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 club.
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, 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 over 100 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.
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 Single-Handed TransAtlantic Race (OSTAR) was the result. Five yachts sailed from Plymouth to New York with Francis Chichester coming first in GYPSY 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.
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.
Meanwhile the OSTAR, RB&I and TwoSTAR were established on a four cycle where they gained a formidable international following and established many famous names of sailing. The OSTAR and RB&I continue today but the fourth and last TwoSTAR was raced in 1994 after which it fell victim to the growing French calendar of transatlantic events. 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.
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.
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 and Nationals and Europeans in 1997, and the J80 Europeans in 1999 and National Championships in 2002.
Over the years the Club has occupied a variety of premises. In 1837 the Club obtained the lease of its first clubhouse near Millbay docks. In 1866 a new clubhouse was opened in Elliott Terrace followed by a move 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. Problems with further extensions of the property 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.