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
Inside the Castle
The interior of the Castle is a cross between a grand country house and a maritime museum. I wish I could have stayed for days to study the paintings of Fleet Reviews throughout history, pore over the leather-bound tomes in the library and sit with a gin and tonic taking in the glorious views across the Solent.
Instead I caught glimpses of treasures and trophies taken down from the walls for the refurbishment and got a feel for the magnificent proportions of the ancient rooms, the splendour of the Platform, with its battery of brass cannon, imagining the Scottish reels danced there a few days before – this vast room hosts parties and dinners for up to 120.
In pride of place is the enormous wheel from the yacht Victoria and Albert II, and over an arched doorway I spied the tiller from the royal racing yacht Bloodhound whose mast was once the Castle’s flagstaff – it was taken down for checking in 2014 and found to be past economic repair.
Members and their guests staying in the Castle in one of the 13 bedrooms, charmingly decorated in traditional style with chintz curtains and antique furniture, are treated to service every bit as good as in a five-star hotel. The commodore’s room is on the top floor. Both he and the vice-commodore have their own accommodation with ensuites.
The staff of stewards, waiters and waitresses is being augmented for the summer of 2015. They expect to be fully stretched serving drinks receptions and members’ dinners.
“And we’ll still provide normal service for members who like to come in to sit in the Morning Room or on the balcony in need of a whisky or a Martini and lemonade,” house manager Katie Waite told me. The Morning Room is Waite’s favourite part of the Castle. “It’s the most beautiful of them all,” she said.
Stewards, dressed in three-piece suits, offer a butler service and are at members’ beck and call 24 hours a day. Their ethos is to be “attentive, but not intrusive,” one steward told me.
One benefit of membership is the ability to book a room for a dinner, a party or wedding, entertaining your guests to superb food and drink. You can even book the entire Castle, effectively having your own country home for a day or two. If more than one member wants a room on the same date the complex hierarchy of membership comes into play and it goes to the senior member.
In the cavernous, old-fashioned basement kitchen, reminding me of a scene from Upstairs Downstairs, scores of jars of freshly made marmalade were cooling.
“All the food is made here fresh, from scratch, by the chefs,” the steward told me, “from bread, to jams and chutneys. We serve locally sourced meat and a lot of game in season.” They still do silver service if members request it, but most dishes are now in the new style, plated up artistically.
Crouching slightly, we made our way into the wine cellars. In the first room for ‘high volume wines’, I noticed cases and cases of Sauternes ordered in for the bicentenary. The wines are chosen by the Squadron’s Wine Committee, some ready to drink, others bought en primeur to be kept until ready for drinking. The all-important port cellar is further down, in the deepest, coldest part of the building. Back up in the pantry, staff were polishing silver cutlery, which will no doubt be a Sisyphean task during the summer.
Is the club concerned that its traditional image may not appeal to potential younger members? I asked the commodore. He replied that the Squadron runs a racing programme every April for youngsters aged between 16 and 20 in J/109s and there’s a busy J/70 team-racing schedule for around 80 Squadron Sailing Associates up to the age of 35.
Commodore Sharples is himself a keen sailor. “I started sailing on a SCOD with my father, and then on an Excalibur 36,” he told me. “We did plenty of RORC racing and Cowes Week every year.” Aged 24, he took a sabbatical and set sail as skipper with three friends and his brother for Cape Town in a Gallant 53 in order to do the 1973 Cape to Rio Race. Since then he’s competed in more than 40 Cowes Weeks, Fastnets, Newport-Bermudas and Swan Worlds.
He said it was “a great privilege” to be commodore in the Squadron’s bicentenary year: “We have been planning for nearly two years so we are hopeful our events will be well-run and a great success, and everybody will have a good time.”
Behind the America’s Cup
Sharples will still be commodore in 2017, America’s Cup year, and says it’s “serendipity” for him that the competition will be in Bermuda. He has long-standing associations with the island, even keeping a J/80 there for racing, and visits as often as he can.
Obviously enthusiastic about the Squadron’s America’s Cup chances, he told me: “Our challenge, through our affiliated club – Royal Yacht Squadron Racing Ltd – with Ben Ainslie Racing as our team, is a tremendous opportunity for us to play our part in bringing the Cup back to Britain . . . We believe our member Sir Ben Ainslie has the best chance for a long time of winning the Cup. Our role, and mine as commodore, is to give Sir Ben all the support that we can.”
So the Squadron remains an enigma: a private members’ club still functioning with centuries-old traditions, yet a public-facing, dynamic organisation in the forefront of world racing. It has a reputation for being a bastion of high society, yet the members I know are not titled – one a surgeon, another in the arts.
July 2015 looks set to be a great celebration of this and all that’s unique about this 200-year-old club, which is changing with the times while not compromising its standards and its history.
The Bicentenary International Regatta
The Royal Yacht Squadron will be 200 years old on 1 June this year and in celebration the club has invited members of 25 clubs around the world for a week of racing from 25-31 July, in boats of all sizes from J/70 sportsboats to at least three of the mighty J Class classics.
A number of the bigger boats will arrive from Newport, USA, at the end of the Transatlantic Race 2015, organised by the Royal Yacht Squadron in conjunction with the New York YC, the Royal Ocean Racing Club and the Storm Trysail Club as part of the celebrations.
The three J Class yachts confirmed to date are Lionheart, Ranger and Velsheda. Velsheda was built by Camper & Nicholsons in the 1930s and a couple of decades ago was a regular sight on the Solent as a day charter boat.
Ranger was an aristocrat of a boat, owned by Harold Vanderbilt and winner of 32 of the 34 races she ever sailed, successfully defending the America’s Cup in 1937. She was eventually scrapped and the new Ranger is a faithful replica.
Lionheart is a new J built to a similar set of plans to Ranger from the archives of designers Starling Burgess and Olin Stephens. She made her mark in J racing winning the Kings 100 Guineas Cup in Cowes in 2012. The appearance of the J Class at the Royal Yacht Squadron Bicentenary International Regatta will be a rare treat for Solent spectators.
The week of racing promises to be a lively set of events, including fleet racing under IRC and level rating plus team racing for younger sailors. Members of the 25 invited clubs who can’t get their own boats to Cowes will still be able to compete thanks to the entire fleet of Sunsail Farr 40s being made available for charter, offering closely matched racing.
The highlight of the week is likely to be the Race Around the Island. Ashore, the social programme features parties and gatherings at the Castle and other special venues, culminating in a Grand Party at Osborne House on 30 July.
This is an extract from a feature in Yachting World April 2014