Club History

A Brief General History of the Club

Photo of 1931 Cambridge sailing team
The earliest surviving CUCrC team photo. The 1931 Varsity Match at Ryde in International 14’s (Won by Cambridge). Part of the Club’s historic Photo Gallery.


The CUCrC was formed on 20th May 1893 by and for dons whose main interest was in cruising. The name chosen initially was ‘Cambridge Cruising Club’, changed almost immediately on 27 May 1893 to ‘Cambridge University Yachting Society’ and changed again on 6 February 1894 to the present ‘Cambridge University Cruising Club’. Little attention was paid to undergraduates at first, unless they happened to own a large yacht, but Sharpies were being sailed on the Ouse at St Ives by 1898/99. Around the same time the need to “bring the Club to the attention of freshmen” was being mentioned at committee meetings.

Club Room

At first the Club made use of the college rooms of officers for a library and social interaction. The first Cambridge clubhouse was established at Ram Yard in 1930 and the Club had one continuously from that time until the re-development of Falcon Yard in 1972. Since then, the great improvement in college social facilities that resulted from gender liberalisation, along with the electronic communication revolution, have rendered a clubroom obsolete – with a similar outcome occurring at Oxford.

Students Get Involved

In 1901 the hope that an undergraduate would be elected Rear Commodore was expressed, but it was not until 1921/22 that the current practice, of electing a Junior Head of the Club annually, was adopted. However, right from the late 1890’s there was considerable ‘Cambridge sailing’ activity as well as ‘big boat yachting’ at coastal locations. There was also a sizeable London membership, with their own annual dinner, and some fears were expressed at the time about a possible split! Apart form the annual team racing Varsity Match with Oxford, which started in 1912, early sailing was very much within the Club.

Team Racing

It was not until 1930 that external matches with other clubs and schools started. The first match with another ‘university’ was against United Hospitals in 1935, which UH won. Cambridge medics had to do their clinical training in London until 1976, so there were several ex-Cambridge sailors on the UH team. Matches were first sailed against University College, London (1947), Imperial College, London (1948), Trinity College, Dublin (1949), and London University (1950) – all won by Cambridge.

Sailing Waters

The question of suitable sailing waters near Cambridge remained a major issue over the years. The Ouse was first favoured – with locations at St Ives, Godmanchester, Houghton Mill, Ely, and Waterbeach being used from time to time, plus gravel pits at St Ives later in the 1960’s. The Club’s only known fatal accident took place on the river at St Ives in February 1950. R E Thomas of Selwyn lost the wind under the trees at St Ives in a Firefly and was swept under the bridge by the river, which was in flood. He could nor swim, was not wearing a life jacket and, most unfortunately, drowned. Modern Health & Safety regulations and practices were yet to be established.

Grafham Water appeared in 1968 and was much used in the 1970’s – even to the extent of residential training courses being run at the Grafham Sailing Centre in 1970, and kit Enterprises being constructed by Club members around that time. Indeed, one such Enterprise is still being sailed by Elisabeth Nodder (née Jory – Selwyn 1977) at her home club! Hunts SC set up on a gravel pit near St Ives in the early 1970s, and was used as an alternative to Grafham in the Lent Term.

Windsurfing Arrives

Cambridge windsurfing was initiated by Carol Chisholm, who was an International Windsurf Instructor when she came up to Sydney Sussex to read Mathematics in 1977. She persuaded the Club to buy three Ten Cate Mark 1 Windsurfers (wooden boom, stainless steel universal joint, a sample version is in the National Maritime Museum) and, with the help of Nick Bion (Churchill 1976) and car-owner Jerry Marshall (Caius 1976), windsurfing started on the St Ives gravel pit. Windsurfing had been slowly dawning on the Cambridge scene, with Bruce Burnett (Corpus Christi 1975) leading a group to try out these new-fangled things at Sandbanks, Poole Harbour in the summer of 1977 – at the invitation of Bergasol, the suntan lotion people.

Milton Pit Days

Almost miraculously, Milton Pit appeared in 1979, within a bicycle ride of Cambridge, and was used intensively until 1985. Windsurfing benefited particularly from Milton’s proximity to Cambridge. However, the Milton arrangements were not totally secure and the granting of planning permission for a tall industrial building at the south west corner of the pit put an end to all sailing activity there. The Club reverted to using Grafham, Hunts, and Waterbeach, with activities being focused solely on Grafham Water from October 2013.

Yachting Expands

Renewed interest in student ‘big boat’ sailing arose in the 1980’s, although a scheme for matching undergraduates with owners looking for crews had been in existence for many years. This ‘big boat’ interest reflected the decline of dinghy sailing in general and the increasing availability of well-engineered and easily-maintained fibreglass cruising boats at competitive prices. In addition, demographic changes in the University meant that there were more people interested in, well, cruising! As of 2016, Cambridge has 3,500 post-doctoral researchers, 7,800 PhD students, and 12,200 undergraduates – and university staffing has also expanded to match these numbers.

Significant ‘big boat’ activity was initiated by Hywel Room (Downing) in 2001, and by 2012 the Yachting Section was over 200 strong and owned two cruisers. In that year the Section decided to separate from the Cruising Club and on 25th March 2013 the Section became the separate Cambridge University Yacht Club.

Ladies’ Sailing

The emancipation of ladies’ sailing mirrored the stately progress of this matter at Cambridge in general – the first admission of ladies to men’s colleges did not take place until October 1972. The earliest mention of ‘sailing ladies’ was in 1953, when a move to admit them to CUCrC membership was rejected. Then, at the instigation of Tim Eiloart (Trinity 1955), the Cambridge University Women’s Sailing Club was formed in 1955/56. Hilary Fischer-Webb (now Weeks, Newnham 1955) was Rear Commodore for her three years – followed by her sister Daphne (now Boddington, Newnham 1958) for 1959-61. (Daphne gained national distinction by being the first lady to win a major championship race – from over 50 starters at Redwing Week.)

In 1956 it was proposed that the CUWSC might affiliate to the CUCrC in 1961. In fact, by 1958 it had been agreed that CUWSC members could take part in all CUCrC activities and there was a Ladies Race at the Inland Regatta of June 1959. There was also a formal ‘sharing’ agreement drawn up in June 1959, which was ratified in November 1959 – at the CUCrC AGM. In 1967/68 the CUWSC merged with the CUCrC – five years in advance of the gender liberalisation of Cambridge colleges in general.

The Origin of the Firefly Dinghy

One of the more interesting byways of Club history concerns the Firefly dinghy, now the standard boat for university and college team racing in the UK. In 1939 Uffa Fox designed a 12 foot dinghy for Cambridge (and potentially Oxford, though they already had an Uffa 12 foot design), called the ‘Sea Swallow’. The design was overtaken by World War II hostilities but post-war, when Sir Richard Fairey wanted a 12 foot design to hot mould in his soon-to-be-redundant aircraft autoclaves, Uffa sent him the drawings, with the Cambridge ‘Sea Swallow’ title scribbled out and replaced by ‘Fairey Firefly’. The full history of the Firefly is recorded on the Firefly Class website

Other History

A good general history of team racing will be found on the Wikipedia team racing page. The archives of the Club are stored in the University Library. The details of what is available there can be accessed via this CU Library link. The index to the archives is hierarchical and it is possible to drill down several levels.