One of the primary sources of information on the golden age of yachting from 1850-1900 is the anonymously-written yet supremely authoritative British Yachts and Yachtsmen published in 1907. Broadly divided into two halves, the 'Biographical Section' of this monumental work begins with the entry for King Edward VII and states: "British yachting owes a much deeper debt to His Majesty King Edward than that incurred through ordinary royal patronage, for in him it can boast an active participant in the sport." Whilst this appears a fulsome tribute, it was nevertheless something of an understatement and it is intriguing to speculate how little the sport of classic yacht racing might have developed throughout the British Isles had it not been for the King's passionate involvement with it from an early age.
As Prince of Wales, Edward crowned his own racing career with Britannia (built for him in 1893) even though this legendary thoroughbred was, in fact, the last of his several yachts stretching back to his acquisition of the 37-ton cutter Dagmar in 1866. Named in honour of his wife's favourite sister, the Prince kept Dagmar only long enough to learn the science of yachting and then sold her - in 1869 - for the first of two small steam yachts, both of which were probably intended for the whole family's enjoyment now that he had five growing children. After a few years however, the Prince decided to return to sailing and purchased a brand-new two-masted 205-ton schooner recently completed by Camper & Nicholson at Gosport. Named Hildegarde, she was a large boat by contemporary standards and measured 106½ feet in length with a 21 foot beam. Her first outing - and, in fact, the Prince's very first competitive regatta race - was for the 1876 Cowes Town Cup which Hildegarde won by forty-six seconds despite heavy weather. It was a triumph for the Prince as well as for his new schooner and the win merely strengthened the bond that Edward had already forged with the sport. The next year, 1877, he had an even more notable win when he took the Queen's Cup at Cowes in "real schooner weather". As one of the newspapers covering the event reported: "Although there was half a gale of wind blowing, the Prince took passage on his own craft, and the ovation he received when he came ashore will be one of the brightest dreams of his life." After a less exciting season in 1878, Hildegarde was sold the next year and replaced with another cutter Formosa; after her came the schooner Aline, which the Prince kept until Britannia was ready, but he always retained the fondest of memories for Hildegarde, the yacht with which he had won his very first trophy back in 1876.
Hildegarde is shown in broadside view in this work, her identity revealed by the distinctive flag featuring the Prince of Wales's feathers at her main masthead; sadly, the yacht ahead of her is so far unidentified.