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Island Sailing Club History 1889 to 2014

The history of the Island Sailing Club from 1889 is covered extensively in an excellent book with a foreword by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Hardback £25.00 | Softback £12.50

Available to purchase from the Club Office. Add £4 if you would like the book posted to you (UK only). Postage to overseas addresses available on request.

If you would like to have a look before you buy, please visit the office during office hours which are Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm.

A great deal of research was carried out and information compiled by a small but enthusiastic group of members, led by Rosemary Joy, following years of extensive writings by the late past Commodore, Eve Woodyear.

The book is a blend of narrative and photographs, both colour and black & white, running to over 200 pages 9.5" x 8". It provides a unique record of the first 125 years of the Club. It also shows interesting insights as to how sailing in The Solent has evolved over the years. The Royal family has had a long association with the Island Sailing Club, with Her Majesty The Queen being a Patron and His Royal Highness Prince Philip The Duke of Edinburgh being a Clubmember. Prince Philip kindly wrote the foreword for this special book.


1889 - 1951

A Memorandum on The Island Sailing Club, Cowes

Repeated below is the text of "A Memorandum on the Island Sailing Club" written in 1951.

It has been suggested by some of the keen members who have joined in recent years that some record should be made of the Club's origin and activities in earlier days. They anticipate, correctly, that their elders will sail away and that there may be no memories left for the coming generations. Now that the Club is so well known in yachting circles it is certainly interesting to know something of its foundation over sixty years ago. This sixty years can be briefly summarised as the period of foundation, consolidation, and expansion. The founders could hardly have imagined that their little undertaking would grow into a now famous Club with over fifteen hundred Members, and be entrusted with the conduct of important and international Racing Events. The Club was really planned and owes it being to General Charles Baring, late of Nubia House, Cowes, who lost his arm in the Crimea and was the first Commodore. The General was a Member of the Royal Yacht Squadron and, wisely, saw the need for democratic amateur Sailing and Racing and set about to found the Club. He must have been a very clever prophet of what was wanted in the Solent, and he got together all the keen small boat sailors when there were practically no small boats racing in the Cowes area of the Solent. In those days it was only large and expensive yachts that were catered for in the regattas and the small man did not have a look in at all. The General set out to see that the small man did count and could have his own Racing and Club facilities for it. The meeting to form the Club was held on the 2nd March, 1889, at the Marine Hotel, near our present Club House. A Committee was formed and a letter sent to the Press stating that the object of the Club was to encourage racing in open boats as a nursery for larger sport, and the originators said that they felt that " No better Nursery could be found than at Cowes nor a place with more trained Nurses at his command." The Minutes record that a vote of thanks was accorded to Mr. H. C. Damant and Mr. Godfrey Jackson, who were the prime movers with the General in the foundation of the Club. The Club founders were all keen on sailing and represented all walks of life. They included an Admiral, a General, Doctors, Lawyers, Sailmakers, Ironmongers, a Roman Catholic Priest, a Land Agent, an Engineer, a Barrister, an Actor, a Printer, a Draper, a Bank Manager, an Architect, a Grocer, a Tailor, a Yacht Agent, and sundry Lords and Ladies. Incidentally, this was one of the first clubs to admit ladies as members, and this has always proved a success and very greatly added to the popularity of the Club. It must be remembered that in those days there were no other Yachting Clubs in Cowes beyond the Royal Yacht Squadron and the Royal London Yacht Club, and neither of these had any facilities for boats and were, anyhow, beyond the means of the small man. Then there was no East Cowes Sailing Club, Gurnard Sailing Club, or even the Medina Sailing Club.

By the end of March, 1889, fifty members had been elected at an annual Subscription of One Guinea, and after 61 years this remains the same. The General was, of course, the first Commodore.

The question of Club Premises was troubling the Commodore, and suggestions were then made for hiring rooms at the Globe Hotel, the Pavilion, and other places. Then the Commodore solved the problem by purchasing the site of 67 High Street (as it is now known) and the back land running down to the river. He erected offices on the High Street front and the Club in the rear. This site was originally the site of the studio and photographic shop of Mr. Kirk, marine photographer, and had then been recently burnt down. The Club was very lucky in obtaining the services of a qualified Architect in Mr. Richard Barrow to design and build the Club House, and he was also the first Honorary Secretary. He designed and had built the original Club House, and it was then designated a temporary building and cost £300 to put up, and was erected with sea wall in two months. It was then let to the Club at £40 per annum and this rental continued the same until the Club purchased it in 1948.

Things moved quickly in those days, for Races were held at once, also a Club Cruise to show the flag—our old Burgee with Yellow Castle. This has always been a very distinctive burgee and under it many championships have been won. The accommodation for hauling up dinghies was greatly appreciated, as the public slipways were not satisfactory owing to the trouble caused by youthful marauders.

The first race card in the Club is for 28th August, 1889. In this it is shown that Number 1 race was for yachts of 5, rating and under, and the entries were: Humming Bird, 2.5, Capt. Hughes; Cock-a-Whoop, 3, Lieut. F. Hughes; G.G., 2.5, G. Garrett, Thalassa, 2.6, Lieut.-Col. J. Bucknill; Mad-cap, 2.5, Miss Cox; Lollypop, P. Percival; Myrtle, G. Matthews ; Thief, 2.5, Mrs. G. Schenley. The second race was for open Sailing Boats between 15ft. and 18ft., and the entries were: Blanche, 17.7, Hon. G. Colville; Nora, 17, P. H. May; Wild Rose, 16.10, J. Bryant. The third race was for open Sailing Boats not exceeding 15ft. o.a., and attracted Sea Breeze, 13.6, G. Bird; Dingo, 15, G. Flemmick; and Fairy Queen, J. Turner. This programme is only brought in to remind some of the older members of the names and boats that they may remember.

There is no doubt that in those days, over sixty years ago, the Club had the great advantage of the sage advice, judgment, and support of the foremost small craft yachtsmen of the day, and it may be suggested that the Club has inherited, in the present generation, the advantages previously obtained for the Club Committee are lucky in having the practical advice of eminent specialists covering most fields of yachting and sailing lore and also construction. These members of the Committee are always willing and anxious to give all assistance to the Club in different directions, and their expert advice and assistance is very greatly appreciated. When the Club was founded in 1889 small boat sailing was somewhat neglected and large clubs did not think much below 20 tonners, and if reference is made to the Badminton Library on Yachting of 1894 one can see how much was done about 1890 to encourage small boat sailing. When the Club was founded there was not much money in hand for furnishing and equipping the premises, but this was undertaken by a well known actor and wit, Charles Brookfield, who did the job splendidly, and we still have many of his original purchases. In the early days it was the custom, but not the rule, that Commodores should hold office for one year only, and within less than a year from hoisting his broad Pennant our first Commodore passed away. He had done everything for the founding of the Club, and it was very difficult to replace him. The first Annual General Meeting had to be adjourned on four occasions until John Gretton (afterwards Lord Gretton, owner of the famous Cariad) was elected to succeed him. In 1890 races were given for five, two and a half, and one rater classes, and in the next year the half raters were numerous enough to be catered for. The national authority was not then, perhaps, so strict in framing rules, and it is interesting to notice that the Club Committee had some difficult problems to deal with. Among these was one as to whether a boat whose whole mainsail exceeded the maximum sail area allowed to her class might race with it reefed down. The Committee also vainly attempted to deal with the eternal dog nuisance by providing chains outside to which they might be attached, but the owners either took the chains or the dogs destroyed them.

The first Club Steward was Ben Bilk, who was a great character and most popular with all members and visitors. He was engaged at the princely wage of 15s. per week, which was increased by 2s. 6d. during the summer only because then the Club remained open from 9 a.m. till 11 p.m. He remained as a faithful servant of the Club till 1927, when he retired on a small pension. It is well remembered that in 1916 he regretfully reported that the bar takings were £5 for the year. They are now about £4000.

In the Club is a photograph that is interesting. It is the earliest one we have and is believed to have been taken in 1890 or 1891. It will be noted that Sir Godfrey Baring, with telescope, is the only properly dressed race officer according to modern standards, and that the late Dr. Percy Gibson and the Damant brothers wear bowler hats. H. Wyatt (Bertie) has yachting cap, also Rivett and Carter, while Dr. Edgar Hoffmeister sports a straw hat, and the author of this Memoir is below the balcony. Referring to hats, it is pointed out to younger members that the privilege of wearing hats in the Clubroom is allowed and welcomed. It is an old custom, as members considered the room as part of the deck of a ship. These old customs should not be allowed to lapse, though many Lady members look askance at a hatted man indoors.

By 1894 races were given for larger classes, even up to the 20 raters, and it is possible that this led to the election to the Club of such famous yacht owners as Lords Dunraven, Lonsdale, and Brassey. These 20 raters were started on an extension of the Club line, and as they would not be likely to hear the 12-bore shoulder gun normally used for starts, a muzzle-loading Cannon was specially mounted on the Watch House Slip. Afterwards Mr. Herbert White (of J. S. White and Co.) kindly presented to the Club two brass Cannons, which were mounted on swivels on the sea wall, and these were used for all starts, including that of a rowing race for Licensed Watermen who plied their trade from the neighbouring slips. These Cannon are now besides the fireplace in the Clubroom. At the end of 1896 a special meeting was called to consider the provision of Club Sailing Boats for the use of the younger members, such boats to be similar to those in use at Hythe and Bembridge. It was then decided to spend £100 on building three of these. Messrs. Taylor, of Sandown, were the builders, and by the following summer the boats were in use and highly popular. They were half-deck Sloops about 15ft. o.a., strong, and very stiff, with double gaffed mainsails. They were a good bargain at £33 apiece. 1898 was a very busy racing year with the small classes crowded, and more than fifteen boats starting in the Solent One Design Class alone. It was then decided, owing to the large entries in the small classes, to stop giving races for the 52-footers, which had by then taken the place of the 20 raters.

This year the Club backed a challenge for the One-tonner Challenge Cup of the Cercle de la Voile de Paris, but next year, owing to the insults to the Queen then appearing in the French Press, the Club refused to support a challenge for the. Coupe Internationale de Cannes.

Altogether 1899, with the outbreak of the South African War, was a difficult year for the Club. The Committee and Hon. Secretary found the accounts in such a bad way that it was decided to engage a paid Secretary to keep the accounts straight, but within six months it was necessary to replace him with another. The three Club boats had been neglected and required extensive repair, and a Squadron Member, who took one out and did not return for 48 hours, was fined the maximum penalty of 5s.

In despair the Committee proposed to get rid of the boats, but at the Annual General Meeting this proposal was defeated, and instead it was resolved to employ a man to look after the boats under a Special Committee. The writer well remembers him—he was called " The Boy," and was probably over 60, with a snow-white beard. He had formerly been in the employ of Admiral de Horsey in his yacht Wych.

In 1900 a telephone was installed at the Club and the charge was £4 l0s. per annum, which amount covered all calls made by members within the Isle of Wight area. In spite of the war, racing went on with the 36, 30,24, and 18ft. rater classes as well as the Redwings and Solent One Design Class. The Club had, unfortunately, backed up the much debated project of building the Victoria Pier, though it was opposed by the Royal Yacht Squadron, and when this was completed the Club used it for starting races and erected poles there to define the starting line. This continued till 1912, when it was found better to return to the Club balcony. As small boat racing increased in popularity that of the Club did also, as it offered so many races, and if one turns to the various yachting journals of the early nineteen hundreds you will see full reports of the Club's activities, and it was clear that the Club was doing its job and had become an important Solent club. After 11 years' service the Club boats were sold for £25 each, and a new boat ordered from Harley Mead, an old member of the Club and well known designer and yacht builder. This was a very nice craft, but unfortunately, there was no sister ship to race against and she was sold later at a cheap price. 1912 brought a financial crisis and notice was given to terminate the tenancy of the Club Premises. However, a new tenancy on more favourable terms was arranged and the Club struggled on. In 1914 the paid Secretary was dispensed with, and after ten years without an Honorary Secretary Mr. Arthur L. Watson was appointed to the post, but owing to his having to leave the town after two months he was succeeded by his brother, Mr. Gerald H. E. Watson, who kindly undertook the burden of keeping things going in spite of a deficit at the bank, a falling membership, and no racing owing to the first World War. It was a bleak prospect when the General Annual Meeting was held in 1916, and with only about 120 members, and most of them in the Forces, it was, perhaps, not unreasonable for the landlord to be given notice to terminate the Club's tenancy with a view to dissolution.

The yearly rental was then £40, as it has always been, and when the news of possible closing of the Club became known some twenty members got together, passed the hat round, and found enough cash to guarantee two years' rental, with the result that the Club survived the crisis and has never looked backward since. Those few who found the cash in those days should be gratefully remembered for saving the Club for its now 1500 members. Experience has proved that if things are not going well financially the remedy is often to reduce bar charges and not to increase them, and to take off the entrance fee and not increase the subscription. This policy was adopted by the Committee when things seemed bad.

Members have frequently inquired why the Club has not endeavoured to obtain a Royal Warrant, and doubtless this question will be repeated until such privilege is granted. Some years ago a very influential member of the Club told the Committee that on account of the large tonnage and member-ship such a proposal might receive favourable consideration. The Committee after full consideration unanimously agreed not to aspire to this honour as it was felt that it was more in keeping with the democratic ideals of the founders of the Club to remain as they were. There are many cases of Royal Clubs that do not really live up to the standards of such positions, and neither provide the yachts nor racing which is expected under such a Warrant.

In 1922 an endeavour was made to start the 14ft. Open Dinghy Class. One of the boats to the class was known to exist in the West Country and known as No. 1. The first boats built at Cowes were for Ratsey No. 2 and Damant No. 3. These were on lines kindly supplied by our revered old member, Charles E. Nicholson, and these two boats were the first built by Uffa Fox and constructed in his back yard quite a distance from the river. They were of mahogany and with sails and all-in cost £35 apiece. On sinking and weighing tests they were found to scale about 650lb.; heavy, but healthy. Club members at once took up the idea and in a short time there was quite good racing for about 15 boats. Some were Carvel and some Clench. It was all very good fun, and the subject is dealt with rather fully owing to its after effects. Our little "Butter Boxes," as they were termed, were soon superseded by faster boats, but they did form the start and beginning of the present-day 14ft. International Dinghy Class, which has the latest sail number about 570. The early boats had a Gunter rig with all spars and mast 14ft. In later years the Royal Navy applied to the Club to be allowed to build to the original Nicholson design, and it is pleasing to know that many hundreds of these little boats are carried in H.M. ships and are very popular. Out of compliment to the Club they are known as Island Class Dinghies. It might here be noted that many of our best young helmsmen have been brought up in the 14ft Class, but these boats now cost more than ten times the price of those built in 1922. The first race for the Prince of Wales's cup for this class was sailed under the flag of the Royal Yacht Squadron and won by our members, Cecil Atkey and Colin Ratsey, and up till 1950 this trophy was won by members of the Club on all but two occasions. It is not thought necessary to deal at much length with the last twenty years of the Club's existence, as this is already known to most of the members, but a few rather important events must be mentioned.

For many years the Club had been overcrowded and unable to provide meals and the amenities which were required. In 1935 the next-door premises, "Sea View House" (to the South of the Club) with sea frontage and entrance from the High Street came into the market, and an enthusiastic member, the late Bird Cheverton, at once bought it well knowing the Club's needs and the chance then offering to meet them.

At first he let the premises to the Club, and lunches and steward's accommodation were provided. A year or two later the Club purchased the premises on very advantageous terms and the two properties were cleverly made into one through the kind and efficient offices of Francis Mew, the Club's Honorary Architect. This acquisition has been a great boon to the Club in providing for the increased member-ship and giving facilities so badly needed in the way of dressing-rooms, baths, etc. Funds were, of course, needed for this expansion, and members were asked to subscribe in the way of 5 per cent. debentures. Immediately the necessary money for purchase and conversion was found, and in a few years fully repaid, much to the disappointment of the shareholders. It is nice to know now in 1951 that the Club is absolutely free of debt except, of course, to its Honorary Secretary, and this will be an everlasting debt. In 1930 B. C. Windeler suggested that the Club should have an annual race round the Isle of Wight and offered as a Challenge Cup the replica of a Roman Bowl found in the Thames.

This is a most beautiful Gold Bowl of exquisite design and quite rightly has been raced for by many hundreds of boats from 5 to 25 tons. Up till now the now famous " Round the Island Race " has taken place every year except during the last war, when sailing was prohibited. In 1945 permission to go afloat was obtained and the Club at once put on a race to Christchurch Ledge and back in September, when 13 boats came to the Line amid much enthusiasm on their release. In 1950 there were 104 starters in the Round The Island Race, and 20 more started in a larger class for a Cup presented by H.M. Crankshaw, of Firebird and Thanet fame, so that a magnificent fleet of 124 raced round our Island and showed that our little Club was alive and doing.

It is interesting to know that the Royal Yacht Squadron of New Zealand has copied our race and been kind enough to offer us valuable trophies. Many clubs have put on similar races, but none attract such an entry. In 1935, April, the Club celebrated its jubilee and a Dinner was held in London, attended by about 150. Lord Cork and Orrery represented the Navy and Viscount Gort the Army. Commodores of all local clubs also attended. Soon after this the Second World War broke out and Cowes was a very important base for operation and training, and the port was occupied by a large contingent of the Royal Navy and R.N.V.R.

The Club, of course, offered such hospitality as it could to these welcome visitors, and as the other clubs had been requisitioned it can be realised that "The Island " became a very popular rendezvous. In spite of the fact that it was forbidden to cross between England and the Island from 1940 to 1944 except on business or very special circumstances, while the Island was in the front line, it is a tribute to the sportsmanship of its members that the numbers on the Club Register dropped by only 100 from 700. Moreover, all paid their annual subscription in recognition of the good work the Club was doing by acting as host to the many serving officers in the Island area. The temporary drop in membership was due to some extent to the inability of the Hon. Secretary to get in touch with members owing to war conditions, but fortunately most of them returned to the fold and paid their intervening dues and were restored to the Club Register. Of course, all sailing was prohibited and one could not even row a dinghy up the river and we all lost our sea-legs, and it was alarming to go afloat again and hardly know port from starboard.

The Club luckily survived the severe bombing of Cowes, but was a bit shaken up by bombs just by the Post Office and on the foreshore. All windows were burst in and the wireless came over the whole Club-room, but was found happily talking in the morning. In 1946 the Committee in their wisdom decided to build a motor boat to ferry members and supply water, and occasionally do some salvage and towing in. This has been a great boon to members, as paid hands and watermen are not around.

In 1948 the Club had the honour of presenting—as a wedding present—to H.R.H. The Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh the Dragon "Bluebottle." This was built by Camper and Nicholson and the cost was immediately subscribed by our delighted members, who were subsequently pleased to see her win numerous prizes here and abroad, and the Princess and the Duke became ordinary members of the Club. The Duke decided to offer a Challenge Cup for the Dragon Class and, appropriately, this was first sailed for under the auspices of the Club and was a great success owing to the indefatigable work of our Hon. Secretary and Sailing Committee. The first two contests were won by our members (Woodroffe and Lallow). In 1949 a Dinner and Dance was held in London to celebrate the 60th year of the Club's existence, and the Duke of Edinburgh and some 550 attended a very satisfactory party. In 1948-9 the Committee decided that it would be a good policy further to encourage youth sailing at a small cost. It was felt that the old men had served their time and that new blood should be brought in to ensure that the Club could be alive in the future. Cadet members had already been elected, but now a Junior Sailing Committee was formed to inquire into and report what the junior members really needed and how they could be catered for. This was done in a thorough manner and the result was that various classes for Evening Races and Regatta Days were arranged. It was also decided that to encourage these Juniors the Club should take up an lift. Scow Class somewhat similar to those at Yarmouth and Lymington. Pour encouragez les Autres the Club decided to build two for hiring out, and very soon there were twenty afloat and the class has proved a great success and given much pleasure to competitors and spectators, who line the front when evening races are on. Following on this arose the problem of where all these boats were to be kept. The Committee took a bold and expensive line and decided at once to increase the quay space. With the kind assistance of H.V. Lobb as architect, and many other helpers, we extended the Quay seawards some 30ft., and this is a great success with two launching slips, and last summer the quay was absolutely full up. In fact, had it not been for the kind co-operation of the Customs authorities in allowing an extension on their premises we could never have got the boats in. It must be realised that there are no facilities offered by the other Clubs on the Cowes front, and naturally our Club has to do the job. All this Quay extension cost about £2000 and was well worth it, and looking to the future one feels that even further hauling-out facilities may be wanted unless other clubs give them or sailing falls off. This must be seriously borne in mind. It is now only thought necessary to add a list of the Flag Officers and Honorary Secretaries to more or less complete this dull memorandum.


1889—1890 General Charles Baring
1890—1892 John Gretton
1892—1900 Viscount Colville of Culross
1900—1901 The Earl of Harrington
1901—1903 Philip Perceval
1903—1910 Capt. J. Orr-Ewing
1910—1918 Sir A. E. Orr-Ewing
1919—1921 F. T. Mew
1922—1935 T. W. Ratsey
1935—1943 Hon. G. C. Colville
1944—1947 Sir Philip Hunloke, G.C.V.O.
1947— J. C. W. Damant


1889—1890 John Gretton
1890—1901 P. Perceval
1901—1903 G. Baring
1903—1909 G. H. Harrison
1909—1919 F. T. Mew
1919—1922 T. W. Ratsey
1922—1928 Sir G. Baring
1929—1934 Hon. G. C. Colville
1935—1946 J. C. W. Damant
1947— T. C. Ratsey


1889—1891 Dr. G. B. Hoffmeister
1892—1901 G. Baring
1901—1903 G. H. Harrison
1903—1909 F. T. Mew
1909—1916 F. F. Tower
1916—1919 T. W. Ratsey
1919—1922 Sir G. Baring
1922—1926 Sir C. Seely
1926—1928 Hon. G. C. Colville
1929—1934 J. C. W. Damant
1935—1946 T. C. Ratsey
1947— L. P. Mew, Junior


1889—1895 R. Barrow
1895—1904 H. Wyatt
1915 (2 months) A. L. Watson
1915—1929 G. H. L. Watson
1929—1935 J. B. Gavey
1935 B. A. S. Benzie (Assistant)
1935 W. A. M. Leigh
1936—1938 B. A. S. Benzie and R. B. Cheverton
1943—1944 C. E. Donne (Assistant)
1944 W. V. B. Newman (Assistant)
1939— B. A. S. Benzie

Last updated 13:54 on 11 February 2022

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