History of Sailing in Competition

The Royal Yacht Club was founded in 1820 and secured a clubhouse in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, four years later. The first official race was on the 10th of August 1826 and was celebrated with fireworks in the town. This became what is now one of the most famous annual sporting events, Cowes Week. It has taken place at this time every year (excepting the duration of the two World Wars) and attracts competitors from across the world. The sport remained a predominantly British pursuit for some time, with only two other major yacht clubs being founded that century outside the British Isles.

Yacht sailing was an exclusively upper class sport and generally considered ‘a gentlemen’s sport’. Large J-Class yachts dominated the America’s Cup up until the 1930s, fuelled by the American tendency to favour size over practicality. However, after the Second World War came a welcome change, and a new strain of the sport was born. The average amount of disposable income grew and new materials meant yachts could be produced more cheaply and quickly, making them available to a wider crowd. The number of dingys (as they became known) grew and club sailing became more popular again.

Cruise racing was another corollary of these developments. The practice of sailing day yachts out into open sea was pioneered by daring British sailors such as Richard McMullen (who eventually died at sea in 1891). Another fifty years on and the sport became popularised by Eric and Susan Hiscock. Cruiser racing was immensely popular in the 1970s but was eventually overtaken by the more affordable alternative of club level dingy racing.

The 1900 Paris Olympics saw the first sailboat race to take place at Olympic level. The race was held on the River Seine at Meulan, 20 miles outside Paris itself, and was raced as an open class, which had time handicaps and six boat classes according to tonnage. The first five classes ranged from 0.5 to 10 tonnes. The sixth class, 10 to 20 tonnes, raced off the north coast of France, owing to the size of the vessels, which were too large to race on the Siene.

Yachting was omitted from the following Olympics for practical reasons (the event was in Missouri, Central America and the ships could not transported there easily) but was welcomed back at the 1908 London Olympics. Most races took place at Ryde, Isle of Wight, and classes were set according to length rather than weight. The classes were five classes 6, 7, 8, 12, and 15 metres.

Yachting remained a popular part in the Olympics for the next fifty years and classes moved from length or weight to specific one-design classes. From 1968, the number of regattas steadily rose and the sport became more competitive. The different classes reflected the changes in the boats that were being manufactured and raced internationally. The current list of events and classes is set out below.