Armada Cup’ races to Spain, several twohanded ‘UK Fastnet’ races for Mini 650s, and single races to Iceland and other destinations.
The Royal Western Yacht Club continues its commitment to shorthanded racing. The latest OSTAR running concurrently with the TWOSTAR in 2017 and the next Round Britain and Ireland in 2018 ensure that the Club remains at the forefront of shorthanded ocean racing.