Royal Escape History

charles-iiHistory of the Royal Escape Race

It will be reputations and hopefully not necks on the line when the race fleet sets off across the channel to Fecamp in the 2015 Royal Escape Race, which was not the case when the original Royal Escape was made to France.

This annual recreation of Charles II’s flight from his puritan pursuers, now in its 38th year, has become a well-established part of the Sussex sailing calendar. It draws large mixed fleets of hard-core racers, family cruisers and gaff rigged classics, all eager to take part in the celebration of our proud nation’s sailing and Royalist traditions.

The fun started back in 1976, when Linda Morgan, the PR Officer for Brighton’s Old Ship Hotel called the Sussex Yacht Club with the idea for a race across the Channel. Tony Boysons, now the SYC Admiral recalled Linda wanting to see every yacht in Sussex on the line and took some calming down to recognise that with the limited facilities then available perhaps it should be scaled down a bit to just include SYC yachts.

Tony went on to organise this first race of 40 yachts, helped by his wife and soon to be lady Commodore of SYC, Adele. That first race was won by Harold Wilson in Wendy Caroline and the great popularity of the event led to it becoming an annual institution. Tony and Adele carried on to organise no less than 7 races and Tony competed in 17 of them, so he has a few tales to tell and he continued to travel with us to Fécamp up until 2012 when after the sad passing of Adele he felt the travelling was getting a bit too much for him. On a brighter note, we are always really pleased to see Linda Morgan in Fécamp where she takes great pleasure in awarding the trophies for us.

The historical backdrop

Following the first English Civil war, in January 1649 Charles I was executed for high treason. The King had refused to properly recognise the power of Parliament and the House of Commons, faced with a King who seemed bent on raising another Royalist army, decided on regicide and signed his death warrant.

Just before Charles I climbed the Whitehall scaffold to face the executioners axe, Parliament rushed through an emergency bill to make it an offence to proclaim a new King and to declare the House of Commons as the source of all just power. England effectively became a republic, lead by Oliver Cromwell.

Which just left the royal problem of the Kings son, Charles II, who had made his way north to Scotland, which was then still a separate Kingdom. In 1649 the Scottish Parliament proclaimed Charles II King of Scots and he set about raising his Royalist Scots army to move against Parliament, which culminated in the Battle of Worcester. On the afternoon of September 3rd 1651, Cromwell’s Roundheads routed the Royalist army in a brutal clash, with the Royalists being chased and cut down through the narrow streets of Worcester, so bringing the Civil War to a final and bloody conclusion.

The King flees for his life

Charles’ supporters fled into hiding and he had no choice but to follow, for capture would have inevitably meant following his father noble footsteps for appointment with the executioners axe. Hunted by a vengeful Cromwell, Charles fled south, eventually evading a detachment of troops in Sussex blocking the bridge at Bramber.

Now in the company of Lord Wilmost and a Colonel Gounter, they hid themselves in the fishing village of Brighthelmstone (now Brighton). The party took rooms at the George Inn in West Street where Colonel Gounter started looking for a way out. Through his acquaintance, a French merchant, he found himself in conversation with Nicholas Tettersell, captain of a filthy little 31ft coaster named the Surprise, which was lying in the mud of Southwick. Her normal trade was lugging coal from Newcastle round to Poole, but Captain Tettersell sniffed out the value of these secretive passengers and agreed to give them passage to France.

On the morning of 16th October, they set sail for the Isle of Wight, then changed course and sailed on through the night towards the French coast where Charles and Wilmot were landed into exile on Fécamp beach in the cock-boat to begin nine years of exile.

In 1658, with the death of Cromwell, England faced a political crisis and Parliament sought to reunite the country by inviting Charles to return and assume the throne. After the bloody chapters of civil war and the oppression of Cromwell’s puritans, Charles II was a popular King, popularly known as the ’Merrie Monarch’ and admitting to at least 12 illegitimate children.... but back to our story.

surprise-paintingCaptain Tettersell gets his reward

Following his return from exile, Charles had no sooner settled into his Thameside Palace at Whitehall than the Surprise appeared, scrubbed clean of coal dust and moored on the opposite side of the river. Captain Tettersell had dressed his little ship with flags so all would know it was in his modest little vessel that Charles had made his escape ten years previously, and that it was to Captain Tettersell that the King was indebted.

Tettersell’s reward was a commission from the Navy, and the Surprise was commissioned as a fifth-rate and renamed the ’Royal Escape’. The King then had the ’Royal Escape’ kept moored in the Thames opposite the Palace of Whitehall ’as a reminder to himself and his subjects’.

The gallant Captain was also awarded an annuity and with his new-found wealth returned home to Brighthelmstone where he purchased the Ship Tavern... which is today the Old Ship Hotel on Kings Road in modern-day Brighton.

The image of the Escape is taken from a painting by Willem van de Velde, the Younger and the National Maritime Museum has a model of the Surprise which can be seen by clicking here >> According to Wikipedia, the Royal Escape was the first ever Royal yacht.

Thirty-nine years, thirty eight races

The Royal Escape has grown into an institution in its own right and Tony is full of anecdotes reminding us that Sussex Yachtsmen were raising a glass and laughter in Fécamp long before most of our crews had been born. Tony recalls his first encounter with SRF when André Louis, a retired Corsican Policeman and a founding President of the French yacht club made a point of welcoming him in almost perfect English before introducing him to an afternoon of libation.

André Louis, now sadly passed, became a great friend of the race, even organising flights home to Shoreham from Dieppe one year when bad weather marooned the fleet. Tony recalls an occasion when peering across cocktails and giggles aboard Lady Colwyn’s yacht 'Pactolus', he couldn’t quite place a strange-looking woman propped in the saloon corner, until the creature was revealed as André Louis wearing one of Lady Colwyn’s wigs.

In previous years Tony has remembered the Royal Navy providing a training ship to start the race and going on to work as a cocktail ’barge’ in Fécamp when even the Paris Naval Attache has attended. From the earliest days the race has befriended the people of Fécamp and through the benevolence of the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Harbour Master and the Director of the Chamber of Commerce the fleet still enjoys free moorings in Fécamp for the Royal Escape Weekend. Some, such as Danny Prevot are honorary members of SYC.

Perhaps the greatest test of the race came in the 2000 race when Nigel Porter lost his Sadler Barracuda ’Riot’. The Royal Naval Unit at Sussex University provided a guardship, HMS Pursuer from which the starting cannon was fired at 0800 and watched by crowds from Brighton beach the large fleet of 102 boats set course for Fécamp. Conditions in mid-Channel were variable and following a later storm warning 15 boats retired before the bad weather appeared. The first boats to complete the course were Balou, Fays Fantasy and Blue Yonder under power and J-Go, Jagga and Black Adder under sail alone. Thereafter the offshore wind increased alarmingly and several boats reported difficulties. The Finish monitoring team led by Frank Kay was on duty from 1700 hours and were facing a long and worrying night.

Soon after 2000 hours the weather deteriorated sharply with the wind increasing from 4-5 to 8-9 within a few minutes and very soon both the Royal Escape boats and others unconnected with the race were in difficulties. With an increasing number of Mayday calls being made all along the coast the French coast guards imposed radio silence. Unfortunately Nigel Porter found himself unable to avoid 'Riot' going onto the rocky beach to the east of Fécamp entrance and it was with extreme bravery from the French Lifeboat and Fire Brigade that a line was taken out to the stricken yacht and all the crew bar one was taken off. The remaining soul was lifted off by helicopter and thankfully everybody returned home safe. Riot however was a total loss.

At midnight the fate of fifty boats was unknown but throughout the night the finish team, aided by the rescue authorities in UK and France worked to locate them, scattered but safe amongst various Channel ports. Sailors who took part in that race tell of quite astonishing winds and if ever there was a lesson in making sure your yacht was sound before taking part then the 2000 race was it.

In 2013 the race was for the first time cancelled due to a poor forecast with a NW F7 predicted a decision that was not taken lightly, and this is why although the race is 39 years old in 2015, this will be the 38th edition. 

Lets hope we are blessed by better weather!