Shipping Wonders of the World

 © Shipping Wonders of the World 2012-23  | Contents  |  Site Map  |  Contact Us  |  Cookie Policy

How Yachts Are Raced

The regulations and rules, international, national and local, which govern yacht racing have undergone considerable changes in the last thirty years. Many conditions make yacht races difficult for the layman to follow


FOUR LARGE RACING YACHTS whose names are familiar to the general public. The Candida is followed by Shamrock V, the late Sir Thomas Lipton’s famous America’s Cup contestant, and by the Astra. The black-hulled yacht at the rear is King George V’s Britannia, which was scuttled by the Admiralty in the English Channel in July 1936. These yachts are racing in the old “over 21-metres” class, now replaced by the J class.

IT is unfortunate that yacht racing, which is one of the finest sports in which a man can take part, is one of the least popular from the spectator’s point of view. This is partly because the competitors are out of sight of any one point for a large part of the race, but mainly because the average layman finds it impossible to understand the handicapping system. There is a large following for the cynic who said that the system was so confusing that only the yachts themselves knew who had won. Not all yachts, however, race, with a handicap, and the system, once worked out by experts, is comparatively simple.

Yacht racing is broadly divided into class racing — international, restricted or one-design — and handicap racing. Ocean racing is really a sport apart, although it arouses immense interest nowadays and appears to demand more and more of the time of the sailing man. The task of arranging classes in which yachts can race on even terms without handicap is always a difficult one. Although remarkable progress has been made during the last half century and more, no system is ever perfect and work has to be done all the time to keep abreast of progress and to keep the rules water-tight against ingenious designers. Such individuals can interpret the rules so cleverly that their whole purpose may be frustrated and yachts built which, although they come within the rules, make fair racing with the others impossible.

For years in the middle of the nineteenth century efforts were made to race yachts under handicaps with every imaginable basis —length, tonnage and other measurements — but they were all open to objection, and while there was no central body to control the system there was bound to be confusion. This was especially so when yachts from one centre visited another. Matters

improved appreciably when the Yacht Racing Association was formed in 1875. One of its principal objects was to group yachts together in such a way that they could race without time allowance. Another was to evolve a system of time handicap which could be applied throughout the country and which would be fair to everybody. It began operations simply enough by introducing the Thames Measurement tonnage rule — by which yachts are still measured — and grouping the boats on that basis — five-tonners, ten-tonners, fifteen-tonners and so forth — making a time allowance for difference in rig and adding another allowance based on performance.

The next system was to multiply the length of the yacht by her sail area and to divide the product by 6,000, the result being her “rating”. This was successful for a time and encouraged the improvement of hull form from the straight stem to the clipper and then to the spoon bow; but it was apt to produce a small boat of light displacement, fast but wet, and it was feared that all yachts would tend to group into big classes.

In 1896, to produce a fuller body, the first linear rating rule was introduced, which, to find a boat’s rating, “taxed” various features, including girth. That rule proved easy to circumvent and had little or no effect, but in 1901 the improved linear rating rule was introduced on the suggestion of Alfred Benzon, a Danish mathematician. He wanted to check the tendency towards hollow sections, lack of head-room below decks, and so on. He did this by measuring the difference between the girth of the hull, following the planking and keel, and the length of a chain stretched right round the boat at the same point. This difference, which indicated the hollowness of her section, was multiplied by four and then taxed, but at the same time the tax on sail was reduced so that the result was an over-canvased boat whose light hull was apt to be weak.

In 1906 a great advance was made by the holding of the first International Conference between the various yacht racing authorities. The rule then framed generally applied from January 1908. The greatest change was that the strength of the yachts’ hulls received full attention. Lloyd’s Register, the Bureau Veritas, Germanischer Lloyd and other classification societies were empowered to control the scantlings of the yachts built, so that it was no longer possible to build mere racing machines which were appallingly weak. The ratings arrived at were on a metric basis, but this had no relation to the length and was obtained by formula.

Regulations Circumvented

The 1908 Rule was the first which attempted to measure the effective sailing length of a yacht instead of her water-line when she was at anchor. As speed goes with length, and as a considerable addition could be secured, as the yacht lay over to the breeze, by the judicious design of her overhanging bow and stern, this was most important in getting a fair comparison between boats.

As in all other rules, various features which made for speed were taxed, and if a designer paid undue attention to any one of them he had to sacrifice something else. In this rule sail area was lightly taxed so that a slight alteration in the hull would permit an enormous increase in the canvas carried. The early boats built to it were good; they gave fine sport, and had healthy seagoing hulls and good accommodation. From 1912 onwards the designers discovered how to drive the proverbial coach and four through the regulations. Without breaking the rule it was possible to build just the freak boats which the rule had been designed to prevent.

The life of the rule expired during the war of 1914-18, when most of the nations had suspended yachting. Those who had kept out of the struggle made their own rules to tide them over until something new could be framed. Yachting revived in 1919 and an international conference was held, after which the 1920 Rule was drawn up, a rule which is still in force with minor modifications.

The largest British racing yachts compete during Cowes Week

OFF COWES, IN THE ISLE OF WIGHT, the largest British racing yachts compete during Cowes Week, the first week in August. This photograph shows a scene on the deck of the Westward, one of the largest racing yachts, of 323 tons, Thames measurement.

The International Yacht Racing Union Rule of 1920 is intricate in its measurements, but its results resemble those of the “length by sail area over 6,000” rule to which reference has already been made. Yachts built under the 1920 Rule can take every advantage of the development of naval architecture, The basic rule of measurement is coupled with restrictions, especially regarding minimum weight of hull with its accompanying strength, which prevent the building of freaks and which can be modified without changing the root principle of the rule. As an example of how it works, the modern 12-metres yacht built under it has a considerably bigger hull but is much faster than the pre-war 12-metres yacht, although she only has 2,000 square feet of canvas against about 2,800.

The restrictions provided for are brought in whenever the design gets away from the original intention of those who framed the rule. For instance, the acknowledged sail area is roughly equal to the Bermudian mainsail plus 85 per cent of what is known as the fore triangle, the sail before the mast. But balloon headsails, parachute spinnakers and the like have been introduced within recent years, so that a 6-metres boat which had a nominal sail area of 460 square feet, occasionally had 1,000 square feet of canvas in her spinnaker only. Restrictions have been framed to check such tendencies without altering the rule and without putting any brake on genuine progress.

The Americans did not join in these European rules, but had their own types of yacht, which were quite different. Enthusiasm for the British-American Cup contests which started in 1921 began to interest American yachtsmen in some of the I.Y.R.U. (International Yacht Racing Union) classes, and in 1927 a central body was found to regulate American yachting. After the America's Cup Races of 1930 there was a series of conferences and compromises. The Americans have now adopted the 6-metres, 8-metres and 12-metres International classes, and the 10-metres as a one-design class, of which all the yachts have been built in Germany. The British have taken up the American J, K and L classes. Up to now the J class, the class of biggest yachts, is the only one to which British yachts have been built — Endeavour I, Endeavour II and Velsheda — with which somewhat smaller yachts of similar design, such as the Astra, race after having received a time allowance on their features only, not on performance.

The International Rule

The yachts of the J class that race in European waters are too expensive to be numerous, but their contests are always the great attraction to the layman watching the regattas. The cost of such a boat depends entirely on the ideas of the owner; it is possible to include fittings and “gadgets” up to an exceptionally large sum. The Endeavour and the Rainbow, of the J class, competed for the America’s Cup in 1934, and the cost of the two yachts differed greatly. The approximate details of a J class boat, subject to considerable variation in every individual yacht, are a length of about 85 feet on the waterline, 127 to 130 feet overall length, a displacement of about 140 tons and a sail area of rather more than 7,500 square feet.

The International Rule provides for 23-metres, 19-metres and 15-metres yachts. Although all these were built and raced in the old days, they have gone out as classes, and the few survivors which remain are now raced as handicap boats. The biggest yachts raced regularly in International classes are the 12-metres boats, which have been built in considerable numbers and which always give excellent sport. They run to about 35 tons and their normal price, somewhere between £4,500 and £5,000, according to the refinements and fittings desired, is about that of a 100-tons yacht before the war of 1914-18.

The 12-metres boats must not have more than four paid hands in racing, so that they give amateurs excellent scope and have sufficient accommodation for their owners and their friends to live in them going round the coast from regatta to regatta . The 10-metres boats have not found favour among British yachtsmen; the affection for that class is mostly in Northern Europe.

These yachts are typical of the smaller classes that race in the rivers and round the coasts of Great Britain

REFLECTED IN THE STILL WATERS of the River Lea, these yachts are typical of the smaller classes that race in the rivers and round the coasts of Great Britain. The yachts on the left are waiting for the start of a race organized by the Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, Sailing Club.

The 8-metres boat has, within the last few years, been taken up enthusiastically by British sailing men, although it was appreciated on the Continent for years before. It is the smallest International class to be provided with a cabin. The average 8-metres boat has a length of about 30 feet on the water line and of from 46 to 48 feet overall, although these dimensions may be varied within limits.

Perhaps the best known of the International classes is the 6-metres. This class comprises little open racing boats whose qualities first attracted the Americans to the International Rule. Day boats pure and simple, they afford wonderful racing and are to be found in nearly every country where yachting is organized. They are designed for speed only, and the general tendency, with the efficient Bermudian rig, is to build bigger and more powerful hulls with a smaller sail area, the boat being about 22 or 23 feet on the water-line and 36 feet overall. The bigger hull and smaller sail area give a boat the advantage in a wind of any weight; in the light zephyrs which are not normally expected on the coast of Great Britain, the smaller boat with the bigger sails has the advantage.

The 6-metres class suffers from its qualities. It is such a fine little racing machine that the cleverest yacht designers in the world have devoted all their attention to improving it. The numerous refinements which have been added to the design have increased the cost to an extraordinary extent. Many of the present yachts have cost about £1,100, a big figure in itself which seems still bigger when it is worked out at well over £200 a ton Thames Measurement. Before the war a really first-class cruising yacht, with all her fittings and comforts, could be built for about £50 a ton.

National and Local Classes

Smaller than the 6-metres yachts on the International scale are the 5-metres — light little racing boats which have not made much appeal to British owners — and certain classes under the American system. The smallest International class is the 12-feet dinghy, a one-design boat whose popularity is greatest in Holland. The British 14-feet dinghy, originally a national restricted type, is now international, although the great majority are British owned. Their number runs into hundreds.

King Edward VIII, when Prince of Wales, took a keen interest in this class and obtained for it large numbers of enthusiasts by the presentation of the valuable Prince of Wales’s Challenge Cup. These dinghies are not allowed to exceed 14 feet in overall length. The principle of limiting their overall length, instead of the water-line length, which is most useful in sailing, produces short overhangs at bow and stern. Their sail area is limited to 140 square feet. They are remarkably fast and give excellent sport, and their safety makes them a useful nursery for the helmsmen of the future; but the original idea of a cheap racing boat which should be within the reach of all has been lost entirely.

In addition to the international classes there are numbers of national classes all over the world, built to suit their people. The Norwegians have several classes which are governed by sail area alone, and other countries have other ideas.

Yachts of the Thames Sailing Club at Kingston-on-Thames

A RIVERSIDE SPECTACLE. Yachts of the Thames Sailing Club at Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey. For a great part of its length the London River, Thames or Isis — as it is variously called — is navigable by sailing craft. Wherever local conditions permit, enthusiastic owners sail their yachts on the rivers and lakes of Great Britain. Among the inland waterways particularly associated with yachting are the Thames, the Crouch in Essex, the Norfolk Broads, the Medway in Kent, the Conway in North Wales and Lake Windermere in Westmorland.

In addition to the international and national classes there are local classes so numerous that it is possible to mention only a few of the better known and more important. More of these are found in British waters than anywhere else, partly because of the individual taste of British yachtsmen and partly because local conditions vary so much that the ideal type in one district is anything but ideal for another district perhaps only a few miles away.

These local classes are often restricted classes, in which a general limit is laid down and designers have a free hand just as they have in the international classes, as long as they do not break the rules. The others are the one-design classes in which the boats are all built exactly alike, often at the same yard, and the racing is entirely a test for the skill of the helmsman.

The idea of one-design classes originated in Great Britain in the later ’nineties, when the “Redwings” and Solent One-Design boats appeared in Solent waters. The Redwings became a club, and so well built were they that some of them raced when forty years of age. When they were new they cost £70 each; a similar boat now would cost from £150 to £200 and it is difficult to imagine it class racing for twenty years, far less forty.

The biggest one-design class in Great Britain was the South Coast One-Design, which came out in 1903. This class consisted of yachts of 24 tons Thames Measurement, with an overall length of 57 feet. It was an attractive class and it had so many aristocratic owners that it became known as the “Belted Earl” class among yachtsmen. The great majority of such classes are, however, on the small side and something between 17 and 20 feet in length is popular.

The trouble with all class racing except one-design is that in nearly every instance the lives of the boats are comparatively short, not because they are worn out but because improvements are effected so constantly and so rapidly. A few seasons are generally sufficient to see an expensive yacht built to one of the international rules hopelessly outclassed by newer boats whose designers have carefully studied the rule and seen the way to make the most of its conditions or, frequently to circumvent it in such a way that its entire purpose is defeated.

Thus every season sees a number of yachts, built to class rule and often among the cracks of their day, no longer standing any chance against their newer competitors and therefore being relegated to handicap racing alongside other relegations — racing yachts built to special or obsolete design — fast cruisers and miscellaneous vessels. Handicap racing can give excellent sport and a yacht may enjoy many years’ life in it, for adjustments are constantly made to keep her chances reasonable. As a rule the yacht whose class career is over is cut down aloft and made far more comfortable for cruising with additional cabin fittings and the like.

Often auxiliary engines are installed to help her in making a passage and to let her get in and out of harbour on race days with the minimum of difficulty. The screw naturally pulls down her speed when it is dragged through the water, but allowance is made for that in her handicap.

The Harkaway, of the West Solent Restricted Class

AN INCREASINGLY POPULAR SPORT, yachting and yacht racing takes place in almost every river, bay and estuary round the coast of Great Britain. This photograph shows the Harkaway, of the West Solent Restricted Class, typical of the smaller and less expensive craft that are so frequently to be seen in British waters.

The system of handicapping by time allowance appears at first sight to be puzzling to the layman and is often criticized on that account, but it is really simple and easy to understand. It is generally difficult, however, for the spectator who is not a member of the club, but who is watching the racing from the promenade or pier, to learn the time allowances which are adjusted for each day’s racing. Racing handicaps are fixed on a combination of two factors. One is stationary, the Yacht Racing Association’s speed figure, which is roughly what the yacht’s rating would be if she were built to rule. That allowance, as with all others, is worked out at so many seconds for a mile of the course, and remains with the yacht for the whole season. Every day however, the clubs’ “officers of the day” or, where they are lucky, a special experienced handicapper, fix an addition or reduction to this allowance based on the conditions ruling and the previous performance of the boat.

When these time allowances have been so adjusted that the corrected times of the yachts work out within a few seconds of one another, it means that the handicappers have judged their capabilities perfectly. Handicappers of such knowledge and judgment are rare and appreciated. To the yachtsmen who have each boat’s time allowance before them and can check their chances

to seconds, there is plenty of excitement in a handicap race; but the lay spectator sees only a number of boats sailing in at intervals, getting their gun and then returning to their moorings. Later, when the last straggler is home, some hoist their racing flags part-way up the mast, denoting whether the boat has first, second or third prize. That is generally the spectator’s first information.

As a handicap race of mixed types may often result in a heavily-built cruising yacht with auxiliary motor coming in over an hour behind the beautiful ex-class boat which was scratch, and still winning the race by ten minutes because of her eighty minutes’ handicap, the whole matter is puzzling. Nobody, however, has succeeded in finding an alternative. The suggestion has often been made that the time allowance should be arranged at the beginning of the race, making the yachts start at intervals and finish at the same time as nearly as the handicappers can contrive. There are many objections to this proposal, one of the principal objections being that the sport would be robbed of the excitement of “jockeying for the start”.

Before the race every owner is supposed to apply for his exact sailing directions. These describe all the marks on the course and the manner in which each is to be passed, some to starboard and some to port; but there is often carelessness on this point, and yachts are disqualified in consequence. Every yacht has her racing flag noted and a number is allotted to her lest she has to be recalled by the sailing committee. This recall number is not necessarily the same as the one stitched to her sail at the beginning of the season.

Three Main Sailing Rules

Racing routine varies to a certain extent, but the usual procedure is for each race to be distinguished by a flag flown at the most convenient point at one end of the starting line. Warning is given by a preliminary gun and by this flag run up on the flagstaff. The second gun and the Blue Peter (flag signal P in the International Code) give exactly five minutes to the start of the race, and during that period seconds have to be carefully watched. When the Blue Peter is hoisted the yachts are amenable to the sailing rules and any transgression may disqualify them.

There are three main sailing rules which are quite simple. The first is that the yacht on the weather side has the responsibility of keeping clear of the yacht to leeward. The second is that the yacht on the port tack gives way to one on the starboard, and the third is that the yacht running free must give way to the yacht close hauled. Some slight collisions are unavoidable, especially if there is no wind and the race has degenerated into a drifting match, but it is the duty of every yacht to avoid touching any of her competitors, and she is always liable to disqualification for doing so.

During the five minutes which precede the starting gun the yachts are all jockeying for the best position to cross the line when the gun is fired, and this is where a helmsman’s skill is shown to best advantage. There is generally a tide running across the line, and this tide and the wind have to be carefully studied so that the yacht, without fouling any of her competitors, may be as close as possible to the starting line ready to turn and shoot across it the moment the gun is fired. If any part of the boat is over the line, even if it is only a foot of her bowsprit, two guns are immediately fired in quick succession and recall numbers are exhibited. Every boat whose number is so shown has to go back and cross the line again.

Any owner who is dissatisfied with his competitor’s observance of the rules may lodge a protest with the Sailing Committee, shown by his finishing the race with his racing flag in the rigging, just over the rail. Nowadays protests are generally over some minor breach of the rules, probably accidental.

Small yachts are seen in this photograph taken during a regatta in Kiel Harbour

WHITE SAILS AND LIMPID WATERS. Small yachts are seen in this photograph taken during a regatta in Kiel Harbour, Germany, the scene of the yacht races during the Olympic Games of 1936. Regatta Week at Kiel is as important to Germany as Cowes Week to Great Britain.

You can read more on “The America’s Cup”, “Auxiliary Sailing Vessels” and “Yacht Cruising” on this website.