Continuing to enjoy racing the 17 footers

There was a certain snobbery in the 1880s over sailing on inland waters. An enquiry from the Windermere Sailing Club to the yacht racing association of the day was met with the response that the body had ‘no jurisdiction over duckponds’. Undeterred, and gaining royal ‘permission’ in 1887, the Royal Windermere Yacht Club boasts one of the oldest continuously-raced classes in the country, designed with some controversy over 100 years ago, and still racing today.

The Royal Windermere Yacht Club celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2010. It’s said that in its home town of Bowness-on-Windermere only the parish church and the Royal Hotel predate it. The club traces its foundation to a meeting of ‘like-minded gentlemen’ in Bowness on 16 January 1860, when the then Windermere Sailing Club was founded. Many of these men were wealthy industrialists and financiers who liked to spend their summer holidays in the Lakes, pursuing friendly rivalries on the water.

Regular sailing regattas had been held on the lake since around 1849, with local boatbuilders producing tall, slender, extravagantly canvassed yachts in the style of the time, and handicapping systems attempting not very successfully to regulate their performance. The perceived need for a restricted class was one impetus for the formation of the club.

Mixed fleet of Windermere 17s Photo: Peter Willis
Mixed fleet of Windermere 17s Photo: Peter Willis

The first Windermere Restricted Class has been described as ‘a bold vessel of good displacement’ and was much influenced by ‘Jilt’, a 25ft waterline boat, built in 1861 for one of the founding committee members, Joseph Bridston. According to an early club history, this design ‘changed the character of the Windermere racing yacht from being a little vessel of small displacement, not greatly superior to a decked-in wherry, to a bold vessel of good displacement and decent freeboard; but it did more than this, it put an end to handicap racing and eventually led to the adoption of one class, with a limited length of waterline.’

In 1876 Dixon Kemp described the fleet as: ‘Mostly distinguished for their weatherly qualities . . . sailed with great boldness, as owing to the great weight they have on their keels it would be impossible to capsize them.’

Initially professional helmsmen from Morecambe Bay were employed to sail the yachts, but by 1870, newer, younger members wished both to avoid that expense and to test their own prowess by sailing their boats themselves. Thus for a short time two classes of races were held, with and without professional crews.

A way of flouting the 20ft rule was quickly found, by deliberately immersing the counter when heeled, which effectively increased the waterline length to 26ft (7.9m) or more. In 1880 a new class, the ‘Second Class’ with a LWL of 17ft 6in (5.3m) and more tightly controlled measurements, was introduced, and in 1884 it was followed by the ‘Second 20ft Class’, again with tighter rules, especially regarding the counter. With an agreement not to change the measurements for at least five years, the new class was immediately popular and a total of 53 yachts were built to it over the next 12 years.

Although popular with new members and ladies, it was only permitted to race outside the regatta season of July and August. In 1897 a 22ft class was introduced, carrying the same sail area as the 20ft, but with a very different underwater profile, notably a deep-bladed keel. Although expensive, a total of 17 were built.

It was the cost of the 22-footers that produced pressure for a more affordable class and this, in 1904, led to the ‘17ft Restricted Class’. Its adoption was surrounded by controversy. Percy Crossley, son of founder member Louis Crossley, the Halifax carpet manufacturer, had trained as a naval architect with Linton Hope in Southampton. He favoured a flat-bottomed ‘skimming dish’ design, but his older cousin Herbert Crossley, who had designed many earlier Windermere yachts, opposed this and in the end carried the day. To prevent ‘skimming-dish’ designs the class rules specified a one-in-four angle between the overhang and the waterline (amended in 1906 to one-in-five and still current).

Peter Willis, Classic Boat Magazine

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