The Yacht Club, as it was first known, was founded 1 June 1815 at the Thatched House Tavern in London. The club was for gentlemen interested in salt-water yachting and the 42 original members agreed to meet for dinner twice a year, in London and in Cowes, to discuss their mutual interest. Most were regular visitors to Cowes, then a fashionable watering place, or had houses nearby and Cowes Regatta, which was based on the annual licensing of the local pilot vessels and races between them, was a popular spectator sport for the visitors. In 1814 it is recorded that the yachts also took part in the parade of sail, perhaps providing the impetus for the founding of The Yacht Club the next year. The club became The Royal Yacht Club in 1820 after the accession of George IV, who had joined in 1817, and it was created The Royal Yacht Squadron by William IV in 1833.
The new club rapidly proved a focal point for yachtsmen already sailing in the Solent and elsewhere and members cruised in company to regattas along the coast and even across the Channel led by the first Commodore the Earl of Yarborough. Lord Yarborough was also a prodigious host giving magnificent parties aboard his yacht Falcon, at his home at Appuldurcombe or at his ‘cottage’ in the Undercliff – the social side of the Regatta has been an important feature since its earliest days.
The early emphasis was on sailing together (i.e. the yachts manoeuvring together as a squadron) led by a commodore elected for the day. Club members were thus very interested in signalling and the club’s first Book of Signals was arranged by the Admiralty Librarian John Finlaison in 1815. The assistance of Sir Home Popham, an early Honorary Naval Member of the club who was responsible for the naval code of signals, was solicited to improve these and they were revised several times before the club adopted the mercantile code in 1896. As well as the more usual signal communications between vessels the RYS Signals included such phrases to other yachts as ‘Can you lend me your band?’ and ‘Have you any ladies aboard?’ and to shore ‘Send me 300 oysters’.
Individual races between members’ yachts led, in 1826, to the start of racing between several yachts for gold cups. George IV began the annual tradition, continued until World War II, of the reigning monarch presenting a cup; the King’s or Queen’s Cup was the most prestigious race in the Squadron Regatta. The 1830’s saw the first ocean race, the 1840’s the first American member and 1851 a race Round the Island for a 100 sovereign (£100) cup open to foreign yachts and won by America which had crossed the Atlantic to challenge the best British yachts. One Squadron member who raced America in his yacht Titania was Robert Stephenson, the famous locomotive and civil engineer, and Squadron members have several times been among those trying to win back the cup.
Early yachts were similar to (or had been) Royal Navy cutters, smuggling and pilot vessels. Keen competition between racing members led to rapid improvements in yacht design, then to the development of handicapping and rules for racing. The Squadron was the arbiter of the sport for most of the 19th century, before the advent of the various national and international bodies, and both the club itself and individual members have continued to be at the forefront of yachting developments and eminent in the sport.
There is also a strong tradition of cruising far afield – one founder member missed the inaugural meeting as he was cruising to St Petersburg, another is believed to have returned from a cruise which included a visit to Napoleon on Elba. Members have published accounts of voyages made for exploration, for natural history research or just for pleasure. Lord Brassey’s Sunbeam logged 37,000 miles and another wide-ranging member, Ben Boyd, was captured and eaten by natives of the Solomon Islands in 1851. More recent members have included famous Round the World yachtsmen Sir Francis Chichester, Sir Alec Rose and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.
The Squadron has always had a close association with the Royal Navy and its yachts fly the White Ensign. The first Commodore, Lord Yarborough, assured the King in 1833 that ‘it will ever be our most earnest wish and desire to promote, in every way in our power, naval science and architecture’. Early members, such as Lord Belfast with his famous brig Waterwitch, built experimental vessels which did much to advance naval ship design. Members’ yachts went to the Crimea and took part in both World Wars. In the Second World War the Squadron offered its clubhouse to the Admiralty and the castle became HMS Vectis, suffering damage in the air raids on Cowes which was targeted because of its important shipbuilding industry.
The club’s present home, Cowes Castle, was built in 1539 as part of Henry VIII’s chain of coastal defences, protecting the Island from invasion and the naval dockyard at Portsmouth from attack. Its defensive importance lessened after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and it was later suitably refurbished to become the maritime residence of the Captain of Cowes Castle, Lord Anglesey, who was also a member of the club. The death of the last Captain in 1855 led to a review of the castle’s future and its decommissioning. The Squadron leased it a couple of years later and employed the architect Anthony Salvin to turn it into a fitting home from home for the members; they moved in, from their previous clubhouse on Cowes Parade, in 1858. (see Leaflet No2 for the castle’s history)
When Queen Victoria’s court was at Osborne the eyes of the world were on Cowes. Many of her family were active members of the Squadron, including her grandson the Kaiser with his several yachts named Meteor. The Squadron Regatta became a dazzling yachting and social event under the aegis of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who became Commodore of the Club in 1882 following the death of Lord Wilton. The Prince’s most famous yacht Britannia was sailed to even greater effect by his son King George V and ‘the King’s Sailing Master’ Sir Philip Hunloke, one of the century’s greatest helmsmen, who was to be Commodore of the club 1943-47.
The unbroken royal association with the Squadron, begun by George IV and continued to this day, has ensured that the club has remained a centre of attention, particularly in Cowes Week. Despite the decommissioning of the royal yacht Britannia which had been a focal point of Cowes Week for many years, the Late HRH Prince Philip, a former Commodore and a keen yachtsman, would remain an active participant whenever possible. Today the view of the castle, with its red and white striped Platform roof, is known throughout the world and the club’s start line has seen the beginning and end of many of the world’s greatest yacht and power boat races. Squadron members have taken part in many of these for an active interest in yachting or yacht racing is still a prime requirement in those invited to become members.
There are two important books that are recommended for those wishing to learn more about the Royal Yacht Squadron and its place in the history of yachting: the first is "Royal Yacht Squadron 1815-1985" by Ian Dear (pub. Stanley Paul 1985) and, more recently "Making Waves" by Alex Martin (pub. Unicorn 2017). Also, "Sacred Cowes" by Anthony Heckstall-Smith (reprinted edition pub. Anthony Blond 1965) contains many interesting and amusing anecdotes of the Cowes social and yachting scene in its glittering heyday – but those at Cowes for the 2001 America’s Cup Jubilee Regatta, hosted by the RYS and the New York Yacht Club, and the RYS's Bicentenary regattas in 2015 show that Members race as hard and glittered as brightly as their predecessors did.