Ireland's sailing, boating & maritime magazine

Royal Alfred Yacht Club

16th July 2009


The Royal Alfred Yacht club is much more than a quaint old Dublin institution. For generations it has been an umbrella organisation, linking yacht racers from the rival harbours of Dun Laoghaire and Howth. It provides an attractive programme of regattas, complementing more local and national events.

The 'Royal' in the title tells us that the club is long established. But without the focus of a clubhouse, even some non-racing Dublin based sailors might find it hard to recognise where it fits in.

"The world's oldest specifically amateur yacht club (founded 1857)"

The 'Alfred', as it's locally known, actually played a seminal role in the evolution and formation of racing in sailboats worldwide. Some older established clubs trumpet their seniority as their main, and maybe their only claim to fame, but the Royal Alfred Yacht Club has a far greater and better deserved list of accomplishments and real contributions to the sport. A short list of its "firsts" clearly places the club as the original model for yacht clubs worldwide, to a much greater extent than most older clubs.

So Dublin's Royal Alfred Yacht Club is quite simply:

The world's oldest specifically amateur yacht club (founded 1857)

The world's first offshore racing club (1868-1922)

The first club to organise single and double handed yacht races

The prime mover behind the formation of the world's first national yacht racing organisation (1872)

And finally, its two flag officers are credited with the authorship of the first national yacht racing rules, which are at the core of today's racing rules worldwide.

What other yacht club or sailing organisation, anywhere in the world, can claim to have given more to the formation of the sport of sailing as our Royal Alfred Yacht Club?
The record shows that taking the lead and giving a practical example, our small club can reasonable be described as the first yacht club of the modern era, in the universal meaning of a club for members who actively sail their own boats.

"The world's first offshore racing club (1868-1922)"

How did a small group of middle class Dubliners make such a difference? When they met in 1857, the objective of the 17 founder members was "to encourage the practise of seamanship and the acquisition of the necessary skill in managing the vessels". Translating these stilted phrases, this meant that as far as practical, the club would cater for those yachtsmen, and later yachtswomen, who were prepare to sail and race their complex and heavy craft themselves.

Today's sailors may say 'so what?' but 141 years ago, this was revolutionary stuff. The average yachtsman of that time would no more think of trimming a sheet or hauling on a halyard, than of digging his vegetable patch, or engaging in other obviously menial tasks. An earlier fashion in the 1830s for establishing yacht clubs had resulted in a rash of "Royal" clubs in most provincial centres around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Dublin, Belfast and Cork, each followed the trend. However they were mainly social clubs, often meeting only a few times a year, and they organised very few events on the water, in some cases a regatta only every second year. The yachts owned by the members of such clubs were crewed by mere seamen, of a very different social status to the "yachtsmen"!

How very different the men of the "Alfred", or the "Irish Model Yacht Club" as they called their club at first. This was not model as meaning scale models yachts, but "Model" in the other, more Victorian meaning of the word, as something to be emulated. They started by organising day cruises in company, manoeuvring under orders from a flag officer. In this activity, they were following the old custom of the first yachtsmen in Amsterdam, back in the 1600s, and later copied by the gentry of Cork harbour in the early 1700s. But of course the difference in 1857 was that now the owners and their amateur friends were actually sailing themselves.

Very soon it was clear that the practical competence of the Dublin yachtsmen was such that they could race. Any one who races will readily agree with the saying that one learns more about skilful boat handling in a season's racing than in ten seasons "messing about in boats". But racing then was not as easy as today. Press reports of yacht races back in the 1860s routinely mention the "carrying away" of topmasts and bowsprits, and sails splitting. In those days, all the materials were suspect. Hulls, ropes, sailcloth, ironware, everything could and did break, but you were expected to be sufficiently good a seaman as to be able to cope, and without an auxiliary to get you home!

The Club quickly gained recognition, not only for its premier role as the leading amateur club, but also with the prestige of a royal warrant, acquiring the title it still carries: "Royal Alfred Yacht Club". Queen Victoria's third son Prince Alfred, was a naval officer who allowed his name to be used but he apparently had no active connection with our club, or with our sister club, the Prince Alfred Yacht Club of New South Wales.

"The first club to organise single and double handed yacht races"

Throughout the 1860s and 70s, our Club fired off an amazing series of initiatives, which caused our club to be described as the Premier Corinthian club. Indeed it started a new wave of yacht club formations, with "Corinthian" in their name, which appeared in all the major yachting centres around this time. Corinthian is another word for amateur, because it was believed that in ancient Greece, the athletes of Corinth competed for no reward other than a laurel wreath. Yet the Victorian sailors were quite happy to race for large cash and silverware prizes, which they kept! For them, the mortal sin was to be paid to sail or race. At the end of each season, Hunt's Yachting Magazine published a list of racing results for all the yacht races in the British Isles, and also the total value of the prizes awarded by the various clubs. The Royal Alfred Yacht Club regularly featured in the top three of such prestigious clubs, and in 1877 it ranked number one, with £712 in prizes for 11 races, equivalent to about IR£40,000 today!

Three years earlier, the Royal Alfred's circular to all the British yacht clubs, calling for a consistent regulation of handicapping by means of measurement by a professional, and the Club's earlier publication of yacht racing rules and time allowance tables, were the trigger for the founding of the Yacht Racing Association which became the Royal Yachting Association. Again typical of the Royal Alfred's central role in this process is that its two flag officers, Henry Crawford and George Thomson, are credited with the principal authorship of the YRA's Racing Rules.

"The prime mover behind the formation of the world's first national yacht racing organisation (1872)"

Its it tempting to dwell on the Royal Alfred's period in the spotlight, but one has to admit that the Club could not maintain this momentum. Its base was always yacht racing in Dublin Bay, and the Irish Sea, and as Dublin declined in relative terms, deferring to the Clyde and the Solent, and as larger racing yachts demanded professional crew, the Corinthian ideal became less important for the top competitions. So yachting in Dublin settled into a familiar pattern of one design racing, with the beautiful gaff cutter Dublin Bay 25 and 21 footers, and the Howth Seventeens. In this, the Dublin sailors were following the lead of their dinghy sailing friends who, in 1887, had founded the world's first one design class, the Water Wags. The twin harbours of Dun Laoghaire and Howth both continued to provide that great luxury, the facility to be sailing on one's yacht at 6pm, after leaving the office at 5. Few other yachting centres could provide this continuity, and so changes to new venues and new classes were less necessary for the sailors of Dublin.

Eventually, the wheel came full circle and the sailing world rediscovered one design racing in the 1930s, and even more so in the 1950s. By this time, the Royal Alfred's pioneering contributions to the sport were long taken for granted. Even offshore racing had to be reinvented in the late 1920s, even though the "Alfred's" tradition of 60 mile cross channel handicap races had been consistently maintained as part of its annual race programme for 57 years (1867-1924).

"RAYC's two flag officers are credited with the authorship of the first national yacht racing rules, which are at the core of today's racing rules worldwide."

So the Club has played a key role in the formation of our sport, as it is routinely practised around the globe. Throughout its 141 years, the Club has remained true to its founding principles, and as the rest of the world came to follow this example, we may reasonable claim that the Royal Alfred Yacht Club is not just the world's oldest amateur yacht club, but also the oldest yacht club in the modern tradition.

Royal Alfred Yacht Club

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