History of RORC courtesy of the RORC website www.rorc.org
If the crew of the last boat to cross the finish line of the first ever Fastnet race did hear the cheers from the Royal Western Yacht Club of England, as the new Ocean Racing Club was formed, then the sound must have carried a long way. For the Plymouth club was situated, on that August evening in 1925, in a large Victorian building, up on the Hoe. Anyway it had a fine dining room for the crews of the seven yachts (less one) and at the end of dinner, as well as at the end of a memorable race, the new club was brought into being.
Although large yachts with paid crews (virtually small sailing ships) had raced in the open sea in the previous century, that was for private wagers or special occasions (there was a Round Britain race in 1887, the fiftieth year of the Queen’s reign, for eleven yachts of between 40 and 200 tons). At the beginning of the 1920s, yacht racing in Britain meant day racing, the best talent being in the 12, 8 and 6-metre boats of the International Rule of the IYRU (renamed ISAF in 1996).
Now the Cruising Club of America was formed in 1922, along the lines of the Royal Cruising Club (founded 1880) and it held a 600-mile race from New London to Bermuda in 1923 and again in 1924. These races were open to small yachts and amateur crews. Weston Martyr, a British yachting writer, who had taken part, returned to England with enthusiasm for the new sport. There followed enough response from individual owners of seaworthy cruisers for the first Fastnet race to start from Ryde, Isle of Wight, on 15th August 1925. Contrived to be about the same length as the Bermuda race, it did not pass off without much debate in the press on the wisdom of such a venture “open to any yachtsman” over such a course in our unsettled latitudes.
The select gathering at Plymouth appointed its first commodore of the Ocean Racing Club, Lt Cmdr E.G. Martin OBE RNVR, who had already won cruising awards from the RCC and from whose committee he had resigned owing to its disapproval of “the ocean race”. Owner of the converted Havre pilot cutter, Jolie Brise, he was no stranger to racing having won the One Ton Cup in the 6-metre class in 1912. At 6ft 5in, educated at Eton and New College, Oxford, and a county cricket player, he was evidently the kind of leader to create from scratch modern ocean racing in England. There were thirty-three other founder members, among whom were Robert Somerset DSO, R.Maclean Buckley MC and Major T.P. Rose-Richards, these three later becoming flag officers. The word “ocean” was as used in America, meaning racing in the open sea rather than in confined waters as previously. The object of the club was “to provide annually one ocean race not less than 600 miles in length”.
Looking slightly ahead, a second race was first introduced in 1928, on a triangular course in the English Channel of about 250 miles and known as “the Channel Race”. As for the name of the club, an application for “Royal” was made in 1929, but rejected by the Home Office. However King George V was an active yachtsman and it was granted in November 1931, when the club assumed its present title. The Fastnet race has remained a central fixture of the club. It was not always secure in the early days. There was a race each year until 1931, but in 1933 it was reduced to six starters, only three of which were British. Weston Martyr wrote in Yachting World, “What’s the matter with us? We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men and if we haven’t got the money, neither have the Americans just now: and yet they had about fifty entries this year for their race to Gibson Island”. Today the Fastnet is still with us and Gibson Island (last race 1937) is long forgotten.
For the second race the start line had been changed from Ryde to Cowes, but the yachts were still sent around the eastern end of the island, which was thought more seamanlike. The 1935 race was unique in that it started from Yarmouth, westward, and then finished at Cowes via the forts before the beginning of Cowes Week, an experiment which was not repeated. Ryde eastward was the start again in 1937, the race being won by Zeearend, thus prompting a famous comment by one of the race’s great chroniclers and participants, the American journalist Alf Loomis: “For once the race wasn’t won by a damned Yankee; no, the winner was a blasted Dutchman”. The 1947 race had a start to the east from the destroyer HMS Zephyr off Portsmouth, but thereafter it has always been westward from the Royal Yacht Squadron line at Cowes.
In 1935 (when the race became biennial), there were 17 starters and thereafter the numbers increased with 29 in 1939, 1947 (first post-war) and 1949. Numbers then rose to 42 in 1957, first year of the Admiral’s Cup, 151 in 1965 and an all time maximum of 303 in 1979. The wide international participation meant that winners came from different nations: for instance there was no winner that was both British designed and owned, from 1953 when Sir Michael Newton’s Robert Clark designed Favona was first overall, until 1975 when Golden Delicious owned by Peter Nicholson, designed by Camper and Nicholsons and sailed by the Bagnall twins, had best corrected time.
Numbers for the race in later years have steadied down to the middle 200s, which is about right for the organization with, for instance, a few below 250 in 1985, 1991, 1993 and 1995. 1997 saw 260 start in light weather and the course record broken by a multihull. As quantity improved over the years, so did passage times. George Martin’s Jolie Brise, which won in 1925, took just six and one half days (4.0 knots); the current course monohull record, set in 1999 is 2 days 5 hours 8 minutes 51 seconds (11.38 knots) being held by RF Yachting (Ross Field, NZL). Multihulls have raced since 1997, resulting in the outright course record also in 1999 of 1 day 16 hours 27 minutes 0 seconds (14.96 knots) by Fujicolor II (Loïck Peyron, FRA). More common in the Fastnet course are long beats to windward or patches of calm. However, unlike many of the world’s race courses, it is impossible to define Fastnet weather (therefore happily impracticable to design a special kind of boat to win). For instance for 1981 (next after the 1979 storm) there was light weather; 1983 had light weather and some calm, but easterlies on the way home; 1985 was the worst weather since 1979 and resulted in a higher proportion of retirements than in the storm; 1987 was generally light, but with a 200-mile beat on the way home including a short blow; 1993 was a beat to the Fastnet rock and a run home; 1995 was very light with a moderate beat, freshening later, all the way back to Plymouth. 1997 started with fog and light air and ended in calms with moderate breezes in between. 1999 was light for many boats, but the leaders carried a fresh breeze. 2001 featured fast speeds for most of the course, but light air before the finish, and 2003 turned out to be a long race in mainly light airs.
The club began by using various premises for its meetings and dinners in London; by 1935 it had the use of rooms at 3 Old Burlington Street. By February 1936, the membership at about 600 was large enough to open a club house at 2 Pall Mall. In November 1940, the building received a direct hit from a bomb, the steward was killed and the club house destroyed. It was joined incidentally by the Royal Western Yacht Club within the year, burnt down by incendiaries. That club then moved nearer the water, as found at the end of many Fastnets afterwards. In due course a short lease was taken on a house at 20 St James’s Place, but it was feared that any London club house might suffer the same fate. It nearly did, as the roof was then bomb damaged. After repair work by the members themselves, 20 St James’s Place was opened on 23rd July 1942 by King Haakon of Norway. Of course, the club, thanks to the foresight of those wartime members, is still there, and in 1956 was enlarged by the purchase of number 19.
A major renovation began in 1993 resulting in extensively modernized accommodation for members, with redecorated bedrooms and private bathrooms. A modern telephone system was installed throughout the building for administration and for members’ areas. As for the position of the club house at its select cul-de-sac in the West End, this remains beyond price. Those who were in charge in the year 1949 also had the wisdom to buy the freehold of the property. Among wartime activities were considerable hospitality to allied navies and a 32-35ft WL ocean racer design competition for prisoners of war. It was won by an RAF Flight-Lieutenant held in Oflag IVC.
In the few years prior to 1939, the number of races started by the club had expanded considerably. In 1930 there were 4 (Fastnet, Channel, Santander, Dinard); in 1934, 6; 1937, 8; 1938,10. 1937 was fairly typical, with Fastnet, Channel, Dinard, Heligoland, Maas, Southsea to Brixham, Ijmuiden to Solent and Solent to La Baule. In the 1980s, by contrast, the number of events averaged 17 per year, not counting short parts of modern inshore-offshore circuits. As further recounted below, the 1990s were to see even more race starts.
Unfortunately there is no space here to mention all the many members who have contributed so much to the progress of the club; some have reached flag rank and some not and the reader is referred to the pages with lists of previous officers and staff. But there was one giant of ocean racing, who gave a massive push to competitive sailing in Britain: Captain John H. Illingworth RN. He raised the standard of racing; he wrote a classic text book called Offshore; he revolutionized the rating rule and design; he challenged the Americans; he galvanized the French (too effectively some might say!); he started races overseas (Sydney-Hobart, Giraglia, sail training events and others), he showed that small yachts could race as daringly as big ones and he presented, with others, the Admiral’s Cup, a private challenge for a three boat team of American yachts which might be visiting for Cowes Week and the Fastnet. He won, in Myth of Malham, (Fastnet overall winner 1947 and 1949), Mouse of Malham, Merle of Malham, Monk of Malham, Oryx and other yachts, simply scores of races.
From the first RORC race after the war, the Cowes to Dinard in September 1945 (with a destroyer escort to ensure yachts kept clear of the minefields) and for twenty years after that, came the club’s greatest expansion. For one reason or another, yachtsmen decided that what, for want of a better name, are called cruiser-racers were the thing for racing. The old metre boat dominance disappeared and clubs around the coast began offering races for habitable handicap boats. The apex of these events was the annual programme of the RORC. Further, both in Britain and abroad, the challenging offshore courses improved vastly the design and construction of ocean racers. For a time it appeared that they were able to keep the sea in almost any weather. Owners and crews had, for what some see as this idyllic period, an ocean racer, a cruiser, somewhere to sleep in harbour, and an inshore racing boat, all in the same yacht. Such a vessel was manned by amateurs, probably members of the club, with the galley and chart table aft and of moderate displacement, so that the sail area could be reasonably handled.
As mentioned, the Admiral’s Cup began as a private challenge in 1957, but in 1959 the club was asked to run the series and although the Americans did not return that year, Holland and France took part. The story was then one of continual expansion of the number of teams, which reached a maximum of 19 (57 boats) between 1977 and 1979.
After 1985, in terms of the number of three boat teams, there was a decline as the kind of yacht needed to compete both offshore and in additional specified inshore courses (even Olympic or Olympic style layouts), became progressively more unusual and expensive, as did the paid crew. Commercial sponsorship of the series by a French company, Champagne Mumm, began in 1983, while the first British boat to be sponsored, rather than privately owned, appeared in 1991. The Admiral’s Cup had become at its origin almost by accident (because the allotted courses were already in existence) a novel kind of yacht racing which combined inshore and offshore racing. It steadily became a model of its kind, spawning welcome imitators including the Southern Cross (Australia), the Onion Patch (NE USA), Hawaii (Kenwood) Cup, Sardinia Cup, the RORC/IOR Ton Cups and a range of regional and local competitions.
Back in 1945, following the death of George Martin, his partner in ownership of a gaff rig yacht called Griffin, H.E.West, had presented her to the club, so that provisional members and others without berths could gain ready access to races. In 1957, Owen Aisher and his co-owners made a free replacement with Yeoman, which had won the 1951 Fastnet. She was renamed Griffin II. Since then a number of yachts, each named Griffin has been acquired in turn by the club for training purposes. Again specialization and costs meant that times changed, so that the last Griffins were run for training by the then National Sailing Centre in association with the RORC. When the Centre converted to a private trust, the system was changed to supporting training with a fund rather than a specific yacht.
In 1970 the commodore and two advisers decided to start up a substantial publication for members with the title, Seahorse. It was first a quarterly, then a monthly. It has had two changes of ownership and copies have always been for sale to non-members. Established now for more than twenty-five years, it has evolved into an organ of first class yacht racing, not merely offshore.
From the earliest days the club has found it necessary to have some form of established and practical time allowance system to enable boats to join in the races. For the first Fastnet races with their elderly cruisers built to no rules, Malden Heckstall-Smith, brother of the famous “Bookstall”, who virtually ran British inshore yacht racing single-handed, was appointed “club measurer”. He recommended a version of the old Boat Racing Association formula of 1912. It had in fact been derived by combining two earlier American rating rules, the Seawanhaka and the Universal. As the “RORC rule” it was developed for the club’s races through the thirties. From the beginning, Martin, Somerset and others were determined to have a measurement rule of some sort and not to depend upon observed performance. One description by Somerset stated that measurement was “a very simple matter which can be done afloat in a few minutes”.
In 1928 the CCA began using this rule for the Bermuda race, but in 1932 split away to use an entirely different form of handicapping. The RORC was then on its own and such an efficient job did it do, that from 1945 other British clubs began to specify the RORC rule for their races and insisted that boats arrived with a certificate of measurement issued by the RORC. In those more modest days, the club was at first reluctant to allow other organizations to use its rule, but by the late fifties the club’s rating rule and its equipment standards were widely used in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, though not in North and South America where US systems were bound to prevail. In 1957 there were major changes to the RORC rule, including the abandonment of the necessity to be able to take all measurements when afloat (on a mooring, for there were then no marinas in Britain). These changes involved the re-measurement of some 1200 boats. Since the mid-thirties there had also been quite different methods of time allowances in America and Britain. Since 1935 the RORC (followed ten years later by all other British clubs) deduced a time-on-time system (minutes per hour) for each yacht from her rating, while throughout the USA, time-on-distance (seconds-per-mile) remained read off from nationally agreed tables.
A number of reasons in the sixties led to initiatives to try and combine the RORC and American rules. Among these were continental pressures (particularly the “Bremen meeting”) against having to choose between two rules, talk of an ocean racing class in the Olympic games, which was thought to need a rating rule and the example of the IYRU, which had in 1952, after forty-five years, at last been joined by the USA. Successful American designs were beginning to appear to the RORC rule and US designers rather liked the way it was run.
London and the club house were a main focus of this international activity and it was there in November 1968 that a new combined rule, the International Offshore Rule, was announced. RORC members taking a leading role were E.P.De Guingand, a RORC flag officer and chairman of the co-ordinating committee, David Fayle and Robin Glover, RORC chief measurers, of whom there were no equivalents in the USA, Olin J. Stephens II and Dick Carter, American designers whose yachts were winning under both the RORC and American rules and David Edwards, commodore of the club at that vital period.
From 1971, the club used the IOR for all its races. Such a “world rule” caused for a number of years an immense expansion in offshore racing and offshore boats. A major influence on the whole process was the One Ton Cup , an award owned by the Cercle de la Voile de Paris, used previously for the IYRU 6-metre class. The CVP had transferred it in 1965 to a fixed rating under the RORC rule with a few extras such as headroom and equipment to be carried; with the arrival of IOR, it was agreed to move it under the same concept to within IOR. Under the latter rule it provided intense annual international competition from 1971 until 1994. In 1998 the famous and remarkably handsome cup was allocated to a 45ft one-design class.
In its first decade, the IOR did look very much more like the old RORC rule than that of the CCA. In a kind of repeat of 1932, senior members of the latter club set up a project to create a new rating rule in America. Known as MHS, it came into use there in 1976 and was used for the 1980 Bermuda race, which was therefore once again on a different system from the Fastnet. Even under IOR, America had used time-on-distance and the British used time-on-time, which resulted in different perceptions of the IOR itself. A committee, which sat for several years attempting to reach a single compromise on time allowances, duly dissolved itself without finding a solution.
From about 1978, there were calls for the RORC to adopt a one-design, for those who did not wish to struggle with rating rules. The club preferred to welcome classes into its races and give prizes, but leave them in the hands of their owners’ associations. One-designs to have competed regularly offshore in all lengths of race have included the Contessa 32, the OOD 34, the Sigma 33 and the Sigma 38, all built in England. In 1993 the club took its own one-design initiative with a 36ft flat out racer, designed and built in the USA, and nominated it as a compulsory team boat for the Admiral’s Cups from 1995 to 1999. Sponsorship was involved and the class was named the Mumm 36. Expectations that the class would have wider use in the club’s races were not realized.
In 1984 the club offered a second rating alongside the IOR, run from its own rating office following a suggestion from, and in partnership with, France’s Union National du Course au Large. Known as the Channel Handicap System, it had the effect over several years of increasing race entries, especially in Fastnet races from 1989 onwards. It steadily grew until some 5400 were using the Rule world wide of which over 3000 are issued in England (for UK, Ireland and some other countries), far exceeding those that were measured in the most numerous days of IOR (about 1850 in UK and Ireland). For various reasons IOR fell into disuse; it was in practice unused by the club after 1993. For some it was a pity to see it go, for it had still included in its basic formulae the elements of the old RORC rule and earlier rules within that. From 1990 until 1999 the International Measurement System, previously the American MHS was also used for rating boats in the club’s races. At the end of 1997, the club, in conjunction with UNCL, announced a revised rating system to be known as IR2000. As a result CHS was simply renamed IRC, but an additional published rule called IRM, intended for flat out racers, became effective from the 2000 season. However this initiative did not seem to appeal beyond a minority of racing yachts based in the central Solent and was discontinued at the end of 2007. In 2003 IRC was accorded International status by ISAF, and continues to flourish. In 2004 some 6000 boats in 31 were racing under IRC. In 2004 the adoption of IRC by a number of US Clubs has seen the expansion of this popular Rule into the USA.
After eighty seven years of races, memorable and otherwise, campaigns at home and abroad, club life and activities, it would be strange if there had not been unwanted incidents and occurrences. Fatalities while racing have been few, but in ocean racing everywhere casualties happen from time to time. A man was lost overboard in the 1931 Fastnet and French sailors were lost in a Biscay race in the fifties. In 1956 many yachts were in serious difficulties in the “Channel race storm”. Other individual cases did occur in the club’s races, though it was in the 1979 Fastnet, in which five boats were abandoned and subsequently lost in extreme conditions, that there were fifteen fatalities. Many lessons were learned, which were enumerated in a formal inquiry instituted by the club and the national authority. Linked recommendations were to have a major effect on safety and equipment rules and some aspects of the conduct of racing.
The club racing is now on a two-year cycle with the Fastnet and the qualifiers necessary for it in each odd numbered year. For a typical “even year” such as 2004 there was a revival of a race from the Solent to Cascais in Portugal, and a series in the Solent and offshore for three boat teams from around Britain and abroad for the Commodores’ Cup. In February 2009, the Club introduced the RORC Caribbean 600 race. Starting and finishing in Antigua, the 605 mile race is around the majority of the Leeward Islands. Some 20 events appeared on the annual programme, climaxed by the RORC racing division of the ARC race from Las Palmas, Canary Islands, to Rodney Bay, St Lucia. In the Mediterranean there was the Middle Sea race of 630 miles from Malta, the China Sea race of 650 miles was from Hong Kong to Manila and there was a non-stop 700-mile round Ireland event. Continental ports which marked the finish of races of various lengths included St Malo, Ostend, Scheveningen, Cherbourg, Le Havre, Dieppe and St Quay Portrieux. Multihulls, having been given a class briefly in the 1960s, were re-admitted in 1997 and then seemed set to continue.
It is a strange fact that the RORC has no equivalent in any other country (except possible the Nippon Ocean Racing Club, which with 6000 members and many outstations is more of an association for racing throughout Japan). Many clubs all over the world run a limited number of ocean races from their own bases, combined with other sailing activities. There is nothing with quite the appearance of the present day RORC race programme. By contrast various events spring up or are grafted on to race programmes, some being totally organized by a sponsor. When the great event is over, competitors disperse and no physical trace remains.
After eighty seven years, the message of the Royal Ocean Racing Club still carries a long way. With its bricks and mortar existence, its elected membership and its permanent professional staff, the club stands as a sentinel for the ideals of racing under sail at sea.
Sir Peter Johnson Bt (d. 2004) wrote this history which has been amended up to date.