The world governing body for the sport of sailing was created in Paris in October 1907. It was initally called the International Yacht Racing Union (IYRU) before the name was changed to the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) on 5 August 1996.
The IYRU evolved from the need for racing sailors to have a uniform set of rules and measurement standards Before 1870 individual yacht clubs developed their own set of racing rules of which each was the sole arbiter in interpreting and applying them. While the popularity of racing against other clubs grew so did the confusion and frustration on the race course.
In Britain, there were several attempts to develop a uniform set of rules and the first meeting to develop such rules was the 'Yachting Congress' organised by the Royal Victoria Yacht Club on 1 June 1868. This congress was attended by 23 representatives from 14 clubs. Under the guidance of Captain Mackinnon, a sub-committee of the congress compiled a pamphlet of the existing rules on all the yacht clubs.
The Congress met again on 4 March 1869 when a draft of the racing rules were examined and adopted. However, when published in the yachting press it met with severe criticism and was abandoned.
A number of associations were subsequently formed and their rules again rejected. In 1881, when HRH Albert Edward, Prince of Wales was Commodore of the Royal Thames Yacht Club and the Royal Yacht Squadron, the two clubs joined the Yacht Racing Association along with the New Thames Yacht Club and developed a set of rules for British waters.
There was still confusion over the different measurement standards that were being used in Europe, North America and Britain which meant yachts from different countries could not compete on equal terms. Major Brooke Heckstall-Smith, secretary of the Yacht Racing Association, wrote to the Yacht Club de France expressing the need to devise an international rule of measurement for racing yachts that was acceptable to all European countries. As a result, an International Conference on Yacht Measurement was held in London in January and June 1906 and the 'Metre Rule' was developed. The attendees formed the International Yacht Racing Union and adopted a common code of yacht racing rules based on that of the YRA. The rule is still used today in the 12 Metre, 8 Metre, 6 Metre and other Metre boats.
At that time the IYRU comprised of the yachting authorities of Austria-Hungary, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland and Belgium, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
In November 1929, representatives from the North American Yacht Racing Union actively took part in the discussions to ensure that the North American Yacht Racing Rules and the International Yacht Racing Rules were almost identically worded and that neither one would change their rules without first informing the other. In 1960 a totally universal code of racing rules was agreed and implemented.
From 1906 to 1946 a chairman was elected from time to time to orchestrate the annual meetings of the IYRU. In 1946, Sir Ralph GORE was elected the first President and since then the ISAF has seen five Presidents: Sir Peter Scott (GBR) 1955-69, Beppe Croce (ITA) 1969-86 Peter Tallberg (FIN) 1986-1994, Paul Henderson (CAN) 1994-2004 and Göran Petersson (SWE) 2004-present.
The International Sailing Federation is officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee as the governing authority for sailing world-wide. As such, ISAF is responsible for promotion of the sport internationally, managing sailing at the Olympic Games, developing the International Racing Rules and Regulations for all sailing competitions and the training of judges, umpires and other administrators, the development of the sport around the world, as well as representing sailors in all matters concerning the sport. The name change to the International Sailing Federation in 1996 came with the change to the name of the sport on the Olympic programme from Yachting to Sailing.
In order to promote the development of the sport the ISAF has established several events - including, but not limited to the ISAF World Sailing Championships and ISAF Sailing World Cup (for Olympic equipment), ISAF Youth Sailing World Championship, ISAF Team Racing World Championship, ISAF Match Racing World Championship, ISAF Women's Match Racing World Championship, ISAF Nations Cup, as well as endorsing and grading the top international match racing and Olympic Class regattas, the results of which go towards sailors' world rankings, which are administered by ISAF.
ISAF currently consists of 139 member nations who are its principle members, and responsible for the decision making process that governs the sailing world.
There are currently 108 ISAF International, Recognized and Classic Yacht Classes, ranging from the small Optimist Dinghy up to the largest, the 60ft Monohulls.
ISAF, from its outset, has worked towards a primary goal to ensure that as many people as possible go sailing.
In 2007 ISAF celebrated it's Centenary year by celebrating sailing. The ISAF members, sailing clubs, regatta organizers, sailors and fans were encouraged to organize activities to mark the Centenary with the 'Sail the World weekend' dedicated to getting as many people out on the water world-wide as possible. ISAF also launched the ISAF Sailing Hall of Fame in 2007 to acknowledge some of the sports greatest achievers.