East Coast Race yachts and yachtsmen: 1963 – 2013

East Coast Race flier, 1963
East Coast Race flier, 1963

We delve into the archives of the East Coast area of the OGA to find the details behind the first East Coast Race in 1963, and the founding of the Association celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013. There had been a couple of races on the Solent in the late 1950s for gaff-rigged boats, and the success of this race from Osea Island in the River Blackwater to Harwich Harbour led to the two areas joining forces to form the Old Gaffers Association.

The first East Coast Race was organised in 1963, inspired by the earlier races held in the Solent. The three enthusiasts; John Bray, Roy Clarkson and John Scarlett of the first committee advertised the race in the yachting press, hoping to get a dozen entries. 27 boats registered in time to go in the programme, and 30 turned up on the start line. The planned course, from Osea Island in the Blackwater, up the Wallet, to Harwich Harbour, proved to be a mistake when the race started in a flat calm, which turned in to head winds all the way. Only seven boats finished the course, arriving much too late for the supper and party that had been planned.

Something must have been right despite this fiasco, because it was agreed that Old Gaffer Races were a Good Thing, and in September 1963 the OGA was formed to run both the East Coast and the Solent Races in future years.

Racing in the 1960s

The race in 1964 was held with a much shorter course, and just as well, because a thunder storm before the start left a near calm and fog, through which the fleet of 33 drifted from Osea Island to the finish off East Mersea. The first three boats on corrected time won engraved pewter tankards, while the Tom Bolton cup was awarded to the first fishing or ex-fishing boat to cross the finish line. Tom Bolton had taken part in the first race on his smack ‘Maria’, but was lost at sea in September 1963, and his pals presented the cup in his memory. The cup is still awarded, and is hotly contested.

The weather was much better in 1965 with a brisk breeze. With a field of 40 boats, the race was split into two classes as it was realised that even with handicaps, asking 46 foot boats and 17 foot boats to race together might cause problems on the start line! Apart from two accidents caused by carelessly handled spectator craft, all went well. A new tradition came into being this year; the winner of the race became Commodore of the East Coast Area until the next race. The annual handing over of the Commodore’s pennant is still happens at the prize ceremony. That was not the only new prize, the East Coast Old Gaffer’s Trophy awarded to the first boat over 50 years old on corrected time, also dates from this year. Class III for open boats under 20′ was introduced in 1965 as many smaller boats wished to compete. It became a fixture in the programme for many years after, and still continues, although the class now competes in its own event inside the Colne on the Sunday, rather then mixing it up with the larger boats on Saturday.

‘Sea Pig’ takes part in the 1966 East Coast Race

In 1967 the race start was moved to Stone, down river from Osea Island. The start and finish were both at the Stone Sailing Club and the result was an outstanding success. The ‘out and back’ course guaranteed a beat somewhere whichever way the wind blew, and a record fleet of 56 boats enjoyed a fine day’s sport. 1968 saw fog and light winds that spoilt the sailing and the spectators’ view, but people enjoyed it anyway, and the weather the next year was glorious.

Increase in numbers

1970 saw 80 boats entered, but the strong winds and poor forecast meant only 15 came to the line; ten retired before finishing in gale force westerly winds.

In 1971 93 boats entered. The largest boat that year was ‘Solvig’, a 70 foot ex-Baltic trading ketch, and the smallest was ‘Red Rose’ a 16 foot lugger, but it was not until 1979 that class V, for ‘very large vessels’ (later changed to boats over 50′ long) came into being. There were 107 entries that year, and numbers rose to 140 in the 1980’s.

Following a short period at Mersea in the 1990s, the race moved to Brightlingsea in 1999, where it continues. Numbers have dropped from the peak in the 1980s, mostly due to more events becoming available

Variety of vessels

In the first ten years of the race a total of 124 purpose built pleasure yachts took part, with eleven designed by John Leather, the best represented designer. There were also 84 boats converted for leisure use; 35 ex-fishing smacks, together with 29 ‘work’ boats, everything from 18′ winkle brigs to 70′ trading ketches, nine converted lifeboats, four Itchen ferries, six prawners, and four bawleys.

Where are they today?

How many of them are still afloat today? Hard to say, as some only competed once, but of the 30 boats that took part in the first East Coast Race, three, ‘Fanny of Cowes’, ‘Fly’ and ‘Kestrel’ are confirmed as sailing in the 50th. Who would have thought that 50 years later over 10% of the boats would still be afloat, let alone racing! Another of those original boats may well appear on the day. ‘Shoal Waters’ won the second East Coast Race and she was the newest and smallest boat on the line back in 1963, and she is still sailing today, thousands of miles later.

The list contains boats that have been sailing since before the OGA’s foundation, and others, like ‘Shoal Waters’ in 1963, are new to the sea. Hopefully some of the same boats will turn up in another 50 years!

Alison Cable, East Coast OGA