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Home / About the Club / History


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The early days

Thornbury Sailing Club was founded at an inaugural meeting held in Pullins Green, Thornbury on 17th February 1949 at the house of Edmund Cullimore Grace attended by 9 local residents who wanted to form a Sailing Club at Oldbury on Severn. The primary aim of the Club was 'to foster the sport of sailing in the district, in particular by providing and maintaining landing facilities and an anchorage at a suitable spot'. Permission had been obtained from Sir Algar Howard, the owner of Thornbury Castle, to use the Pill at Oldbury to moor boats. The year proved to very active with the construction of a simple floating jetty on the south side of the Pill, with social events and a regular Club meeting on the first Thursday of each month to be held in the shed at the back of the Anchor Inn, where the landlord was a Mr Tom Skuse. By the year end there were 40 members including wives and children. There were 3 privately owned boats and 8 owned in partnerships or being built. The landowner who owned the land over which members had to cross was getting concerned about the numbers entering his land, and problems grew worse during 1950. Eventually Edmund secured agreement from a Mr Douglas Winston who owned the land on the north side of the Pill, so the Club could move its activities to this side and that took place during 1951, where the Club headquarters are still located. The type of boats sailed in the very early years, even before 1947, were a variety of sorts and the Club decided to consider the adoption of a suitable boat for the Severn. Considerable discussion ensued over several months which involved another recently founded Club, the Chepstow and District Yacht Club now based at St Pierre in Monmouthshire situated below the mouth of the River Wye. They also were seeking to adopt a suitable dinghy for the unique Severn estuary. Edmund trading as Severn Boat Builders and operating out of Thornbury Sawmills, recommended the Yachting 14ft World Dayboat. By 1950, 15 such Dayboats had been built, sailed primarily at Thornbury, Chepstow and the occasional one at Weston. In 1955 the Yachting World Dayboat Association was formed with sail numbers 1-9 being allocated to Thornbury SC, and 2-10 allocated to Chepstow & District YC. The Association still thrives to this day.

The Clubhouse and services.

In 1950 there was discussion concerning a potential Clubhouse, and a 90ft barge called 'Eliza Jane' had been donated to the Club. A survey declared 'the hull sound and in good condition for a hundred years', but restoration costs were excessive and unaffordable, and finally in 1952 she was placed in the south west part of the Pill and the bottom blown out. It was not until 1954 that a simple block structure costing £100 was built to provide some changing facilities and storage area for Club property. The siteing of this building forms the basis of the 'cage' in the current Boatshed. At the same time there was talk about paying our Landlord Mr Doug Winston £10 per year for vehicle access rights to the Pill, with the Club maintaining the road on the grass flood bank with scalping, which was a regular winter activity on Sunday mornings. Finally in 1967 a 21 year formal lease was agreed, which resulted in an annual payment of £80 per year after sub letting the grazing to a local farmer.

During 1968 there was discussion about an improved Clubhouse and various designs were submitted placing an upper floor to the existing building with external access. None were considered suitable as the effective floor space would not be increased. It was in 1969 that the Club became aware that Bristol City Council were selling off pairs of semi-detached houses at Avonmouth to make way for the new M4 Avon Bridge. A hastily convened committee meeting at the site made the decision to purchase one, but the proviso was that it had to be dismantled and taken off site by a fixed date. The response from the membership was very enthusiastic and working parties were convened to organise this major Project. As it was a partly prefabricated structure like a giant Meccano set, one member identified every part and produced drawings for reconstruction, others offered storage space for all the steelwork, roof panels and floor sections, someone provided lorry transport, a member volunteered first floor brickwork at cost price, one member 'called in a favour' and they laid the concrete raft the Club house now sits on, and finally a member took the responsibility to apply for Planning permission to re-erect at Oldbury. It was fortuitous that our Landlord was the Chairman of the local Planning Committee, and permission was granted rather quickly!

By mid November 1969 it had been dismantled and reconstruction was started in December 1969 working only on Sunday mornings. There was an increasing need for water on site, and a member acquired at an advantageous price ¾mile of polythene water pipe. This was yet another activity to be completed, fortunately assisted by a member who was a local farmer, and was laid by June 1970. Work on re-erection progressed steadily until late 1971 when everyone involved was tired out, and a break was had to start to construct a new floating jetty, the large steel buoyancy chambers being obtained for nothing from an Avonmouth company who had declared them scrap. Work progressed during 1972 with interior work being completed, steelwork painted, and walls rendered. At the end of 1973 telegraph poles were available to provide an electricity supply from the transformer at the Penstocks. In January 1974 it was reported that the new jetty and Clubhouse were nearly complete and the electricity supply was in progress. It was January 1975 that the club held its AGM in the 'new, yet spartan' Clubhouse. In May 1976 permission was granted to install a sewage disposal system which replaced chemical toilets, and this unit became operational in August 1978 for the annual Club week. The period from the late 60's to the late 70's clearly demonstrated the sheer determination of members to create and provide the basics of what we enjoy today.

Lease renewal and land purchase.

In 1988 the land lease come up for renewal, and this lead to quite an acrimonious time with the Agent acting on behalf of Mrs Winston. The fees he proposed to charge on a yearly basis were quite astronomic, so the Club decided that we would only lease 5 acres instead of the 42½ in the original lease. Negotiations were protracted and the Club finally agreed a fee of £1000 per year, an increase of 1250%, which was £7000 less than initially, demanded! In 1990 Mrs Winston suddenly died and the Club did not know what the estate would do with the land the Club occupied. Because it was subject to a lease the whole of the land would be subject to an auction sale. In 1978 an astute Club Treasurer had created a Land Fund in the hope that at some time in the future the Club would purchase the land. The Clubs agent valued the land at £1250 per acre, and our investment certainly did not match what we anticipated spending to acquire it. At the auction it was withdrawn at £60,000, but we were aware that no actual bids had been made. The Club sat back and waited until Mrs Winston's agent approached us to enquire if we were interested in a private sale. Finally a deal was agreed at our valuation for all the land totalling £53,125. All the Club had to do was raise the finance. An appeal to Club members for personal loans brought in all that was needed within three weeks. The Club was now broke but would not need a bank loan! There were just sufficient funds available to pay all legal fees, and another appeal was made to members to pay membership fees in advance so electricity and water bills could be paid, but the Club now owned 42½ acres! The Club then created the Thornbury Sailing Club Trust with four senior members as Trustees.

Jetty refurbishment and Boat Shed.

During the mid 1980's the floating jetty heavily modified since its construction in 1954, was beginning to show its age and it was decided to replace it with an entirely new structure. It was fortuitous that one member located some rolled steel joists at a local aero engine firm where he worked. With another member also employed there, they were written off as scrap and purchased at a very agreeable price. A 60ft single span design was produced and the whole structure welded together by another member who was an MOD approved welder. Due to its weight, additional buoyancy was required and two scrap steel boilers were acquired from a local firm. With a momentous effort by members and farmer members with tractors with lifting capability, the jetty was completed and in place by the end of 1984. The Club were also able to purchase a redundant aero engine trailer from Rolls Royce, that with some modification became a very successful boat trailer for 'Tom Skuse' the Clubs work boat. Being able to transport the workboat on a trailer for maintenance it now became necessary to build a large boat shed to accommodate it. Planning permission was obtained, supported by a North Avon Council grant, and all block work completed by a member, with the roof installed by members. It was complete with a power supply and water. In the 1990's when the club needed a RIB for sail Training purposes the shed was extended to accommodate two large RIB's and associated equipment.

Sail Training.

With successful Junior Weeks, initiated by the Jennings family, that commenced in 1978, in 1983 the club started to encourage formal instruction in sailing and seamanship. A call to the membership for potential Instructors to be trained resulted in 14 volunteers being approved. The first batch of trainees totalled 28, aged from 10 upwards. At the end of 1983 assessments were made and Instructors approved with the trainees reaching the required standard. The Club premises and equipment were inspected and we finally became a RYA Teaching Establishment. Training continues to this day and has lead directly to many becoming family and full active members of the Club. Coupled with this activity and the extensive racing programme, the Club has a considerable number of members who have RYA qualifications for operating RIB's which accompany all dinghies whilst training and racing.

The Rescue Boat 'Tom Skuse'.

The initial rescue boat purchased in August 1952 was a 16ft 6ins ships lifeboat fitted with an Austin 7 engine costing £32-10s (£32.50p today). It was in the water in the October but had cooling and magneto problems which were eventually resolved, but the Club appeared to have a working rescue boat. In February 1955 a 3½ HP diesel engine was available from Listers of Dursley at a heavily reduced price, (thanks to two members who worked there), and with a gearbox donated by a member was installed in the boat. However, severe vibration was a problem and the Club decided they wanted another boat. An 18ft clinker hull design was commissioned from a builder at Appledore for £160, and this would be fitted with the existing diesel engine, gearbox and shaft. The name of the new boat would be 'Tom Skuse' in memory of the Landlord of the Anchor where the Club met for its meetings and social events. It was delivered to the Club in August 1956 and launched at the old Aust ferry jetty, and immediately 'did gallant duty rescuing a capsized vessel'. The boat proved popular but was underpowered and the Club decided to keep it as it was, until it could afford another boat. A Club member (employed by Listers) offered to install an experimental 12hp diesel engine for the 1959 season to replace the original. This new engine appeared to resolve all the problems and in 1963 the Club started a 'Safety boat Fund' with the intention of acquiring a future replacement. All went well with the rescue boat, when in 1968 discussion involved the potential purchase of a Cheverton Champ as a possible replacement. The Listers employee, Mr Joe Morris later Club President, offered to install a development engine and that is still the same engine in Tom Skuse today. There were some initial problems with the engine mountings, and shaft breakages, these being resolved when the engine was finally mounted on flexible mountings. Listers serviced the boat and provided all spare parts, and following the death of Joe Morris in 1997, the engine having been on loan from Listers was donated to the Club. With the introduction of RIB's for dinghy racing cover and rescue, the use of Tom Skuse became less, and she sadly started to deteriorate, particularly the wooden cuddy. In 2008 she was modified with a little deckhouse and now serves as the club work boat for servicing racing marks, but accompanies the dinghies and RIB's on Club Long distance races where towing dinghies maybe necessary.

In 1996, with the increasing number of catamarans and asymmetric rigged dinghies such as the Dart 18 and ISO now racing, a new type of fast rescue boat was needed and the first RIB was purchased. It also entailed the support from a number of members to be trained to a national standard to man such craft. This has now been the standard race support craft, with two named, Edmund Grace and Walter Gibb, fully operational in the Club.

Dinghy Development.

Following the adoption of the YW Dayboat and National Solo as Club Classes a number of different dinghies were being sailed in the 60's including Wayfarers, Fireballs, Kestrels, Scorpions, Mirrors, Enterprises, and GP's. In 1980 the Laser became an adopted class to replace the Solo, and class racing became restricted to the Dayboat, Laser and Mirror Class.In 1985 the Club hosted the National YW Dayboat Championship whose members had supported this event every year from the first one held at Weston Bay in 1957. It was also the first time a GRP moulded clinker YW Dayboat was racing, owned by a Club member who had committed himself to promoting this improved hull construction to overcome the extortionate cost of building in mahogany. The promotion proved successful, with the boat finishing 6th overall during the week, and as a consequence the GRP clinker hulls were finally adopted by a south coast Club, who for years had insisted that only nailed wooden clinker hulls should be raced as a Class. In the 90's an all GRP Dayboat became available, and the Class has prospered ever since. At the peak there were 40 Dayboats at the Club with one husband and wife couple becoming Dayboat National Champion in 1992.

At the beginning of the 1990's Dart catamarans were being raced regularly with a total of 13 by 1996. Younger members now searching for a faster mono hull and the ISO one design dinghy made an appearance. This was followed by the RS series of dinghy. These are still popular today with the addition of a variety of single handed one design craft.

An annual Regatta has been held since 1950 with the heydays being the mid 70's with over 100 dinghies racing on both days. In recent years numbers have dropped due primarily to the numerous Regional and Open meetings held by all clubs on a local and national scale. The regular Club Open meetings held are for the Lasers, RS200 and YW Dayboats. An active cruiser racing programme is held throughout the year, the climax being the winter frostbite series.

Personal achievements.

Over the years members have participated in a number of national events or established personal achievements. Edmund Grace entered the Round the Island Race in 1953 sailing his YW Dayboat taking 15 hours to complete the course. Today of course dinghies are not allowed to enter. Bunny Warren, his sons Jeremy and Stephen and Dick Elder, two ex Commodores took part in the fateful Fastnet Race of 1979 suffering a knockdown of over 90 with both Dick and Jeremy being washed overboard. Fortunately both managed to get back on board to set about trailing warps before ending up in Falmouth. YW Dayboat owners have supported the National Championships every year since 1950, and in 1989 Tony and Barbara Bowden won the Dayboat Week Nationals when it was held at Tamar River Sailing Club in Plymouth. Carolyn Smith won the Marauder Nationals in 1987 when it was jointly hosted by Portishead Yacht and SC and Bognor Regis SC. Hannah Smith won the Miracle Nationals at Rutland in 2015 and again at Pwhelli in 2016.

In 2018 Jeremy Warren and Phil Kirk sailed a modified Wayfarer 1667nm around the UK in a sailing time of 15 days and nights at sea, out of a total of 32 days, this halving the previous record. In 2020 Jeremy in his Wayfarer tried to reach St Kilda off the Outer Hebrides but the NE5/6 weather forced him back because the landing would have been untenable. Jeremy and co-skippers Phil and Hamish Berkeley have been voted Bristol Channel Yachting Association Yachtsman of the Year in 2014 and 2020.

1990 to the present day.

The Club was formed from a seed planted by the late Edmund Grace, and over the first 40 years the membership has created via a DIY commitment a highly successful family orientated Club. Members who joined in the early days have progressed from active dinghy racing, becoming retired pensioners and now enjoy the more leisurely sailing of small cruisers. However, having time on their side, there has been since the 90's a very active group of such 'retirees', colloquially known as the 'Wednesday team'. These arrive every Wednesday morning to conduct simple, but essential regular tasks that keep the Club running and neat and tidy. Grass cutting from the entrance gate to the Club and in the dinghy compounds and around the Clubhouse, removal of scrap iron, repairing dinghy racks, building a new Race box, maintenance of Club sail training dinghies, management of the Galley and Bar, tidying the foreshore after storms, servicing and replacing race marks, maintenance of Tom Skuse are just a few of the numerous activities that just get done. Major Clubhouse improvements have now been contracted out, such as a new Clubhouse roof, and refurbishment of the Ladies and Gents Changing facilities. These have all been completed professionally in the last 7 years. A dedicated team of cruiser owners maintain the tractor and boat lifter for launching and retrieval of cruisers during the season.

Finally, all the above activities and dedicated service has only been possible with leadership and strong and effective Club Officers and committee members that have guided the club to its present status. One can be proud of a Club being awarded BCYA Club of the year in 2009 and 2017.

Barry Leat. Club President

Last updated 09:18 on 9 March 2022

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