Although the name ‘Cowes Week’ became attached to the Royal Yacht Squadron Regatta later in the 19th Century it really all began when the Royal Yacht Club, as it then was, introduced organised yacht racing for cups to Cowes Regatta in 1826. Cowes Regatta itself had been going before the The Yacht Club (its first title) was founded in 1815 and was based around the local Pilot Cutters receiving their licences.
Before Trinity House took over the licensing of the pilots in 1808 it was the job of the local Collector of Customs. The Cowes Customs Outport covered the whole Island and vessels were based all round the coast. Trinity House examined the pilots, appointing 35 1st class and 35 2nd class pilots, refusing licences to notorious smugglers (though they missed a few!) 2nd class pilots were restricted in area but 1st class pilot vessels would wait down Channel for ships coming in from the Atlantic, to pilot them up to Cowes and beyond; many vessels chose to clear Customs at Cowes before proceeding to a market elsewhere as advised by their owners’ agents based at Cowes.
Cowes was also a noted resort, famed for its saltwater baths, and the annual Pilot Review was a spectacle for the fashionable visitors as the vessels paraded and then raced for money prizes. In 1814 the visiting yacht owners got together and followed the pilot cutter parade with a parade of yachts – the idea of The Yacht Club was born.
It was pilot cutters too who were involved in early Round the Island races – although local boats would always have raced round the Island ‘because it’s there’.
The Club placed a notice in the Southampton Town and Country Herald of 31 July 1826 advertising a yacht race for a Gold Cup, value £100, to be held on Thursday 10 August. It was to be open to Club yachts of any rig or tonnage; a £2 entry fee was payable. The race was to start from a cutter in Cowes Roads, stationed off Cowes Castle. The course was to be west round a vessel off Yarmouth, east round the buoy of the Spit off Southsea Castle, round both black buoys on the Middle Bank and round the cutter off Cowes Castle to finish – although a newspaper report suggests they went round the Nab Light. Vessels on larboard were to give way to those on starboard.
Also given were details of the annual Sailing Match, open to vessels of any port, of all description, not exceeding 40 tons and carrying any sails they pleased. They were to draw lots for the starting stations off Cowes Castle; the course to be 2 – 3 times round the West black buoy of the Middle Bank, off Norris Castle, round the East white buoy of the Brambles and round the cutter off Cowes Castle, i.e nicely within sight of the visitors. The winner would receive £30, 2nd £20, 3rd £12 and 4th £8, losers £2.
The Yacht Race for the £100 Gold Cup, 10 August
There were seven entrants for the race, all cutters:
MENAI, 163 tons, Thomas Assheton Smith Esq
ELIZABETH, 55 tons, Daniel Magniac Esq
EMERALD, 63 tons, J L Symonds Esq
ARROW, 83 tons, Joseph Weld Esq
HARRIET, 95 tons, Earl of Belfast
ELIZABETH, 42 tons, Earl of Darnley
DOLPHIN, 58 tons, Captain Philip Browne RN
ARROW, the favourite, won by 3 minutes from HARRIET with MENAI third (she probably would have won but for some time spent aground when the yachts were keeping close inshore in Thorness Bay to avoid the tide). ‘On the vessels coming in, and particularly the victor, they were loudly cheered. Several of the King’s cutters manned their yards and some of the yachts fired a salute. At this time the crowds of well-dressed persons who lined the beach extending from West Cliff to Watch House Quay, a distance of a quarter of a mile, must have exceeded three thousand. Along the fence in front of the King’s House, carriages were drawn up, filled with elegant females, and in the forecourt of the Yacht Club House the Blue Jackets were assembled in anxious solicitude to welcome the victor and present him with the Gold Cup which was a splendid specimen of fine chasing and appropriate design …. by Mr Garrard, we believe of Panton Street, Haymarket’.
The next day the usual racing was won by James Saunders in the 32 ton cutter MARQUIS OF ANGLESEY. Other entrants were JANE (31 tons), Mr C Greenham; RANGER (32 tons), Charles Day Esq; FIDELITY (32 tons) Mr Thomas Francis, a Cowes Pilot and ZEPHYR, G A Fullerton Esq (did not start). The Review of Pilot Vessels was postponed until the Saturday on account of the weather (rain which made the promenade like a newly ploughed field).
The Regatta Ball was held at the Hotel at East Cowes on the evening of Thursday 10th and the RYC Dinner there on Friday 12th. On the Friday evening, on West Cowes Parade, ’ a great display of fireworks took place from temporary erections in the line of promenade extending in front of the King’s House and the residence of the Royal Yacht Club’ [respectively where Osborne Court and Gloster Apartments are].
The Cowes inhabitants, ‘sensible of the pleasure and advantages they derive from their port having become the Rendezvous of the Royal Yacht Club’, subscribed for another gold cup to be offered for a race between Club yachts. They raised enough for one of 100 guineas and another of 50 guineas so there was a second regatta on 21 and 22 September 1826 – 11 yachts entered for the first race (yachts of any tonnage) and 12 for the second (which was restricted to vessels under 70 tons); vessels were restricted to mainsail, foresail and jib (with commensurate for yawls, luggers and schooners).
Between all three yacht races in August and September 17 different yachts competed.