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SALT ON THE SAILS
150 YEARS OF THE ROYAL NATAL YACHT CLUB
By Dr Sally Frost

 

Synopsis of book contents

A Club on the Bay: 1858-1890
In 1858, just 23 years after the fledgling township of D'Urban was established on the shores of Durban Bay, a passion for boats and boating led the early settlers to form the Durban Regatta Club - the first yacht club in Africa. This became the Natal Yacht Club in 1863 and continued as such for the next 27 years. In 1871 it boasted some 42 members, and by 1890 membership had reached 85. With no club house, members met at John Deer's London Hotel, followed by the Princess Café. For the annual Regatta Day, shops shut and crowds of eager spectators flocked to the bay foreshore to enjoy the aquatic entertainment.

A Royal Charter: 1891-1913
In 1891 the Natal Yacht Club was granted a Royal Charter and became the Royal Natal Yacht Club - thereby gaining Royal Admiralty Special Warrant privileges. In 1892, in line with its new status, the club established its first clubhouse on the shores of Durban Bay. On 4th December 1900 its second clubhouse - adjacent to Fenton Lane and home for the next 90 years - opened its doors. With the new century, three great yachting competitions were born - the Inter-port Yachting Challenge (1905), the Lipton Cup Challenge (1911), and the South African Inter-club Challenge (1913). Famous RNYC yachtsman included father-and-son sailing legends, George and Herby Spradbrow, and the Chiazzari brothers, Frank and Nick.

Soldiering and Sailing: 1914-1945
During the World Wars Durban Bay was closed to sailing. Many club members joined the call to fight, whilst those left behind kept the RNYC afloat, most notable being Rupert Ellis Brown, club commodore and mayor of Durban throughout the dark days of World War II. In the interwar years sailing resumed. The Inter-port, Inter-club and Lipton Cup Challenges were revived,and RNYC yachtsmen sailed at the Olympics. As the popularity of the Scow declined, great interest was shown in the 16-foot Goodricke dingy, and the 1930s saw the introduction of the 20-foot Sharpie. The RNYC's annual ball was a highlight of Durban's social calendar, and Salisbury Island remained the favourite spot for a family outing.

The Halcyon Days: 1946-1969
The post-war years were halcyon ones for the Royal Natal Yacht Club and the sport of sailing. In 1958 the RNYC underwent extensive alterations and celebrated its centenary. Club life flourished under the guidance of Rupert Ellis Brown. On the water, sailing greats such as Wilfrid Hancock, Noel Horsfield, John Sully, Bruce McCurrach, Jimmy Whittle and Gordon Neill brought honour to the RNYC. Whilst Sprogs, Sharpies and the Flying Dutchman were the favoured dinghy classes, on the keelboat front, 30 Square Metres enjoyed their heyday, with RNYC sailors dominating the Lipton Cup throughout the 1960s.

Sailing On: 1970-1990
The 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of long distance ocean racing. RNYC yachtsmen participated enthusiastically in the Cape to Rio (started 1971), Vasco da Gama (started 1967) and Mauritius to Durban (started 1985) ocean races, whilst Gordon Neill twice took a team to the Admiral's Cup in the 1970s. From 1980 the L26 modernised keelboat sailing. On the dinghy front, Lasers, Flying 15s and Fireballs came into their own. Match Racing started in 1979 and in 1980 the club hosted the Fireball Worlds. Well known personalities included Guy Reynolds, Bobby Nuttall, Val Hendrie, Brian Tocknell and Ed Caney. Rescue took off and club life at Fenton Lane flourished. In 1983, the RNYC turned 125.

Back on the Bay: 1991-2008
In 1991 the RNYC opened its new clubhouse in the heart of Durban's marina. Back on the bay, membership rose to 1500 and club sailing flourished. Martin Lambrecht and Alec Lanham-Love won the Fireball Worlds in 1992 and sailed at the Barcelona Olympics. Anthony Steward completed his solo circumnavigation in an open boat in 1993, and in January 1998, blind sailor Geoff Hilton Barber crossed the Indian Ocean from Durban to Fremantle, Australia. In the 1990s Micky Taylor ruled as king of the Vasco and in 2001, the RNYC revived this ocean classic with the original route from Maputo to Durban.

In 2008, the Royal Natal Yacht Club celebrated 150 years of yachting excellence - Following 150 years of dynamic change, the club faces the future proud of its traditions and success, and optimistic for the course ahead.


Details and where to get the book

Standard Edition:
532-page coffee table book
Over 1 000 illustrations
Full Colour
Hard cover

Collector's Edition:
In addition to the Standard Edition specifications the Collector's Edition is:

  • Limited to 150 copies only
  • Leather bound cover with gold stamping and satin ribbon bookmark.
  • Each Collector's Edition contains an individually numbered Collector's Certificate, signed by the author and the commodore, and personally inscribed with the name of the purchaser.

Standard Edition: R495.00
Collector's Edition: R3 000.00
Postage (SA only): R65.00

For an Order Form or any further details:
Royal Natal Yacht Club
club@rnyc.org.za
Tel: 031 301 5425
Fax: 031 307 2590

Some interesting snippets

Mr. Deer's London Hotel - first venue for club gatherings

In the very early days the Durban Regatta Club, precursor to the Royal Natal Yacht Club, had no club house. The original venue for club gatherings was Tom Deer's London Hotel. This was described by a local as, "a disreputable canteen, part canvas, part reeds … where fiddling and sing-song by the guests was to be heard upon almost any evening." The London Hotel was out of bounds to "nice young ladies" and was disapproved of strongly by the local lay preacher, whose grim-faced wife kept a select temperance boarding house nearby. For a male-only group of salty yachtsmen with a club but no clubhouse, however, it was perfectly adequate. And as a port settlement, mid-nineteenth century Durban certainly had a rough underbelly hiding beneath any Victorian pretensions. Pietermartizburg, which was the capital city of the Colony of Natal, was very snooty of her coastal neighbour. One correspondent to the Natal Witness suggested that Durbanites would "become mere animals preserved in spirits, and moreover perfectly useless as they are not even rare specimens of nature".

Who were these early boys? The first committee of the Durban Regatta Club

The men who got yachting going on Durban Bay were the leading citizens of the day. They were instrumental in laying the foundations of the future city of Durban. There were many other colourful characters who are worth mentioning. For example, the 1858 inaugural committee of the Durban Regatta Club consisted of seven men.

· The commodore, Lewis Wilson, was a ship's captain, who was still alive and kicking and importing rowing boats from China thirty years later. His stewards displayed a decidedly military bent.
· There was James Proudfoot, who established the Natal Mounted Rifles (N.M.R.) in 1854 as a volunteer force of eight officers and 40 men. He used to train his men on horseback in the market square and shooting practice was carried out on the racecourse.
· Then there was George Rutherford, who was Commanding Officer of the Durban Volunteer Guard and Port Natal's Collector of Customs.
· Henry James Mellor was Durban's Resident Magistrate and Commanding Officer of the volunteer Durban Rifle Guard. He was famous for hosting Durban's very first ball in 1853 as a ploy to settle a squabble between two warring factions. So great was the excitement produced by this social highlight that one lady took her three-month old baby along and kept the child there with its nurse until five in the morning.
· Of the other original stewards, William Smerdon was a one-time ship's captain come-sugar-planter, Durban's agent for indentured Indian labour, collector of customs and founding director of the Natal Chamber of Commerce.
· And Henry Milner was a leading light in the local sugar industry. He put Durban's first sugar up to auction on the market square in 1854 and stood everyone to free champagne to drink to the success of Sugar.

Two Natal Prime ministers

So much for the first committee. Over the years the RNYC continued to produce some illustrious citizens, including Natal's first and second prime ministers.

· There was John Robinson, who arrived in Durban in 1850 as the eleven year old son of George Robinson, founder of The Natal Mercury. John was elected the youngest member of the Natal Legislative Council at the tender age of 24. He was dismissed by his detractors as a mere "slip of a boy", which was foolish as he was elected Natal's first premier in 1893 on the responsible government ticket.

· His successor, Harry Escombe, was premier in 1897. He was commander of the Natal Naval Volunteers and the first to sign up when the unit was formed, paying his uniform bill for 500 pounds immediately and in full. He subsequently went on to serve in the Zulu War. Harry Escombe initiated and chaired Durban's Harbour Board from 1880 and it was largely thanks to his untiring efforts that the bar at the entrance to Durban's harbour was eventually defeated - even though he tended to fight with all his harbour engineers. He served as Natal's Attorney General and in 1897 was awarded an honourary doctorate from Cambridge University and became a member of the Queen's Privy Council. Both Harry Escombe and John Robinson lived in substantial residences that ran down to the Bay - a handy location for yachting and their favourite club. Both men were subsequently knighted.

Two enduring families

Two colourful families of the Durban Regatta Club are worth mentioning, as their descendents are still members of the RNYC 150 years later.

Firstly, the Caneys. Benjamin William Caney, who arrived in Durban in 1856, was the town's first jeweler and an enthusiastic amateur photographer. He left a rich pictorial legacy of early Durban through the hundreds of glass-plated slides that he took. It was B.W. Caney who built Durban's first three-storeyed building in 1865. The jewelry shop was on the ground floor and the family lived on the third floor, "which was very rickety because there were no buildings opposite to block the south-east wind, so the third floor swayed and was soon taken down." B.W. Caney had three sons, Charlie, Val and Gus, who all sailed. One of this trio was responsible for doing damage to the RNYC's brand spanking new club house in 1892 when an impromptu opening party got out of hand. B.W. Caney's grandson, Leo, who was a judge; and his great-grandson, Edward, who is a doctor, both served as commodores of the RNYC. Ed Caney was instrumental in moving the RNYC across the road to its present premises. And there was one famous Caney ancestor who was renowned for wandering into the Royal Natal Yacht Club in his dressing gown and slippers - he obviously regarded his favourite club as a home from home.

Secondly, the Beningfields. The early Beningfields described themselves as 'bayside gentlemen'. The patriarch of the clan, Samuel Beningfield, was an auctioneer who ran "racy and descriptive advertisements" and was known as a "fine old English gentleman". He had a famous garden that stretched down to the bay. Sam Beningfield was renowned for his Christmas festivities. One New Year celebration he invited friends to a display of home-made fireworks, which proved a great success, the rockets especially, producing cries of admiration or astonishment. The Beningfields clearly believed in large families - Samuel had eight children; of his three sons who were club stalwarts, Sam junior had five children, Reuben ten and John James seven. One of Reuben's ten children was 'Abe' Beningfield, who went on to sail for South Africa in the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952 with Noel Horsfield, at the ripe old age of 60. He was known as the fastest spinnaker hand around.

Ladies and sailing

Here are a few anecdotes about ladies and sailing. In Victorian, patriarchal nineteenth century Durban, sailing was strictly a male-only affair. The first ladies' race held in January 1893 therefore caused quite a stir. This concession came about when certain ladies expressed an interest in the sport and it was agreed that very occasionally, "ladies races" would be allowed. Skippers decided on the number of ladies they would have on their yachts - normally four out of a crew of ten, as it was felt that women would only be able to make a worthwhile contribution in a mixed crew. Ladies acted as ballast or were placed on the helm. The dictates of modesty remained paramount so lady sailors sailed in the voluminous clothing of the day. The commodore reserved the right to decide on the appointed day whether the weather was "suitable". Despite ladies' races, it was a very long time before the fairer sex were even allowed on club premises. In 1914 the rules were finally altered: ladies who accompanied members on the bay were admitted to the ground floor verandah of the club house whilst the boats were being put away. This privilege ceased at sunset! The inside of the club house - that hallowed bastion of masculinity - remained sacrosanct. So the fact that the Royal Natal Yacht Club commissioned a woman to research and write their 150th anniversary history, must have all those old boys shuddering and rattling their bones in their graves!


Christopher Joseph Cato and the Mazeppa

One final character to mention is Joseph Cato. He was the third commodore of the Durban Regatta Club (forerunner of the Royal Natal Yacht Club), from 1861-1863, and brother of George Cato, who was Durban's first mayor (and also a yacht club founder). Christopher Joseph Cato is famous for the heroic role he played in aiding the British cause during the 1842 Boer siege of Port Natal. Here is the story:

During the 1842 Boer siege of the British at Port Natal, the Boers allowed the women and children to leave the British camp on 2nd June and take refuge on the ship Mazeppa in the bay. The little ninety-ton schooner was completely stripped and the muzzle of an eighteen-pounder trained upon her. The Boers made two grave mistakes, however. In the first place, they failed to remove her rudder. In the second place, they left Christopher Joseph Cato, brother of George Cato (first mayor of Durban), on board.

When a south-west wind and an ebb tide coincided on 10th June 1842, Joseph Cato slipped the cable and all seven women, eighteen children, two ship's boys, and ten grown men who were on board pulled frantically on the ropes. Before the Boers could recover from their surprise the ship was on the starboard tack down channel, and out of the way of the eighteen-pounder. A four-pounder, however, fired at her repeatedly; and nearly eighty Boers discharged four-ounce bullets from their elephant guns in her direction.

The sails were riddled, the rigging torn, and the mattresses which had been stacked up as defence, filled with bullets. The longboat was swamped and sank in the breakers at the entrance to the bay. But the Mazeppa crossed the bar, and then lay to, outside the harbour for five hours, repairing the damage and rolling dreadfully. The children picked the bullets out of the mattresses; the women mended the blankets in the intervals between awful bouts of sea-sickness. Then the Mazeppa set sail for Delagoa Bay and help. And as they say, the rest is history. The Boer siege was lifted and three years later on 8th December 1845 Natal officially became a British Crown Colony and the Republic of Natalia ceased to be.

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