The first East Coast race was organised in 1963, inspired by earlier races held in the Solent. Three enthusiasts John Bray, Roy Clarkson and John Scarlett, of the first committee advertised the race in the yachting press. Hoping to get a dozen entries, 27 boats registered in time to go in the programme, and 30 turned up on the start line. The course from Osea Island in the Blackwater, up the Wallet, to Harwich Harbour, proved to be a mistake. The race started in a flat calm, turning to head winds all the way. Only seven boats finished, arriving much too late for the planned supper and party. Something must have been right despite this fiasco. It was agreed that Old Gaffer Races were a Good Thing, and in September 1963 the OGA was formed to run the East Coast and Solent Races in future.
The race in 1964 was held with a much shorter course, and just as well, because a thunder storm before the start left a near calm and fog, through which the fleet of 33 drifted from Osea Island to the finish off East Mersea. The first three boats on corrected time won engraved pewter tankards, while the Tom Bolton cup was awarded to the first fishing or ex-fishing boat to cross the finish line. Tom Bolton had taken part in the first race on his smack 'Maria', but was lost at sea in September 1963, and his pals presented the cup in his memory. The cup is still awarded, and is hotly contested. The weather was much better in 1965 with a brisk breeze. With a field of 40 boats, the race was split into two classes as it was realised that even with handicaps, asking 46 foot boats and 17 foot boats to race together might cause problems on the start line! Apart from two accidents caused by carelessly handled spectator craft, all went well.
A new tradition came into being in 1965; the winner of the race became Commodore of the East Coast Area until the next race. The annual handing over of the Commodore's pennant still happens at the prize ceremony. That was not the only new prize, the East Coast Old Gaffer's Trophy awarded to the first boat over 50 years old on corrected time, also dates from this year. Class III for open boats under 20' was introduced in 1965 as many smaller boats wished to compete. It became a fixture in the programme for many years after, and still continues, although the class now competes in its own event inside the Colne on the Sunday, rather then mixing it up with the larger boats on Saturday. In 1967 the race start was moved to Stone, down river from Osea Island. The start and finish were both at the Stone Sailing Club and the result was an outstanding success. The 'out and back' course guaranteed a beat somewhere whichever way the wind blew, and a record fleet of 56 boats enjoyed a fine day's sport.
1968 saw fog and light winds that spoilt the sailing and the spectators' view, but people enjoyed it anyway, and the weather the next year was glorious. 1970 saw 80 boats entered, but the strong winds and poor forecast meant only 15 came to the line; ten retired before finishing in gale force westerly winds. In 1971, 93 boats entered. The largest boat that year was 'Solvig', a 70' ex-Baltic trading ketch, and the smallest was 'Red Rose' a 16' lugger. It was not until 1979 that class V, for 'very large vessels' (later changed to boats over 50' long) came into being. There were 107 entries that year, and numbers rose to 140 in the 1980s.
Following a short period at Mersea in the 1990s, the race moved to Brightlingsea in 1999, where it continues. Numbers have dropped from the peak in the 1980s, mostly due to more events becoming available. In the first ten years of the race a total of 124 purpose built pleasure yachts took part, with eleven designed by John Leather, the best represented designer. There were also 84 boats converted for leisure use; 35 ex-fishing smacks, together with 29 'workboats' (everything from 18' winkle brigs to 70' trading ketches), nine converted lifeboats, four Itchen ferries, six prawners and four bawleys. How many of them are still afloat today? Hard to say, as some only competed once, but of the 30 boats that took part in the first East Coast Race, four, 'Fanny of Cowes', 'Fly', 'Shoal Waters' and 'Kestrel' raced again in 2013. Who would have thought that 50 years later over 10% of the boats would still be afloat, let alone racing!