Float your boat
PUBLISHED: 17:55 21 August 2008 | UPDATED: 15:23 20 February 2013
Burnham Week is undoubtedly one of the highlights of our county's calendar. Cathy Brown explores the present joy and past glories of this sailing celebration
BURNHAM WEEK is the biggest event in the Essex sailing calendar, which this year takes place from Saturday, August 23 to Saturday, August 30.
Its history stretches right back to 1892, when the new steam railway line from Liverpool Street brought members of the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club to Burnham on Crouch. The River Thames, where the club had been founded, was becoming increasingly busy and dirty and the yachtsmen were looking for a new home.
They liked what they found at Burnham: an unpolluted river which offered deepwater moorings at all states of the tide, a wide undeveloped estuary enjoying fresh breezes from across the marshes and an attractive little town that could provide all the services they needed. They hired a room at the White Hart as a base, and the first boats sailed from the Thames to the Crouch in June that year.
The RCYC members were followed the next year by members of the London Sailing Club, and a regatta was arranged between members of the two clubs - the beginning of what was to become Burnham Week. In the early years Burnham Week was the last event in the sailing calendar before yachts were laid up for the winter in mud-berths on the east coast rivers. The racing fleets worked their way along the south coast, taking part in various events and regattas, with a final fling at Burnham to end the season.
The Burnham Yacht Club (later the Royal Burnham Yacht Club) was established in 1895 and joined in the regatta together with the Crouch Yacht Club, founded in 1907. The London Sailing Club became part of the Royal Corinthian, and before and after World War I the RCYC, the RBYC and the CYC organised Burnham Week jointly. In those gentlemanly days there was racing from Saturday to Saturday, but not on Sunday, which was reserved for going to church.
By 1926 the Burnham Week Regatta had become so important to the local economy that the town council decided to present the Town Cup, the cost of which was raised by public subscription. The fund raised £72. 7s. 7d - a fortune in those days. Mr NS Gilbert, a local jeweller, designed the solid silver rose bowl weighing 91 ounces with a plinth containing 24 silver plaques. It has been presented every year since, with the exception of the period during World War II. Burnham Sailing Club was founded in 1930, to provide competitive sailing for local enthusiasts, and Burnham Week is now organised by the Joint Clubs Committee, representing the town's four yacht clubs. Large yachts with wealthy owners have been replaced by smaller vessels manned by amateurs.
Today there are classes for sailing boats of all shapes and sizes, from serious offshore racers to family cruisers and from traditional dayboats to high tech racing dinghies. The social side may be rather different from the early years, with everything from formal dinners to barbecues and discos hosted by the participating clubs, but the standard of sailing and sheer competitiveness of the event has not changed.
Perfect vantage point
And one of the attractions of entering is being part of something which has such a strong sense of tradition. There are more than 100 trophies and prizes to be won, including the magnificent Town Cup, and many of the most famous names in yachting are to be found inscribed among the previous winners.
But Burnham Week has never been just for those taking part on the water. From the beginning, the colourful spectacle has enthralled those watching from the riverside, too. And one of the beauties of Burnham is the promenade along the river bank, which provides a perfect vantage point for spectators.
The larger yachts actually start slightly down river from the town, to seaward of today's magnificent RCYC clubhouse, and head out to race round the buoys in the estuary before returning upriver to the finish. A walk along the river bank towards Shore Ends offers the opportunity to watch - and photograph - the racing boats. With shallow mud banks on either side, the Crouch provides an interesting challenge for navigators, especially when the tide is falling, and many a would-be champion has been left embarrassingly high and dry while the rest of the fleet sails past.
The smaller boats race upriver from Burnham, so there is usually plenty to see without leaving the town. But perhaps the highlight of Burnham Week, from a spectator's point of view, is the firework display at 9pm on the final Saturday, which rounds off the festivities after the prize-giving, and attracts crowds of thousands. Then it's time to retire to one of Burnham's hospitable pubs to raise a final celebratory toast - and start looking forward to coming back again next year.