Sarah Norbury jumps at a rare chance to see inside the Royal Yacht Squadron, that unique and intriguing yacht club at the centre of Cowes, in its 200th anniversary year
More immediately, this year the club is celebrating its 200th anniversary in a summer-long extravaganza. The highlight will the Squadron Regatta in July, a week of racing and what’s being billed as ‘spectacular social gatherings’, including a grand ball for members of 25 invited clubs from around the world. Yachts from the USA and the Caribbean will arrive after crossing the Atlantic for the Regatta and then stay on for Cowes Week and the Rolex Fastnet Race.
The Squadron is gearing up for the events with a complete refurbishment of the ground floor of the Castle, as well as taking on extra staff, compiling special menus and considerably increasing the usual wine orders.
When I was invited inside the Castle for this article I was the envy of sailing friends. Some recalled their own, never-forgotten visits, one to deliver a harp for a musical soiree, another invited by a member for a drink, surprised to discover that there is no bar; instead stewards know when top-ups are needed and appear bearing glasses on silver trays.
Like more and more sailors I had been on Squadron soil before, to the Pavilion annexe built in 2000. To help swell the coffers, the grand marquee-style building can be hired for championship dinners and class parties. With panoramic views of the Solent, as a Cowes Week après sail venue it’s hard to beat, and once there, in your smart shore gear, sipping a glass of fizz and nibbling smoked salmon canapés it’s easy to get above yourself and imagine just slipping into the Castle. If you try it, however, you’ll get short shrift.
You could say the club is very good at welcoming non-members into its garden, or conversely that it’s adept at attracting them to the periphery then holding them at bay.
There’s a painting of the entire membership outside the Castle, circa 1895. In the centre stand the club’s then commodore the Prince of Wales with his nephew and great yachting rival, Kaiser Willhelm II, and the Dukes of York and Connaught, while on the upper left-hand side are ladies, in their finery, standing on a lawn.
That lawn was known as the Deer Park – I’m told the ladies were known as the ‘does’ – and it’s the only part of the Squadron’s domain in which they were allowed to roam. Even Queen Victoria didn’t make it into the inner sanctum – she was kept at bay in an annexe built for her on the front of the Castle, known as the Platform.
In 1964 wives, sisters and daughters of members were given their own annexe, built onto the end of the Castle in matching stone. Here, the Lams (Ladies And Associate Members) could eat in their own dining room, take tea on the balcony and watch the racing. They were not allowed to cross the carpet-rod border into the inner Castle, however.
Since then the rules have relaxed and ladies are free to enter the Castle as Lams and guests, but it was only in June 2014 that finally the new rulebook was approved that allowed women to be proposed for full membership.
The next voting session is due soon and it’s likely that the first female member will be HRH Princess Anne.