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News at Whitstable Yacht Club

A brief history

Summary of an illustrated booklet "A Handkerchief in the Rigging", written in 2004 and recording the first 50 years of the Club, published jointly by the Whitstable Museum and Club to coincide with the Centenary celebrations. Copies for sale at the bar or email the author.

The Club was 100 years old in 2004. Originally called the Whitstable Yacht Racing Committee, it was set up by Fred Goldfinch, a wealthy local grocer and ship owner, and Alf Bates who had a Cycle Agency in Canterbury. To start, it was a loose association of local yachtsmen who enjoyed sailing together and it was not until 1904 that they decided to form a club, called the Kent Yacht Club, and acquire premises. The first Clubroom was in a restaurant on Beach Walk near to where the Hotel Continental now stands. In 1906 the name was changed to Whitstable Yacht Club as the original title was felt to be too presumptuous. The Club took a room at the Tankerton Hotel on top of the slopes (recently converted into flats). This was not a satisfactory location and the Clubhouse on Sea Wall where the Club is still based was leased. It had originally been the Victoria Inn but at the time was a boarding house. In 1912, Dr Charles Etheridge, a local GP, was elected Commodore and he remained so for 40 years making him the longest serving Commodore of any Yacht Club ever.

In the early days the boats sailed were a mixture of traditional cutters, yawls and lugs together with a few purpose built racing craft called raters. They were known locally as skimming dishes because of their shape. Generally the bigger and more expensive boats were the fastest which is why yachting developed an exclusive image. Some of the crew were paid hands.

The Club remained open during the First World War but all racing stopped. It was a gentlemen’s Club and ladies were rarely allowed in. Billiards, snooker, reading and cards were popular as well as the sailing.

1958 Flying Dutchman BulletinIn 1925 the first class racing started. The new boat was the Essex One Design and it quickly became established at Clubs around the Thames Estuary. Team racing was popular and boats would sail to the other Club on Saturday morning, race in the afternoon and sail back on the Sunday.

In the 1930s a billiard room was added ? now the sea room. Small dinghy sailing started to gain popularity and a new boat, the 18ft National, designed by Uffa Fox, was introduced. It proved very suitable for sailing off Whitstable and the Club is credited with being the founder of the class.

Sailing stopped at the outbreak of the Second World War and the Club found itself in crisis. The loss of income meant it could not keep up payments on the mortgage. It was saved when Mr Clement Clark, the Rear Commodore and a successful optician, took it over.

After the war sailing was gradually re-established and ladies started to gain equal status. One design dinghy sailing was getting popular and the first open meeting was held in 1947. The first dinghy classes at Whitstable were the National 12 and a 14ft Whitstable One Design. The first National Championship held in the Thames Estuary was at Whitstable in 1950 for the 18ft Nationals.

Slotty DawesIn the 1950s the Rear Commodore, "Slotty" Dawes, introduced the first of the new Olympic trapeze dinghies, the "Flying Dutchman", into the United Kingdom. Whitstable became the racing centre for the new boats and in 1959 the first ever World Championship held in the UK was here. It was the year before the Rome Olympics and was a dress rehearsal with all the top international crews attending. There was a large contingent from Russia and the communist Eastern Block. In the same year the Club hosted the FD National Championships, the Merlin Rocket Championships and Kent Week. This put Whitstable on the international yachting map. "Slotty" Dawes sailed in the Rome Olympics and was the first of many local sailors to race at world class level. The Club went on to host many prestigious national and international championships including the Olympic class Finn Gold Cup, the "Prince of Wales" Cup Week for the International 14s, the Cadet World Championships and the Tasar International Championships as recently as last year.

Merlins sailing in 1956Class racing was popular and handicap racing was actively discouraged. Single handers were considered anti social. The classes that did get established were the 18ft National, National 12, Firefly, Merlin Rocket, Cadet, Enterprise, Fireball, Laser and Mirror. Catamaran racing started in the 1970s and there was a large fleet of small cruising yachts moored in the bay.

In 1975 the Club and Whitstable faced a crisis. The recently formed Canterbury City Council proposed building a 26ft high Sea Wall from West Beach to the end of the West Quay. It would have destroyed the sea front as we know it and small boat sailing. While most local organisations were against it, it was the Yacht Club that put up the money to employ local environmentalist, Hector Wilks, to oppose the scheme at the Public Enquiry. Fortunately the Council lost.

In the 1980s the Club was one of the few established Yacht Clubs in the country to encourage windsurfing. The first National Championships were held here in 1986. In the 1990s it was again one of the first to adopt the new high performance asymmetric skiff type dinghies. Whitstable sailors also travelled with a large contingent of B14s racing in Italy and catamarans going to Aruba in the Caribbean to race in November.

Much has changed over the years. Sailing is no longer an exclusive sport but open to anyone. The Club even has its own Sailing and Windsurfing School. There is a very active Cadet section enabling children from 8 years upward to learn to sail and to race. The Club’s commitment to training young sailors has recently been recognised by the Royal Yachting Association and it is the only one in the South East to be both a RYA Volvo Champion Club and a Team 15 Windsurfing Club. Membership is booming and the turnout for Club racing at weekends is high. The original Clubhouse has developed and expanded and in 2004 a new bar was built. It is also fitting that the Merlin Rocket National Championships were held here in August 2004 as they were one of the first dinghy classes to be raced at Whitstable over 50 years ago. Whitstable Yacht Club may have been around for 100 years but it has never lived in the past.