The Sailpast tradition began at the first Yacht Club that was formed at Cowes in England nearly 200 years ago. The membership at Cowes was primarily aristocratic and many were familiar with naval practice and tradition. Cowes Yacht Club subsequently changed its name to the Royal Yacht Squadron and certain social graces were added to the traditional naval practices.
The actual “review of the fleet” is steeped in more than 600 years of Royal Navy tradition and history and was introduced in Yacht clubs as a continuation of the naval habit of having Admirals (and/or Royalty) review the fleet on special occasions.
Protocol demanded that a flagship be anchored with the Admiral and staff on the quarterdeck to receive and return the salute. Vessels sailed past, dipping their colours in salute, and with their captain also saluting with the ship’s company standing at attention. The Vice Admiral would lead the fleet passing in review and the final vessel in the line would carry the Rear Admiral.
Our Yacht Club tradition is almost identical, except that the salute is received by the Commodore instead of the Admiral and the salute is delivered by the passing boat, if under sail, by luffing its jib, or, if under power, by dipping its ensign. All of the crew on the saluting boat stands at attention facing the Commodore, who is the only one to salute by hand. If there is insufficient wind, sailboats should have their engines on.
Protocol dictates that until the Sailpast is completed, only the flagship may be dressed (strung with bunting and flags). However, after the Sailpast, participating yachts are encouraged to dress on returning to their dock.
By precedent, Sailpast is a formal event that officially opens the boating season. The Navy and many yacht clubs also follow the Sailpast with a “Blessing of the Fleet”, a long standing European tradition, first practiced in Portugal, of seeking divine providence to those who labored or ventured on the sea to assure good harvest, safe passage and safe return. At IYC the Sailpast is accompanied by dressing the clubhouse and flagpole and a formal raising of the national flag, accompanied by a cannon salute. The ceremony is followed by a reception on the lawn.
Like most boating activities, Sailpast is somewhat weather dependent. We all hope for a bright sunny day, calm seas and just enough wind to propel the boats around the course in an orderly fashion. But Mother Nature does not always cooperate. In that case a sailor’s ingenuity comes into play.
Several years ago, on a blustery, rainy and very cold first Sunday in June, that was fit for no man or seadog, rather than cancel the Sailpast in its entirety, the Commodore inventively mounted the work boat and sailed in and out of the slips, receiving and returning the salute from members standing on the sterns of their boats, with flags in hand. After the ceremony, we all retired to the much drier conditions of the clubhouse for well-deserved libation compatible with the weather. “Splice the Mainbrace!”
Tradition dictates that all club members participate in the Sailpast, on their own or on another member’s yacht. Good manners require that a member unable to participate will send his/her regrets to the Commodore.
The Sailpast ceremony dates back to the earliest beginnings of Naval traditions. One of the earliest references to Sailpast is in the The Iliad, that records: “After two years of preparation, the Greek fleet, of more than 1,000 ships and an army of 100,000 men, assembled at the port of Aulis, in north eastern Greece, for a Sail Past of Troy.” It is believed that from this ceremony came the famous expression that“Helen of Troy had the face that launched 1,000 ships.”