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The club is one of the clubs on the lough that form part of the Belfast Lough Yachting Conference. It was formed in 1899 by an amalgamation of the Ulster Sailing Club with the Cultra Yacht Club, and was initially called the North of Ireland Yacht Club. It retained that title until 2 September 1902 when His Majesty King Edward VII announced that it be henceforth known as 'The Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club.'
In 1902 several club members got together and commissioned the Fairy Class racing dayboat design. This class has been sailed locally since then and although some of the boats migrated to Lough Erne the Class is still strongly supported at Cultra. Some of the boats have been substantially rebuilt in recent years. In the 1930s the then new Dragon Class was adopted. Some still exist there sailed with the original gunter rig abandoned in favour of Bermudan by RNIYC towards the end of the 1920s.
There was no club sailing during World War II but it was R.N.I.Y.C members in the Dragon Class who represented Britain in the 1947 Olympic Games at Torbay. The 1970s saw the arrival of the Squib Class. The popularity of these boats has fluctuated over the years but, with thirty five boats, the clubs fleet is now one of the largest in the British Isles.
Club racing for the Fairy, Squib and Mirror classes and for other dinghies takes place on three occasions every week during the sailing season. Many Club members own cruising boats. Nowadays they keep them in local marinas or in Strangford Lough. Racing for the cruisers used to include passage races organised jointly with the Clyde Cruising Club; however, these races are generally no longer popular and most cruiser racing currently is of the inshore variety. Nevertheless some of the Clubs boats can regularly been seen competing at Cork Week and in the Scottish series.
On 4 October 2010 a major club refurbishment was started with a total expenditure of £300,000. The objective of this refurbishment was the improvement and upgrading of the Club facilities and the enhancement of the club environment.