The 'A' raters were first sailed on the river in 1870 when the Thames Sailing Club was founded at its present site. Some of the boats still sailing are almost 100 years old. Their spectacular appearance comes from their outsize masts, 40ft (12m) high, built to catch the wind from above the trees on the river bank. The boats are 26ft long - the size of a small yacht, although they are sailed like dinghies.
Thames Sailing Club has been trying to buy the site for 20 years, but before privatisation Thames Water was not interested in selling. When the company finally decided to sell the site earlier this year the club made an offer, but Thames Water ended negotiations because it believes it can get a better price at auction.
The site will be sold as lot 90 next Wednesday, at an auction at the Kensington Hilton Hotel, with a guide price of pounds 150,000. Thames Water has drawn up a scheme for 10 houses on the river bank, squeezing the club into a small area which would make it impossible to continue sailing 'A' raters.
'The scheme has not been discussed with us at all,' Stephen Dunn, the club's rear commodore, said. 'We need a lot of space to sail the 'A' raters - as it is we moor them five abreast. But we have 18 of them. If we are forced off this bit of the river I don't believe we could find another site. Other clubs would not have us because we take up so much space. The 'A' raters would seldom sail again as a fleet.' The National Maritime Museum says the loss would be a major blow to sailing history in Britain.
The surrounding river bank attracts crowds to admire 'A' raters' manoeuvres in full sail and the local pub, Hart's Boatyard, is usually busy. The pub is built over a boatyard run by Ossie Stewart, who won a bronze medal sailing a Soling class keelboat in the Barcelona Olympics this year.
The site was originally reclaimed from marshland. Thames Sailing Club built its own clubhouse, a charming Victorian building with a verandah overlooking the river, and a large boathouse for the 'A' raters. When the club's lease ends next year its control over the property will cease.
Thames Water says it has to take a commercial decision about the future of the site. It is spending more than pounds 1m a day on development and needs the money.
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