Situated at the centre of British sailing and on the banks of the River Hamble lies Riverside House, the home of the Royal Air Force Yacht Club. This flourishing, independent fraternity of sailors did not just come about by chance; the story of its conception and progress is worth telling, because there was no silver spoon in the mouth of this struggling infant in 1932.
Calshot, situated at the entrance to Southampton Water, was an RAF Flying Boat Unit in the early 1930s. The Saro Cloud amphibian aircraft was based there to train pilots destined for various operational seaplane squadrons (this was the period when aircraft such as the Supermarine S6B, world speed record holder and Schneider Trophy winner, raced across the Solent skies).
The officers of RAF Calshot sailed a few National 14 dinghies and some Solent-based yacht owners had moorings on Ower Creek. This was a loose gathering of enthusiastic sailors, the embryo of our club today. The Commander-In-Chief, Coastal Command was based at Lee on Solent; he agreed to formalise the sailing group, and the title Royal Air Force Yacht Club was granted.
At the inaugural meeting, Calshot Station Commander, Group Captain H R Nichol CBE, was elected the first Commodore and Flight Lieutenant A M Carey the first Secretary. The annual subscription was set at £1 and a room in Calshot Castle was used as the Headquarters. Subsequently, two 60' wooden huts on the foreshore were acquired for the Club, and these acted as a kitchen, bar, store, lounge and dormitory. The Club and members' yachts lay on their moorings in the creek, and dinghies were 'parked' on a flying boat slipway. Although money was short and boats few, these were happy carefree days when the sun always seemed to shine. However, there was a need to increase membership, and the very remoteness of Calshot damaged interest in the Club. Moreover, more pressing matters were looming and, in September 1939, the RAFYC found itself in a state of hibernation, very aware that it might never wake up.
In 1947 at the Royal Air Force Club in Piccadilly, the few original surviving members met, and Air Marshal Sir Arthur Conningham was elected Commodore. The Air Ministry presented him with the contents of the 'Wings Club", which had been established for wartime airmen visiting London. The furniture was moved to the two huts on the foreshore at Calshot, reclaimed by the Club Secretary, now Group Captain AM Carey.
The Club was 'in business' once again, and one of the first tasks was to bring back the 'Windfall' yachts from Germany; these prizes of war had been built, on Hitler's orders, for the amusement of the Luftwaffe. The whole fleet was sailed back to the UK by the three services with the RAFYC having responsibility for the RAF allocation to Calshot. Eventually, these beautiful craft were distributed throughout the Services. During the next few years, little thought was given to development, and membership was static until Group Captain E F Haylock (Retd), the editor of 'Yachting World', became Commodore in 1951. He persuaded the Committee that the Club would always struggle at Calshot and would need to move to a more accessible location to succeed. Many schemes were mooted but, by chance, the Commodore heard that Riverside House had been purchased by Port Hamble to enable it to increase its foreshore holdings.
The 100-year building stood in 3 acres of ground, stretching down to the river. It was empty, in a bad state of repair and needed much attention. An approach was made to the Directors of Port Hamble who were prepared to sell for £20,000. However, Group Captain Haylock was the essence of persuasion and he reached agreement to buy the whole property for £6000, reckoning an extra £2000 would be needed to make the building habitable.
Further persuasion convinced Air Marshal Sir Leslie Hollingworth that the Royal Air Force should have a clubhouse and facilities to rival other Service Yacht Clubs. The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir John Slessor, agreed and authorised a long-term loan.
Extra expenses and legal fees of £1000 arose; however, a generous RAFYC member, H S Whiteside, (who owned 'Skaggerack', a 100 ton yacht built for Goering) settled these bills. On the 10th of May 1952, Sir John Slessor opened the new Club House amid a fanfare from the Central Band of the RAF. Riverside House proved to be a magnet; membership increased, but led to a greater accommodation requirement. RAF Calshot donated one of the original huts, and this was shipped over and erected at the rear of Riverside House. The hut served as a store, billet and even a dining room for the Annual Club Dinner. In later years, however, the house has been extended providing new bars, a restaurant & kitchen and additional function space to the original building.
An account of the founding and early history of the club may be downloaded in the document on this link - RAFYC History.
The club are currently seeking an archivist to maintain and further the records of the RAFYC. Please contact the club office if you are interested in this role.
The club is also a member of the Association of Yachting Historians, see their website at www.yachtinghistorians.org.uk for further details of this organisation.
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