Yacht Clubs of Cowes - A Short History

If you’re thinking of joining a yacht or sailing club in Cowes you’re spoilt for choice, so we've pulled together a brief history to see where they all began.


There are five clubs with premises in Cowes: The Royal Yacht Squadron, the Royal London Yacht Club, the Island Sailing Club, the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club and the Cowes Corinthian Yacht Club.

The Royal Ocean Racing Club has an office in the High Street, but no club premises, and the Royal Thames Yacht Club has full reciprocal arrangements with the Royal London Yacht Club.

So to the history...

The Royal Yacht Squadron

Originally founded on June 1st, 1815, ‘The Yacht Club’ was renamed the ‘Royal Yacht Club’ when the Prince Regent, who was a member, became George IV in 1820. It was renamed The Royal Yacht Squadron (RYS) in 1833 by William IV.

It has an imposing and dominant position at the seaward end of the Parade in one of Henry VIII’s former ‘Cow Castles’ that were built in 1539 to guard the entrance to the River Medina. The lease on the building was transferred to the Squadron in 1855, and the castle and grounds were purchased in 1917.

Over the years the Squadron has had some very distinguished members including Nelson's Captain at Trafalgar, Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy and in 1829 the Admiralty issued a warrant to the Squadron to wear what is now the navy’s White Ensign. The burgee (a triangular shaped flag identifying yacht club membership) is differenced with a St George's Cross and crown on a white background. The Antarctic explorer Captain Scott, who was a member, registered the Terra Nova R.Y.S. as a yacht of the Squadron and sailed under the White Ensign on his second and final expedition to Antarctica in 1910.

Ladies were admitted in 1948 although they were not given their own facilities until 1960. The latest addition in 2000 was the award-winning Pavilion on the Squadron lawn, designed by Sir Thomas Croft to resemble an orangery.

Royal London Yacht Club

The Royal London Yacht Club was founded in London in 1838 and racing commenced on the Thames. The club became the second yacht club to be established in Cowes when it moved to two Georgian Houses on the Parade in 1882, and obtained its Royal Warrant from the dowager Queen Adelaide in 1849.

The club has a long history in British yachting and its members have ranked among the most colourful personalities in the yachting scene. In its early days it fostered racing innovations and was instrumental in establishing a universal set of rules and system of measurement.

You don’t have to own a boat to become a member, but you do have to be proposed and seconded by members and membership is limited to 500.

It has a very active social calendar and the Cowes Week Ball held here is considered to be the second best after that at the RYS. The lounge and the balcony are particularly fine vantage points for watching the start and finish of races in the Solent. 

Island Sailing Club

General Charles Baring founded the Island Sailing Club with a view to more democratic amateur sailing and became the first Commodore. The meeting to form the Club was held on the 2nd March, 1889, at the Marine Hotel, near the present Club House. It was one of the first clubs to admit ladies as members and the first to have facilities for boats.

Then the Commodore (the General) purchased the site of 67 High Street and the back land running down to the river. In 1935 the next-door premises, "Sea View House" with sea frontage and entrance from the High Street were purchased by member Bird Cheverton, and a year or two later the Club purchased the premises and the two properties were made into one.

Member B. C. Windeler started the Round the Island Race in 1930, offering as a Challenge Cup the replica of a Roman Bowl found in the Thames.

In 1948 the Club presented the Dragon ‘Bluebottle’*, as a wedding present, to H.R.H. The Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, and the couple became ordinary members of the Club.

Royal Corinthian Yacht Club

The Royal Corinthian Yacht Club (RCYC) was founded at Erith, Kent in 1872, and eventually settled in Burnham. In 1948, the Club established it’s ‘Southern’ branch at Cowes in the present Clubhouse across the road from the Royal Yacht Squadron.

The building started life as a fishermen’s beer house in the 18th Century and during the Edwardian period Rosa Lewis, an hotelier from London, used it to provide a retreat and ‘entertainment’ for gentlemen visiting the Royal Yacht Squadron. Apparently if the ladies didn’t get enough attention from their gentlemen they would throw their chamber pots over the wall of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

Tiny Mitchell, Commodore of the Royal Corinthian in Burnham bought the premises from Rosa's estate, and set up the Southern branch of the RCYC. It was run privately until his death, when the executors sold it to a consortium in the 1960's. It continued life as a private Club until it was sold to a private individual at the end of the 80's.

The Clubhouse was re-purchased from the receiver in late 1992 by a small group of members for the benefit of the Club. The repayment of the financing of that purchase by all the Members was completed in 1999 enabling the Club to become a Members Club and the Cowes branch of the Club has over 800 Members.

Cowes Corinthian Yacht Club

‘Tiny’ Mitchell also founded the Cowes Corinthian Yacht Club in 1952 as a club for local yachtsmen who couldn’t afford the elitist fees of other yacht clubs and the club has a good relationship with the Royal Corinthian.

It has recently had a brand new marina built and is the only club in Cowes that can provide marina berths and shoreside boat storage facilities to its members.

The club is situated on the west bank of the River Medina, approximately half a mile south of the harbour entrance with its pedestrian entrance on Birmingham Road. The approach to the club by sea is made by turning to starboard on passing the southernmost pontoon of West Cowes Marina, when the club pontoons will be seen directly ahead.

Perhaps one of the most accessible clubs to join, it apparently also has the cheapest beer in Cowes, and one of the most active sailing memberships. Ex commodore and gold medal winner in the 1996 Para Olympics, Andy Cassell, set up the Cassell Foundation, which runs sailing classes for those with disabilities in conjunction with the Cowes Corinthian and Cowes Sailability.

Jo Macaulay

6 May 2016

By Jo Macaulay in Articles