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The History of Island Barn Reservoir Sailing Club

  • Introduction

    2019 was the 60th anniversary of this sailing club in all its forms - an impressive achievement by anyone’s standards. In order to commemorate this auspicious occasion, this page pulls together some of the history of the club. There are also some reminiscences from our members and a few snaps. The full collection is on display in the clubhouse and in a scrapbook. 

    It is a tribute to the fun factor of the club that we still have some members from the very early days, and that many who have moved away still keep in touch.

    If you know more or different, don’t keep it to yourself! Photos are particularly appreciated, and will be returned unharmed after copying for the club history book. I hope that you enjoy this trip back in time.

    Once Upon a Gravel Pit - Beginnings

    The club began in 1959 on Lavender’s Pit, (named after the firm that operated it) the remnants of which are still to be found near what is now Fieldcommon; most of the site is now the gravel works off the Molesey Road. The name ‘Walton-on-Thames SC’ was chosen simply because that was where most of the founding members lived. The wartime character Chad (‘wot no?’) was chosen as the logo for the burgee.

    Island Barn Sailing Club - 1959 The first clubhouse was a tent on an island in the middle of the pit - the club then progressed via a small hut to the clubhouse shown in the photograph below. At first, access to the island was via a large punt fitted with an outboard motor, and each weekend a constant stream of members (including those in pushchairs) were ferried back and forth. Once the big clubhouse was in place, the punt was replaced by a moveable bridge, which was anchored to the island and swung out when needed. The last one to leave had to secure the bridge back to the island, and then row to shore in a dinghy which was then locked up in an old electricity hut. The sailing area was around the front of the island so the extended bridge wasn’t an obstruction, if you sailed near it you were liable to hole your boat on the bank so everyone quickly learned to avoid it. The main classes at the time were the Scorpion, Enterprise, Merlin Rocket and Pegasus, all of which were new boats designed just a few years earlier. 

    A New Home

    The gravel pit was filled in when it became too polluted to use, and the club was homeless for some years; but the members refused to let it fade away even though several had joined other clubs. During this time Ken Collins, the first secretary of the club, was writing regularly to the Water Board to ask if it was possible to sail on their reservoirs. A change of government worked in our favour, and following a request from the new minister of sport, the Water Board called a meeting of all the Thames Valley sailing clubs. As the most impoverished, it was agreed that Walton could have first access to a reservoir, and so the club was given a lease for space at Island Barn in Molesey, on one of the oldest raised reservoirs in the London area.

     building the club house Built on the site of the barn for the old Island Farm (one of five farms that were in Molesey in the last century, and named for its position between the rivers Mole and Ember), work on the reservoir was begun in 1904 and it was officially opened by the Lord Mayor of London on 4th November 1911. The reservoir has a capacity of 922 million gallons, an area of 122 acres and a circumference of one and two-third miles. It played a part in the war effort in the 1940s, when it was used as a training area for amphibious vehicles, and was also covered with telegraph poles to foil landings from flying boats in the event of an invasion of Britain.

    The Stock Exchange Thorpe sailing club at Charlton had been forced to leave their gravel pit when the new M3 motorway was routed through it, and indeed it was their joining forces with Walton that convinced the water board that the new club would be viable. Speedbird BOAC SC (now British Airways Sailing Club) provided the financial backing for the new Walton clubhouse, in return for 20 years of reduced membership rates and free berthing. (They now have their own club near Heathrow, and the winners of the 1998 open pursuit are among their members.) There was also an £8000 grant from the Sports Council which went some way towards the £27000 cost of the clubhouse.

    BOAC were keen to see what the new clubhouse would look like, and so an architect friend of Richard Birkhead (the first Commodore) prepared full drawings, including interesting but impractical items such as chandeliers! However the unusual external design and vaulted ceiling did make it into the finished product, and that is why the clubhouse isn’t just a square box. 

    Although construction of the clubhouse itself was contracted out, much of the work in establishing the club was done by the original members - a tradition that continues to this day and helps to keep our fees down. This included casting concrete anchors for tie-down wires, helping to shift building materials and so on. (There are more photos of the construction of the clubhouse, and they are posted by the bar). Sailing did not start until the clubhouse was ready; doubtless an incentive for hard work all round! One or two inventive methods were necessary to keep costs down - for instance the bar counter came from a nightclub in Weybridge that was closing, if you look near the wall you can see that it was necessary to add another two foot or so to make it long enough.

    the new clubhouse at island barn reservoir clubThe clubhouse was opened in May 1973 with a champagne ceremony, and visiting dignitaries including the deputy chairman of the RYA, who in his speech mentioned the pioneering role of Walton as the first club in the area to use a water board reservoir. The event was followed by a four-hour pursuit race won by the home sailors, despite being held in torrential rain.  And so the fun began 45 feet up, clear of trees, unexpected obstructions, tides, currents and all other impediments to a good dinghy race. Naturally the fleets have changed over the years; the Scorpions and Enterprises dominated for a long time, and in the early 1980s we had a big fleet of Mirrors and could hold an Open for them that attracted 40 boats. Gradually the Scorpions changed to Fireballs, and then the invention of the ISO in the early 1990s transformed the fleet yet again.

    Solos have always been strong at the club, and in recent years the Laser fleet has grown to equal their numbers. However we still see boats to sit in rather than on, both racing and cruising; plenty of people still prefer wood to fibreglass. Another change has been the lifting of the long-standing ban on that other newfangled sport, windsurfing - although we don’t have many windsurf-only members, it’s a strong sport among the Solo fleet when the breeze gets up, and we do provide the cheapest access in the area to a big expanse of water.

    Not all plain sailing..

    Island barn reservoir repairsIn the mid-80s the reservoir was suspected to be leaking. The water was drained down beyond the concrete to where the gravel and mud starts, reducing the water area by about half. It remained this way for about two years, during which time sailing continued even if it was somewhat more difficult than usual. Eventually the trouble was traced to an unusually high water table, rather than any leaks in the reservoir. While the water was down several large holes were spotted in the bottom of the reservoir, which turned out to be old bomb craters and necessitated some emergency measures. However, in 2017 a leak was found in the reservoir.  Not to panic!  The engineers of Thames Water set out on a innovative project to repar the dam wall.  This saw usage of utra-modern scaning techniques as well as even floating a huge crane on the reservoir.  You can watch the video of the repairs and the engineering marvels with this link

    Another innovation was the training evenings, initiated by the legendary Mike Barnard who ran the event for years, and since then run by a succession of 'managers' and an indispensable group of helpers.. Many of us took our first steps in sailing from the Island Barn Tuesdays, and there’s nowhere else where you can try out the sport for so little money and trouble. Tuesday evenings have contributed greatly to the growth of the club and also provide a welcome opportunity for a cruise (or a blast...) around without worrying about courses or start times.

    dredgerIn the early 1990s Island Barn Aggregates spent six years dredging the reservoir for gravel, finally leaving in 1998. The dredger created an interesting extra dimension to the sailing, with a huge wind shadow and some very solid metal buoys to avoid, and the six-day working often meant that enormous work barges would go chugging through the Saturday race. Regardless of how good a position you had, ‘Aggregate Queen I’ or ‘II’ couldn’t stop and you had to get out of the way. On a really busy day both would be on the move at once, and mutterings about ‘power and sail’ cut no ice when ‘power’ weighs many tons and is carrying a load of gravel. It has to be said that one or two members didn’t see it like that, and the club officers had to fend off the occasional irate messages from the dredger people. 

    The dredger was manned all the time and the log-book recorded all sorts of goings on - the perambulations of the sheep flock, the visits of the Thames Water watchman and the bird watchers, and of course the occasional sailing shenanigans. The dredger crew also occasionally found some lost items, most notably an engine that had been dropped overboard when not attached to a lanyard. Unfortunately it was returned in two pieces having been in the wrong place when the scoop came down, but coxswain Alexis Villiers says he still managed to retrieve some useable parts despite its 18 months in the water. The remains of the dredger access route can be seen beyond the Laser park, near mark 7; the logistics of removing the dredger and the two enormous barges must have been challenging, but the whole lot vanished magically in a few weeks.

    The first lease was due to expire in 1997, and Tony Tahourdin, Paul King and Ann Mattingly were involved in lengthy negotiations with Thames Water to secure the future of the club. This included such items as new fences round the water to replace the infamous barbed wire, the replacement of the equally infamous access road and so on. The lease was signed in a ceremony held at the Open Pursuit race in 1997, and you can see the photos from this event on the wall of the clubhouse near the bar.

    Change of Name

    WOTSCAt the same time, the long-standing debate on the change of club name was finally resolved, after some lively discussion at the previous AGM. Our problem was that the casual observer would think us a river-based club in Walton, where we are actually a reservoir-based club in Molesey, and this confusion was putting off new members and making us difficult to find. Hence publicity prevailed over tradition, and the name change was voted through. There are photos in the clubhouse also show the Mayor of Elmbridge unveiling the new burgee.

    Golden Anniversary

    While we wouldn’t suggest for a moment that nothing happened over the next ten years, since this history was first written IBRSC has proudly reached its half century.  The event was marked on 5th July 2009 with a pursuit race that attracted over 40 entrants, followed by a hog roast for 150; the challenge of getting the hog roast burners up to the top level should not be underestimated. This event inaugurated the Commodore’s Plate, presented by Rob Pettit, and we continue to run an Anniversary Series Handicap so that we don’t forget our achievements.

    TURNING 60 years old

    60th anniversary2019 Marked the Club's 60th Birthday and to celebrate this milestone in our history we organised a series of events.  These saw a pursuit race of the same format that was so successful for our 50th, the club house was decorated with photographs ranging over the last 60 years (click here to see the photographs) and most importantly we were so happy to host an event where past as well as current members got together to celebrate our birthday with food, drink and plenty of sailing to watch.


    So what has changed over 60 years at Island Barn? We’re now far more relaxed about the types of boats we sail (in the early days even a Laser was a radical development), and of course the popular classes have changed over the years, from the original wooden two-handers to the current predominance of single-handers. Another development has been the advent of the low-maintenance, high-performance boats - we all want to spend more time sailing and less time fixing. It has to be said that the social calendar is not as crowded as it was (attendance, assistance and ideas always welcome), but the club remains genuinely friendly and welcoming with a good family atmosphere. We are very much a going concern with an enthusiastic and active membership, good racing for all standards, a wide variety of boats (including some of classes so new that the handicap is still provisional) and sailors of all ages from 10 to 85.

    Uta GriesenbachThe club officers continue to introduce new innovations in the ceaseless quest to make the operation of the club mistake-proof for baffled duty teams, to keep the running costs down and to improve launching, drinking and eating facilities.  In 2018 we finally  elected our first female commodore, Uta Griesenbach.  Although it took the club 58 years to archive this milestone it was worth waiting for as Uta oversaw some amazing turnarounds in youth sailing and training at the club.  A vast amount of totally unpaid work goes on behind the scenes, and help is always appreciated. Some of our club officers have been performing their tasks for an amazing time - the record is held by June Curtis, who in 2011 could count thirty-four years as catering manager.

    The cadet training run on a Sunday by Mike Jones has been a tremendous success in developing the next generation of Island Barn sailors, many of whom have also been successful nationally and internationally.   

    A big achievement for a totally unstaffed club has been achieving RYA Recognised Training Status, which was signed off in summer 2011 and again in the winter of 2019, with Nigel Tompson as the centre principal. This allows us to award RYA certificates in dinghy sailing and powerboating, and runs in parallel with the less formal trysail. The RYA have very high standards and to have the instructors and facilities to become an RTC is a huge success.

    santa visits island barn reservoir sailing club We pride ourselves on being a friendly, relaxed club where nothing is taken too seriously - except possibly room at the start line and having sufficient cheese in the toasties - and where everyone is welcome regardless of age, background or standard of sailing.
    Finally, Island Barn holds the proud distinction of having the real Santa attend our children’s Christmas Party each year - because our Santa arrives from the roof, not through the door. The club continues to be run ‘by the members, for the members’ and always encourages people to get involved. Our fees remain low and our water levels high.

    Here's to the next sixty years!

    Club Open with Stage 3 Restrictions    find out more