The Rise of Racing and Regattas

The earliest and most interesting of these was the Cork Water Club of 1720, but its quaint pageantry need not detain us here, as it will be dealt with in another chapter. It is an interesting subject for speculation as to whether there was any connection between the ancient rules and constitution which this club boasted in 1720 and the efforts of Sir William Petty; but the suggestion seems to be incapable of proof. In gathering up the loose odds and ends of the century – for preference hitherto unchronicled odds and ends – there is interest in learning that the Duke of Bedford had a yacht in 1743, and that, like a wise man who knew the age he lived in, he gave her over to an Admiralty official, John Russell, to be looked after and fitted out. History is silent as to where the cost of the outfit fell, but it is quite likely that the Navy Estimates were made to bear it in some manner best known to the dockyard officials.  ‘Your Grace’s yacht is now complete, and a beauty she is,’ wrote Russell, who in return for his com­plaisance was able to avail himself of the Duke’s permission – ‘I shall like very well your taking the yacht wherever you please.’ There are other mentions of yachts in the Russell letters. In January, 1750, one of the Navy Commissioners owned a small craft which he modestly called ‘a fishing boat,’ and in the same year we find Russell’s son writing that ‘Poor Major Philipp’s fine yacht is taken from him, and, I believe, to be sold, as is mine, with several others.’

It is permissible to believe that the ‘several others’ were among those present at the well-known race of the previous year, when ‘on the 1st August, between 1 and 2 o’clock, twelve boats started at Greenwich for the Prince of Wales’s Cup, to go to the Nore and back again, which was won by a boat built on purpose, called the Princess Augusta, belonging to George Bellas, Esquire, who on receiving the prize generously gave the value of it among the men that worked the boat. In the going down to Woolwich she was 1 mile before the rest, and at the Hope 3 miles; but in coming up, by the shifting of the winds, . . . she came in first by ten minutes, which was next day at 40 minutes past 2. . . It was almost a perfect calm, and not the least damage happened, though the river seemed overspread with sailing yachts, galleys, and small boats.’

The presumption is very strong that the great majority of the ‘sailing yachts’ were small day-boats, owned by London men, and used almost exclusively for work in the upper reaches and above bridge; otherwise it is difficult to reconcile such a picture with that drawn by Henry Fielding only five years later. Writing of his observations afloat in 1754, he comments on ‘the deplorable want of taste in our enjoyments, which we show by almost totally neglecting the pursuit of what seems to me the highest degree of amusement, this is the sailing ourselves in little vessels of our own, contrived only for our ease and accommodation. This amusement, I confess, if enjoyed in any perfection, would be of the expensive kind; but such expense would not exceed the reach of a moderate fortune, and would fall very short of the prices which are daily paid for pleasures of a far inferior rate. The truth, I believe, is that sailing in the manner I have just mentioned is a pleasure rather unknown or unthought of than rejected by those who have experienced it.’

During the peace which followed the Seven Years’ War we may suppose that cruising was developed to some degree. Lescallier certainly implies that it was carried on to an appre­ciable extent, and details available for 1773 show that it was, on occasion, combined with racing. ‘On 26 Sept., 1773, Earl Ferrers arrived at Deptford in his yacht from a cruise of about 3 weeks, which he took in order to make a trial of his new method of constructing ships.’ We are told that she answered to expecta­tions, was fast, a good sea-boat, and carried sail well; but we are not enlightened as to the secret of her construction. This is a pity, since there must have been something unusual about her if it is true, as stated, that she turned up Sea Reach against the ebb tide at Springs, a performance unheard of at that date. But there is much obvious exaggeration in the accounts; the sporting journalist was not yet developed in 1773, and the layman seemingly wrote down what he was told without question. In an entry for December 31 of the same year we read that in a race across Channel and back ‘against two small shallops belonging to Lieu­tenants Friend and Columbine his Lordship’s vessel was weathered two full leagues in coming in with Dover Cliffs. A vessel launched lately for the captain of the Speedwell has since beat the shallops, and is thought to be the fastest sailing vessel on the coasts of this kingdom.’ Quite possibly, but in the performance of the shallops we seem to smell fluky weather. A ‘shallop,’ by Blanckley’s definition, was a ‘small light vessel, with only a small main and fore mast, and lugg-sails to haul up or let down on occasion.’ Her development after 1750 has not been worked out. We know that she was fast, because the smugglers used her, and she was legislated against accordingly; but the impression is that she was, originally at least, a rowing boat with auxiliary sails. At any rate, she was nothing like the sloop at this date, though she is often confused with it. More probably she was the ancestor of the celebrated ‘beachmen’s yawls’ of the East Anglian coast. These we know to have been famous sailing vessels, and one of them, the Reindeer, 69 feet long, challenged the America to race with her in the North Sea. The America, perhaps discreetly, refused to race save for a stake which it was beyond the beachmen’s power to raise.

The year 1775 is of considerable importance in yachting history. On June 23 the fashionable world was entertained with a new form of amusement: a ‘regatta’ was held at Ranelagh, many ‘sailing vessels and pleasure boats’ belonging to ‘several very respectable gentlemen’ being present, but merely as spectators, for the pro­ceedings were confined to watermen. However, it was presently announced that on July 11 ‘a silver cup, the gift of H.R.H. the Duke of Cumberland, is to be sailed for from Westminster Bridge to Putney Bridge and back by pleasure-sailing boats from 2 to 5 tons burden and constantly lying above London Bridge.’ Only boats ‘never let out for hire’ were eligible. The race eventually was sailed on the 13th, and was won by the Aurora, owned by Mr. Parks, of Ludgate Hill; but details of the event are lacking.

Messrs. Boulton and Guest rightly look upon this cup race as marking the origin of the first of the English yacht clubs, for the Cumberland Society was formed as an up-river racing club from that day. The usual course was from Blackfriars to Putney and back to Vauxhall; but occasionally the boats were sent to Green­wich, or even to the Nore. Sometimes, as in honour of the King’s birthday in 1776, a procession of yachts was organized. Some­times some of the boats went to sea. During the early years of the society England was, indeed, at war, but only with her re­bellious colonists on the other side of the Atlantic, and the im­pression seems to have prevailed that the Channel might be considered safe. The Hawke, of the Cumberland Fleet, discovered her error in 1777, when an American privateer chased her into Calais. When France decided to take a hand in the war, the Channel as a cruising-ground was obviously out of the question.

The history of the society belongs of right to the annals of the Thames Yacht Club, which was formed as its lineal successor in 1823. It is only necessary here to refer to the race of 1781, in which the Duke’s cup was thrown open, and all ‘gentlemen pro­prietors of pleasure-sailing boats within the British dominions’ were invited to compete. However, no visitor, but the Cumberland, belonging to Commodore Taylor, won the first open race on record.

There are a few miscellaneous items available for the years of peace following the American War, but they are of no great interest singly, and taken collectively add little to what has been said concerning the course of development at this era. One, not previously noticed, gives a graphic account of how a man-of-war coming up Channel fell in with a sloop yacht which had been dis­masted in a gale, and, with considerable danger and difficulty, rescued her crew and passengers, including a lady in a black hat, who showed her gratitude by kissing the midshipman in charge of the boat before the assembled ship’s company. Martin, the mid­shipman in question, was much embarrassed; nor could he under­stand where the ‘pleasure’ of sailing came in, nor why people would call their ‘yachts’ their ‘pleasure boats,’ for he himself was always a victim of sea-sickness.

One other new item may be worth quoting, and again there is a lady in the case. This was Mrs. Calder, wife of Captain Calder, afterwards the well-known Admiral, a baronet and a K.C.B. ‘Mrs. Calder [we are now in 1790] was very fond of boat-sailing, and we had a large double-banked cutter in which she would go to Spit-head when blowing very fresh, and carrying sail as if in chase until the boat’s gunwale was under, so that everyone thought she was mad; and very few liked the trip except in fine weather, as she would always feel offended if any attempt was made to take in sail.’ There was plenty of daring boat-sailing in the Navy in those days, so that we may take it as proved that Mrs. Calder was something really remarkable.

Messrs. Boulton and Guest have worked out the details of the events which preceded the formation of the Royal Yacht Squadron so carefully that the student will find all that he desires in their pages. For the present we are concerned with the meaning of events rather than with names, and find more of interest in such a statement that by 1804 ‘there had long been organized races between fishing boats and pilot cutters at Cowes, Southampton, Portsmouth, Weymouth, Plymouth, and elsewhere, which were made the occasion of an annual holiday by the inhabitants, who subscribed little purses by way of prize-money. As early as 1788 we read of  “a sailing match for 30 guineas to take place at Cowes for vessels carvel built not exceeding 35 tons register, westward round the Island.” ’ And there is a picture by Serres of a regatta at Cowes in 1776. It is noticeable, however, that in yachting, as in other forms of sport, the gentleman of 1804 thought that where matches were concerned his share should be limited to that of a spectator. There was, for instance, a race for cutters in South­ampton Water in this year, but the competitors were watermen, and the gentlemen who were present in their yachts were mere lookers on. The same was the case in later years, and when the amateurs began to think of taking an active part in the proceedings, the pro­posal was to hold a review of yachts in the Solent. But the review did not take place, and active development was left to be the peculiar function of the Squadron.

It would be interesting to know, if we could know, how many of the yachtsmen of this date had their yachts built for them and took an interest in the design, and how many availed themselves of the advertisements which used to appear concerning the offer for sale of fast-sailing craft ‘well worthy the notice of a gentleman wanting a pleasure yacht.’ That at least one of the yachts then inexistence was very luxurious we know from the account of Sir William Curtis, the Lord Mayor, who was reported in 1809 to be spending £1,600 a year on his yacht, ‘the finest pleasure vessel belonging to any British subject,’ and that ‘not for the sake of any fashion, but for the sake of the genuine pleasure derived from it by himself and his friends.’ The hint that there might be a fashion at this date in yachting is instructive; the rest of the passage inspires us to murmur, ‘O si sic omnes !’

But though the Lord Mayor was able to cruise at times, it must not be forgotten that we were still at war, and that the coast was still so unsettled that a harmless country parson, putting off from Hastings Beach in an open boat for an hour or two’s fishing, could be fired on by a revenue cutter in the belief that he was a smuggler. The formation of the Squadron followed the peace, and the great development of yachting has been made possible only by the long and prosperous peace which the ascendancy of the Royal Navy has secured to us.

Read on … Chapter 4 – Organisation 1815 – 1851