Ben Lowings delves into the journals of the Royal Cruising Club to discover how yachting has changed over the decades

Ben Lowings pores over the Royal Cruising Club journals and shares stories from sailing’s early pioneers

The Ria de Arousa on the Atlantic coast of Spain is a great fjord where the woodland comes down to the shore. Its rocky inlets and islands provide intricate pilotage today.

In the summer of 1882 a lieutenant, one H. Bremner of HMS Hercules, was sailing his small canoe in this area.

He flew a burgee now renowned as a badge of the owner’s deep-sea knowledge and ‘foreign-going’.

It was white and red, divided vertically. The white inner portion was charged with a black Maltese cross, edged with yellow, and bearing a yellow naval crown at its centre.

This is the flag of the Cruising Club – or as it later became, the Royal Cruising Club (RCC).

Dr. David Lewis was one of the early pioneers of high-latitude sailing and his navigation notes helped open up the region to cruising. Credit: Getty

Dr. David Lewis was one of the early pioneers of high-latitude sailing and his navigation notes helped open up the region to cruising. Credit: Getty

Bremner was conducting the club’s first cruise in foreign waters. Spain was at peace, but the club history notes that he was ‘prudently armed with a revolver.’

Bremner had signed up to an exclusive outfit founded for the purposes of pleasure sailing. But its original members had something of the buccaneer about them.

To quote the original 1890 Articles, the club was to associate ‘owners of small yachts, boats, and canoes, and other persons interested in aquatic amusements, and to give members facilities for obtaining information as to the harbours and other local matters, and to circulate amongst its members accounts of interesting cruises.’

The Wolverhampton-born solicitor Arthur Underhill was the inspiration behind it.

Roving Commissions, the Royal Cruising Club journal, is an anthology of members' cruises for the year. Credit: Royal Cruising Club

Roving Commissions, the Royal Cruising Club journal, is an anthology of members’ cruises for the year. Credit: Royal Cruising Club

Tired of editing legal texts, he was instrumental in a deal with Hunt’s Yachting Magazine to publish cruising logs. Hunt’s goes back to 1852.

It carried all the news from the yacht clubs which then existed – essentially the big racing ones.

In those days it was as much about river and lake cruising as offshore. This was the world of Jerome K Jerome’s 1889 book Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage (an 1878 paddling canoe trip in the Low Countries).

Opening up cruising

These early periodicals catalogue the delights of Victorian sportsmen (no women, note).

Sandwiched between the pale blue paper covers are tales from Underhill’s forays in his 46-ton auxiliary ketch Wulfruna.

A regatta in Japanese waters was one such delight.

Today the chartlets in the Imray/Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation pilot books are invaluable; they can trace their origin in part to the Cruising Club charts of 1893.

The atlas, Thames Estuary and Adjacent Harbours contains only the soundings in single-digit fathoms.

The chart designers believed these depths were the only ones that a yacht of several tons and corresponding draught would be interested in.

Erskine Childers' sailing adventures made it to the pages of the Royal Cruising Club Journal. Credit: Getty

Erskine Childers’ sailing adventures made it to the pages of the Royal Cruising Club Journal. Credit: Getty

The Thames book was followed in 1894 by a comprehensive atlas covering Ramsgate to Scilly.

Today, these materials can be found in the Royal Cruising Club’s current club rooms, housed within the Royal Thames Yacht Club at Knightsbridge in central London.

The colourful library is immaculate.

The club’s honorary archivist, Christopher Thornhill, was brimming with pride. ‘The production of such charts was a big landmark in the cruising world,’ he says.

By 1902, they covered up from the Scillies to the Mull of Kintyre.

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They ‘revolutionised sailing,’ Thornhill adds. ‘You couldn’t have them unless you were a member.’

There was an early attempt to add the ‘royal’ title to the club name. But an approach to the Prince of Wales was decided against, because the club didn’t know whether he was likely to accept.

Enthroned as Edward VII, he approved the name change in 1902.

‘His Majesty was pleased to command that in future the style of the club should be The Royal Cruising Club, and the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty granted a warrant to fly the blue ensign of His Majesty’s fleet.’

It was a far more controversial royal figure who had taken a much closer interest.

Ben Lowings and Christopher Thornhill

The RCC’s honorary archivist, Christopher Thornhill, shows Ben Lowings the library. Thornhill’s pilotage notes for the Faroe Isands are incorporated into the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation’s Arctic Waters. Credit: Jessica Vidal

In 1905, a batch of Royal Cruising Club charts were dispatched to Germany. The recipient declared he had ‘already quite enough of them.’

Kaiser Wilhelm II gave his club a signed portrait, which hung for a time behind the Royal Cruising Club rooms’ entrance door.

This grandson of Queen Victoria, it could be argued, was so desperately interested in the British yachting scene because he was so envious of it.

He was in the Royal Cruising Club at the same time as he furiously directed Germany’s naval build-up. He also encouraged German yachtsmen to spy on British shore defences.

One of them, who counted the gun emplacements at Brighton, dodged a bit of trouble because he was a Royal Cruising Club member.

German intelligence gathering was of course the subject of the 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands, penned by Erskine, himself naturally a Royal Cruising Club chap.

Sailor Skip Novak helming a yacht

High-latitude adventures are still a core part of the Royal Cruising Club, with Skip Novak recently becoming a member

The Kaiser’s portrait has been replaced by that of H.W. Tilman. This alone gives you an idea of the huge changes in yacht cruising.

The Victorian plutocrat in a steam yacht with paid hands was – over the course of 100 years – transformed into the rugged ex-military adventurer sailing polar seas in search of remote mountains to climb.

From Hunt’s to the Cruising Club Journal to the Royal Cruising Club Journal, you sense that the Royal Cruising Club is in many ways writing history’s first draft.

The Royal Cruising Club version of history is the one that seems to matter.

Christopher Thornhill has trouble remembering the name and nationality of America’s Joshua Slocum, the first lone circumnavigator.

Thornhill, now 81, can be forgiven for a name having slipped his mind. The name he is arguably more interested in is that of the Royal Cruising Club’s George Henry Pasche Muhlhauser, the first English yachtsman to sail around the world.

‘He just went with a hand and one other chap.’ Muhlhauser started in 1919 with his 54ft yawl. He died soon after his return three years later, but not without having written Cruise of the Amaryllis, which Thornhill calls a seminal book on his exploits.

Old edition of Arthur Ransome's children's books

Arthur Ransome’s inspirational children’s books, as well as his cruising logs, are an important part of the Royal Cruising Club library. Credit: Jessica Vidal

It seems harsh but it is probably true to say Muhlhauser is all but completely forgotten by today’s yachting community.

His polished hardwood desk – the same one which carried his charts – sits in the club room.

One would probably expect to hear that the First World War changed cruising forever, but Thornhill argues that reading the logs from 1914-19, ‘you wouldn’t even think there had been a war.’ the pioneers Erskine Childers was followed by another writer, and sometime intelligence operative, into the Royal Cruising Club annals.

Arthur Ransome’s tales of Baltic escapades with his Russian wife off the Estonian coast in Racundra are an essential chunk of the Royal Cruising Club library bookshelves.

The children’s fiction he is best remembered for also occupies a readily accessible area in the library.

Tracking the changes between the wars, it is easy to see cruises becoming longer and more involved.

More and more words are spilt and the Royal Cruising Club’s volumes become thicker.

The 1939 journal – published in 1940 – is, as Thornhill says, ‘very fat’.

The Second World War was a genuine pause in Royal Cruising Club activity.

Its journal resumes in 1947, when paid hands were no more, and cruisers encountered all sorts of problems which had to be solved by ingenuity rather than money.

One visitor to Spain, says Thornhill, had a ‘hell of a job getting petrol’.

Small yachts were becoming more seaworthy and ‘real ocean cruising’ was much more feasible. Sailing was opening up to different people in different sectors of society.

Peter and Anne Pye, Eric and Susan Hiscock, Hammond Innes, Blondie Hasler and Adlard Coles all tell their stories in the pages of the Royal Cruising Club journals.

So too the New Zealander, Dr David Lewis, and a fellow Southern Ocean venturer, Brigadier Miles Smeeton.

His much-anthologised account of a pitchpole near Cape Horn in 1957 tells how his wife Beryl was nearly swept to her death: ‘Beryl looked astern and saw an exceptional wave coming up very high and steep. Tzu Hang was dead stern on to it. She did not see how Tzu Hang could surmount it. It did not appear to be breaking or about to break, but it was the height and the steepness that made a lasting impression on her mind. The next thing that she knew was that she was being thrown head first out of the cockpit, thrown out and not washed out, and then she knew no more until she found herself in the water, the snap hook of her bodyline providentially broken, and with Tzu Hang lying, swept clean and dismasted, 30 yards away.’

Ben Lowings

Ben Lowings works for the BBC World Service and has sailed dinghies and yachts from the Norwegian Arctic to New Zealand. He also skippers commercial yacht deliveries around Britain. He has written two books, The Chancellor, a biography of the yachtsman George Millar, and The Dolphin, a biography of Dr David Lewis.

These close calls embody the adventurous spirit of Tilman’s Royal Cruising Club. It still lives.

One recent recruit, Skip Novak, through his voyages in Pelagic Australis, has sparked the dreams of many of us who yearn for high-latitude voyages.

The honorary archivist himself is also a good example. Thornhill’s 40ft teak Sparkman and Stephens yawl Sai See probed northern Europe from the Baltic to Iceland.

He wrote pilotage notes for the Faroe Islands, which are incorporated into the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation’s Arctic Waters pilot.

Sailing in the polar regions is perhaps an old-fashioned idea but the Royal Cruising Club thinks it an activity still worth pursuing.

Thornhill, for his part, deeply regrets the advent of GPS in the 1990s, along with most other boat electronics.

In 1991, Thornhill sailed with his godson from Shetland to the Lofoten Islands in Norway and taught him to use a sextant.

He smiles as he tells me his erstwhile pupil has since sailed himself around the world. With an AIS receiver, a GPS set and chartplotter, Thornhill argues, navigation is ‘pretty easy to do’.

You might as well ‘be sitting in your bedroom’, he adds.

Whatever you think of that opinion, the writings of Royal Cruising Club members can certainly take you sailing from your bedroom.

The Royal Cruising Club journals – containing 3,000 articles – are searchable by cruising area and accounts of the previous year’s trips are available for £20.

Dive in. They provide great perspectives on the history of cruising that have stood the test of time.

The Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation

The Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation collects and researches written, photographic and chart information relating to small boat pilotage, navigation and operation, climate and weather conditions, including information from remote areas of the world where other sources of information are scarce or non-existent.

Royal Cruising Club Pilotage FoundationThe charity works in close collaboration with publishers Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson, Bloomsbury (Adlard Coles Nautical) and On Board Publications.

It also publishes its own guides and pilot books for areas where limited demand does not justify large print runs.

Trinity House is a patron of the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation.

Buy Ben Lowings’ book The Dolphin at Amazon (UK)
Buy Ben Lowings’ book The Dolphin at Amazon (US)
Buy Ben Lowings’ book The Dolphin at Waterstones (UK)
Buy Ben Lowings’ book The Chancellor at Amazon (UK)
Buy Ben Lowings’ book The Chancellor at Amazon (US)

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