The Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes in the Isle of Wight, founded in 1815, has extensive records. The archive, the main series of which are minutes, accounts, membership records and racing results, is not open to the public. The part-time archivist has very limited time available because of a major cataloguing project and our paid research service has been temporarily suspended. It is hoped these notes and the other leaflets will address the most common queries.

If your ancestors served aboard a yacht belonging to the Royal Yacht Squadron, even if you have photographs of them with “RYS” on their uniforms, we are most unlikely to be able to help. Although yachts “belonged” to the RYS in the sense that their owners were members of the club and they maintained similar standards and pay rates, the men were employed by the yachts’ owners and not by the RYS itself. We hold no records, nor do we have information on the whereabouts of past members’ papers (in fact, if you find any we should be delighted to hear about them). Obituaries for late 19th/early 20th century yacht masters may be in local newspapers.

If you know the name of a yacht, the RYS may be able to tell you who owned it. Alternatively you could establish this, and discover more information such as the yacht’s dimensions and port of registry, from the relevant volume of the annual publication Lloyds Register of Yachts, published from 1878 until 1980. Hunt’s Universal Yacht List was an earlier but less detailed publication.

If you know the name of an owner, the RYS may be able to tell you which yachts he had on the Squadron list during his membership of the club. Further information on past members can often be obtained from standard reference works e.g Debrett’s or Burke’s Peerage or Landed Gentry, Walford’s County Families, the Army List and Navy List, the Dictionary of National Biography, Who’s Who, Who’s Who in Yachting. British Yachts and Yachtsmen (publ. 1907) features many yachting personalities of that time who were RYS members. You may find obituaries for some members in local or national newspapers or yachting magazines.

If you know neither, it may be possible to trace your ancestor, and the yacht, through the records of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen. Many RYS yachts were quite large and travelled the world and many paid hands also served in the merchant fleet when not employed on a yacht. Such records are held by the National Archives, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU which has information leaflets available; you can search the website at The Mariners website at also has useful guidance.

There are several books on tracing merchant seamen ancestors and ships, for example:

C.T. and M.J Watts: My Ancestor was a Merchant Seaman 2nd edition published 2004 by the Society of Genealogists
Peter L Hogg: Using Merchant Ship Records for Family Historians (in Basic Facts About… series) 2nd edition publlished 2002 by the Society of Genealogists
Christopher T. Watts and Michael J. Watts: Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamen 2nd edition with appendix published 2004 by the Society of Genealogists

If you seek a yacht’s photograph contact Beken of Cowes Ltd, 16 Birmingham Road, Cowes, Isle of Wight, PO31 7BH; these world famous marine photographers hold an extensive archive of yachting pictures. Always ask for a quotation and be very careful never to infringe their copyright as these photographs are protected by law unless written permission to make a copy (this includes placing an image on the internet) is obtained first. The Beken website is at The company has also published several books of photographs of historic yachts, for example:

Beken of Cowes: The America’s Cup published 1990 by Collins Harvill, London, ISBN 0-00-272077-9, includes a photograph of Sir Thomas Lipton with the crews of his yachts Shamrock I and Shamrock II.

If you seek information on the history of the Royal Yacht Squadron and yachting, the first four books on the following list were written after extensive research in the RYS archive:

Montague Guest and William B Boulton: Memorials of the Royal Yacht Squadron published 1903 by Murray, Albermarle Street, London. This contains an appendix entitled ‘List of Royal Yacht Squadron Members and Their Yachts 1815 – 1901’.
J B Atkins: Further Memorials of the Royal Yacht Squadron (1901-1938) published 1939 by Geoffrey Bles, 37 Essex Street, Strand, London.
Ian Dear: The Royal Yacht Squadron 1815-1985 published 1985 by Stanley Paul & Co Ltd. (Century Hutchinson Ltd), ISBN: 0-09-162590-4.
Alex Martin: Making Waves, A History of the Royal Yacht Squadron 1815-2015, published by Unicorn Press (, ISBN: 9-7819-1078-7359.

A snapshot of early Victorian yachting which lists yachts and yachtsmen is:-

The Yachting Season of 1845, an illustrated facsimile reprint of George Frederick Bonner’s The Yachtsman’s Annual and General Register published 1971 by The Nautical Publishing Company, ISBN 0 245 50701 9.

A book which gives a flavour of the yachting and social scene during the days of the very large yachts is:- 

Anthony Heckstall-Smith: Sacred Cowes or the Cream of Yachting Society, published 1955 by Allan Wingate, London.

Such books may only be available through your library or secondhand / antiquarian booksellers. If visiting the Island:

Cowes Library at Beckford Road has an extensive nautical books section including Lloyds Registers and old yachting magazines
The Classic Boat Museum has a growing collection of yachting books and magazines.
The IW Record Office has some records for Cowes registered yachts.