Swank times & blazer buttons

Ray reckons upping the swank factor could attract new members to the RYA

“Let’s see plenty of swank!” Fellow ex-national servicemen will remember these words well. They were shouted to all by drill sergeants the world over. “Chest out, chin up, back straight, dig those ‘eels in…”

There was no doubt about it. We followed the orders and indeed swanked. No one can swank better than the British serviceman on parade which is why thousands still flock to see the Changing of the Guard and annual Trooping of the Colour.

Boating is a bit like that. It has strong connections with the navy which is why we all dress up from time to time when visiting yacht clubs, balls and prize givings. The annual Cowes Week sees many participants parading through the town to functions wearing club dress.

There can be few other sports or pastimes that follow suit so I suppose swanking is very much a part of our scene. In the case of the sea it all goes back to 1837 when the captain of the British frigate HMS Blazer was about to be visited by Queen Victoria. He certainly wanted to swank.

He must have seen his crew as a scruffy lot. They were certainly a rag-tag navy, some with short naval-issue jackets, others in sweaters or thick shirts, but he must have had a few quid to spare as he suddenly decided he wanted his crew to ooze ‘plenty of swank’.

Not wanting to splash out for the whole mob, he dressed the crew of his gig, which would be used to bring the Queen aboard, in blue-and-white-striped, brass-buttoned jackets. They certainly had loads of swank and impressed Queen Vic so much she ordered the Sea Lords get the rest of the fleet similarly attired. This eventually resulted in the British navy being known as ‘Bluejackets’.

Hence the jacket we know today as the blazer was created, but no way did the officers want to be associated by dress with their crew so they chose dark blue reefers with black crested buttons.

So began a trend that can be seen today in the more upmarket yacht clubs. The visiting plebs, particularly those not owning a boat, will appear with brass-buttoned blazers while the posh vessel-owning members wear reefers with black buttons sporting the club motif: the best made of horn. Once again, plenty of swank.

Being a swanker myself I have a jacket with black buttons. Most yacht clubs worth their salt offer them to members but I wonder how many motorboaters would walk that much taller if their jackets were similarly adorned.

It’s a known fact that the majority of the motorboating fraternity do not belong to yacht clubs. They are often put off by the title, which refers more to sail than power. With a title like the Royal Yachting Association it’s a wonder it has any motorboating members at all, but in fact it fights many causes on their behalf.

However it’s no secret that many join just to fly a flag, any flag.

One doesn’t have to face a committee to join the RYA but once a member, its flag can be flown. Plenty of valuable swank once again although the RYA probably doesn’t realise it.

Looking at the recent members’ catalogue I notice one can purchase various flags to enhance the feeling of belonging. There’s a cruising flag, a house flag, another especially for gold members and a gold cruising burgee but at the top of the swank brigade we have a Yachtmaster House flag. Now, this latter pennant must surely make its owner feel very much king of the castle.

All good stuff, which I’m sure results in attracting far more members than perhaps the RYA realises – but where are its black buttons? Having the opportunity to look even more nautical would surely enhance its attraction so I called up the regalia department to enquire about the possibility of purchasing black buttons.

I was asked to explain what black buttons were, also the entire history of HMS Blazer before being told the association had never sold them. In any case there was no demand.

How can there be demand if they are not in the catalogue in the first place? But there is a light on the horizon. RYA black-crested buttons do indeed exist. I have a set I cut off an old jacket years ago. If the RYA finds their details in the archives I’m sure their availability will swell the membership even more…


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