Seattle Yacht Club

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 1/26/2013
  • Essay 10176
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The Seattle Yacht Club, at 1807 E Hamlin Street on Portage Bay in the Montlake neighborhood, has been a Seattle institution well more than a century. First founded, briefly, in 1879, its existence was somewhat tenuous and sporadic until 1892, when the direct predecessor of today's club was formed. Since merging with the Elliott Bay Yacht Club in 1909, the Seattle Yacht Club has weathered good times and bad, wars and the Great Depression, and huge societal changes. The club's true renaissance came after World War I when, with the Lake Washington Ship Canal completed, it moved to a stately new home on the eastern shore of Portage Bay, where it remains. Founded by the city's social and financial elite and exclusive by nature, the club over the years has become increasingly engaged with the wider community and today offers many services and activities to the public while constantly expanding and improving the benefits it provides to its more than 2,500 members. 

Water, Water, Everywhere

The Pacific Northwest is blessed with abundant sheltered waters that have nurtured and carried the region's people since the earliest days of human habitation. Indigenous peoples used the rivers, the lakes, and the waters of the Puget Sound Basin for transportation and commerce for millennia, traveling great distances in dugout canoes to trade, to fish, to fight, or simply to move from one place to another. It is also likely that Northwest tribes engaged in canoe races before first contact with non-Natives. Later, the vanguard of European explorers in their sailing ships sheltered in our bays, and the earliest European trappers and traders from the eastern part of the continent used the inland waterways much as the Indians did.

The focus of early white settlers was on survival, with little time, energy, or resources left for organized sport. But as communities became established, prosperity and leisure time increased, and the water became a major focus of recreation. One source states that "the beginning of pleasure boating in the Northwest" dates to 1874, when Captain Charles E. Clancy of Olympia built a small sharpie (a flat-bottomed sailboat using a removable centerboard) that he named the Tilden (Warren, 4). This is a somewhat arbitrary date, however, and there was no doubt earlier recreational use of the local waters.

Even if Olympia could claim credit as the cradle of Northwest pleasure boating, Seattle was not far behind. The first organized sailboat race in the city celebrated Independence Day in 1875 and became a near-annual event. In the 1880s a well-to-do Seattle doctor, Frederick W. Sparling (1825-1909) had several boats built strictly for pleasure use, and he is considered by some to have been the true father of recreational boating in the city.

A Beginning

Yacht clubs had been a fixture on the East Coast since at least 1838, when the Narragansett Boat Club was organized in Rhode Island. The first on the West Coast was the San Francisco Yacht Club, founded in 1869. By one count, by 1879 there were 61 yacht clubs around the nation -- most on the East Coast, a few on the Great Lakes, but only two in the West.

The first public mention of a "Seattle Yacht Club" was an 1879 newspaper announcement of an upcoming race (Warren, 4). The next year the club participated in an Independence Day race, then sank from view. Between 1881 and 1889 the only trace of an organization bearing that name appears to be a brief newspaper mention in 1886. A Seattle Yacht Club may have existed, but for every year other than 1886 no evidence has been found to prove it one way or the other.

A New Beginning

The year 1889 was a remarkable one for Seattle. The Great Fire of June 6 destroyed much of the city's commercial core and every waterfront wharf from Jackson to Union streets. Barely five months later, Washington Territory, after a long campaign and several disappointments, became the nation's 42nd state. The grant of statehood marked a full coming of age; the fire, although a disaster, gave the city a clean slate on which to create a new urban core. Seattle bubbled with ambition and optimism.

The annual July 4th regatta and race picked up again in 1890 after just a one-year hiatus caused by the fire. A booklet dated that year has a constitution and bylaws for a Seattle Yacht Club and identifies its elected officers: Dr. Sparling as commodore; George E. Budlong, vice commodore; John W. Brauer, secretary; and R. S. Clark, measurer (to certify that boats were racing in the appropriate class). But this Seattle Yacht Club proved no more durable than its predecessor and disappeared from the public record after that year's regatta.

A New New Beginning

In the late 1800s yacht clubs began forming in other Puget Sound towns: Tacoma's in 1889, the Anacortes Yacht Club in 1891, and the Fairhaven Yacht Club in Whatcom County at about the same time. Such organizations were seen as emblematic of success, both civic and individual. During the last decade of the nineteenth century Seattle would have two yacht clubs, and today's Seattle Yacht Club (SYC) is the direct descendant of both.

In August 1892, seven sailing clubs formed the Northwestern International Yachting Association (NIYA) in Bellingham. When the NIYA invited individual Seattle yachtsmen to join, D. M. Simonson, a relative newcomer from New York, used an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to push for the formation of a new local yacht club. He was seconded in the article by Pierson Haviland, a Seattle realtor, who said:

"With the advantages we have in beautiful and convenient waters, we should have a yachting and rowing club here very soon that will excite the interest and admiration of the citizens of this city" (Warren, 16).

Three weeks later, on August 2, 1892, a meeting in the new Bank of Commerce building at 92 Yesler Way in Seattle kicked off the new club. Two hundred charter memberships were on offer for $5 each; those who joined later would pay $25. Monthly dues were set at one dollar. Committees were appointed, and two delegates were dispatched to Victoria to secure membership in the Northwestern International Yachting Association.

On September 3, 1892, the inaugural officers of the Seattle Yacht Club were elected, including, as commodore, Fred E. Sander (b. 1854), identified by historian Clarence Bagley (1843-1942) as "the first real estate operator of Seattle" (Bagley, at 761). Although the club would not formally register with the state as a corporation until 1901, its unbroken existence through today (2012) can be traced back to these 1892 events.

The first home for the Seattle Yacht Club was a 200-foot strip of shoreline just southeast of Duwamish Head on the inside harbor, leased in 1892 from the West Seattle Land Improvement Company for a dollar a year. A float and boathouse were towed to the site, and the club was in business. Before the year was out, a clubhouse on shore, two stories tall with a tower, had been built, financed in large part by the prepayment of annual membership dues.

Boom to Bust to Boom

The massive rebuilding after the 1889 fire led boosters to call Seattle "the boomingest place on earth." Then, on May 3, 1893, the New York Stock Exchange went into freefall, setting off a financial crisis that would throttle the nation's economy for the next four years. By the time the Panic of 1893 ended, 14 of Seattle's 23 banks were out of business. Most of the region's population, including some of its wealthiest citizens, had more pressing concerns than yachting. Hard times would continue until July 1897, when the first load of gold from the Klondike landed in Seattle's harbor aboard the steamship Portland, kicking off an extended period of prosperity.

Despite the economic hard times, or perhaps because of them, in 1894 a second yacht club was started in Seattle, primarily by owners of smaller vessels who did not want to bear the expense of membership in the Seattle Yacht Club and did not want to moor their vessels at the relatively inconvenient Duwamish Head location. Named the Elliott Bay Yacht Club, its first membership comprised about 50 sailors and 25 vessels, with moorage and headquarters at the Brighton Boathouse at the foot of Battery Street in downtown Seattle. It also would join the Northwestern International Yachting Association, host races and regattas, and maintain a friendly rivalry with the Seattle Yacht Club.

Cruising Into a New Century

Pleasure boating was thoroughly entrenched in the Northwest by 1900, and a local newspaper enthused that yachting was "destined to become the chief pastime of the people" (Warren, 31). The advent of the internal combustion engine revolutionized pleasure boating, making it accessible to more people and freeing sailors from total dependence on the often-fluky winds of Puget Sound. The Seattle and Elliott Bay yachts clubs amicably shared those waters, each staging regattas and races. After losing its moorage at the Brighton Boathouse, the Elliott Bay organization was inactive from 1904 until the spring of 1907, when it reformed and moved to new quarters in West Seattle. The premiere event of each season, the Northwestern International Yacht Association race, was sponsored at different times by one or the other of the Seattle clubs and by other NIYA members.

By 1909 the Elliott Bay Yacht Club was well on its way to building a new clubhouse at the West Seattle site and its membership was growing rapidly. The Seattle Yacht Club, in contrast, had again hit the doldrums. The first public hint that something was in the works between the two appeared in The Seattle Times on April 18, 1909. In an article centered on the upcoming Alexandra Cup international sailing regatta, it was mentioned in passing that "The consolidation of the Seattle Yacht Club and the Elliott Bay Yacht Club has not been effected, but this will be done before the preliminary race of June 12" ("Spirit II. and Rival Will Race").

In May 1909, no doubt spurred by the planned merger, the Elliott Bay club formally incorporated with the State. The clubs did not quite hit the June 12 mark, but at a meeting on June 22, 1909, the deal was sealed, and the completion of the merger was announced in The Seattle Times the next day:

"The Seattle Yacht Club and the Elliott Bay Yacht Club, Seattle's two yachting organizations, were consolidated last night and Seattle now has only one yacht club, but that one is one of the strongest on the Coast ... .

"The new club will be known as the Seattle Yacht Club, but it is the flag of the Elliott Bay Yacht Club that will be the official flag of the club. The officers of the Elliott Bay Yacht Club will be the officers of the new club, with Commodore H. W. Gocher at the head of the organization" ("Seattle's Two Yacht Clubs Consolidated").

A Controversial Cup

The Seattle Yacht Club won the name in the merger, but the leadership and official burgee came from the Elliott Bay group. The burgee, a red star and a diagonal blue bar on a field of white, is still (2012) the official symbol of the Seattle Yacht Club. The Times article went on to imply that a primary stimulus for the consolidation was the desire to present a united front and joint resources to contest the Alexandra Cup, an annual race between American and Canadian sailing yachts that had been first run in 1907.

The Americans won that inaugural race and the Canadians won the 1908 contest, setting up a highly anticipated rubber match. In 1909 the American entry, supported by the new Seattle Yacht Club, won the first two races of the series. Then a rancorous dispute arose over the technical qualifications and official measurement of the Seattle boat, Spirit II, designed and skippered by the legendary Ted Geary (1885-1960), who had been vice-commodore of the Elliott Bay Yacht Club before the merger. In protest, the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club's entry refused to finish the competition, and the club refused to turn over the Alexandra trophy to the Seattle organization.

Although the two cities continued to vie in various sailing competitions, the Alexandra Cup was not put at stake again for an astounding 99 years. When it finally was, in 2008, the Vancouver club retained the title and the trophy, and has beaten back Seattle Yacht Club challengers every year since (as of 2011).

Success on Land and Water

By the end of 1911, the Seattle Yacht Club had a membership of 292, including many of Seattle's most prominent citizens. The following year, the city played host to Sir Thomas Lipton (1848-1931), a wealthy English tea merchant and famed sailor who, between 1899 and 1930, made five unsuccessful attempts to win sailing's famous America's Cup. His relentless good cheer and sportsmanship eventually earned him the affectionate title of "the world's best loser" ("Sir Thomas Lipton's Gift"), and the Seattle club feted him enthusiastically during his stay.

With the unpleasant dispute over the Alexandra Cup in mind, Lipton announced that he would establish "a perpetual challenge cup for international yachting competition, to be raced for the first time in Seattle" ("Admirers in Seattle Pay Honor to Lipton"). Two years later, in July 1914, the Seattle Yacht Club became the first to have its plaque placed on the base of the Sir Thomas Lipton Perpetual Challenge trophy when Sir Tom, designed and skippered by Ted Geary, named in honor of Lipton, and sailing under Seattle Yacht Club colors, won the inaugural race on Elliott Bay by beating Turenga, a Canadian boat. Sir Tom would go on to win 14 consecutive Lipton Cup races and many other competitions, and Geary would earn legendary status in international "R-Boat" racing.

Publicity like that provided by Lipton didn't hurt, and in 1913 yacht club membership had grown to 371. By now the club was sponsoring a variety of races and other events, including the first formal celebration of yachting season's Opening Day, which took place on May 3, 1913, on Elliott Bay. The club had been busy in other ways, too; in 1912, SYC purchased and leased property at Manzanita Bay on Bainbridge Island to establish its first "outside station," a stopping place for club members and their vessels and the first of what would eventually become 10 such facilities.

Two Lakes, Two Bays, and a Narrow Strip of Land           

It is a simple matter today for boaters to enjoy Puget Sound and the fresh waters of Lake Union and Lake Washington, but it was not always so. Until the second decade of the twentieth century, these were three separate bodies of water with no truly navigable links. Indian canoes and small boats could be portaged from one to the other, and there was limited access to Lake Washington from Elliott Bay via the Duwamish and Black rivers, but vessels of any appreciable size could not transit from salt water to fresh water or vice-versa.

As recently as 16,000 years ago, Lake Washington was an inland sea, its contents dominated by salt water, and it was not fully isolated from the waters of Puget Sound by the floodplain of the Black River until about 3,500 years ago. To Lake Washington's west lay another, smaller body of water that an early settler on its south shore, Thomas Mercer (1813-1898), named Lake Union, in anticipation of the day when the two lakes (and perhaps Puget Sound) would be linked by a canal. At the point where the lakes were most proximate, a narrow isthmus of land (bisected by today's Montlake Cut) separated Lake Union's Portage Bay from Lake Washington's Union Bay, also named by Mercer. This same isthmus joined what is today the southern border of the University District to the northern margin of the Montlake neighborhood.

When white settlers first arrived in the area, Lakes Duwamish people lived at Portage and Union bays. Studies prepared as part of the 520 floating-bridge replacement describe their environment: 

"Lakes people cultivated and harvested the aquatic resources from the various basins and drainages. The marshes and adjoining woodlands were sources of abundant freshwater plants, freshwater animals, anadromous fish, terrestrial mammals, plants, aquatic birds, and migratory birds" (Cultural Resources Assessment Discipline Report, p. 4-15).

The same study notes that the narrow band of land between Portage and Union bays was particularly important to the Lakes peoples, and that just south of today's Montlake Cut a Native group identified as the hloo-weelh-AHBSH controlled a path across the isthmus that was used as a canoe portage. But the last permanent Indian resident on Portage Bay, a Lakes Duwamish leader named Cheshiahud (called "Lake John" by settlers) moved to the Suquamish Reservation in approximately 1900.

Bridging the Gap

In 1860, Seattle pioneer Harvey Pike tried to bisect the Montlake isthmus with a small, hand-excavated ditch. He may have completed a narrow and largely useless little trench (accounts differ), but in 1871 he deeded the land to the Lake Washington Canal Company, of which he was a principal. That company, rather than improving on Pike's effort, spanned the narrow isthmus with a narrow-gauge railway, allowing coal to be moved from barges on Union Bay to barges on Portage Bay. Not until 1885 was a usable waterway through the isthmus completed, when David Denny and Thomas Burke hired Chinese laborers to dig a canal through which to move logs from Lake Washington to Portage Bay. Called the "Portage Canal," the 16-foot-wide waterway had a rudimentary "guillotine" lock that maintained the existing water level in Lake Union from the higher waters of Lake Washington. 

Much bigger plans would come to fruition in the new century -- a route that would permit sizeable vessels to travel from Puget Sound all the way to Lake Washington, as Mercer had envisioned 50 year earlier. It would include locks at Salmon Bay to the west, a canal running from that bay to the western extremity of Lake Union, and another canal breaching the isthmus between Portage and Union bays, to be known as the Montlake Cut. The entire route would be called the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work in November 1911, and in July 1916 a temporary dam at the Montlake Cut was breached. By October of that year, nearly nine feet of Lake Washington water had been sluiced out, and the lakes were joined. The entire route was opened to boat traffic on May 8, 1917, making it possible to travel by boat from Lake Washington to Puget Sound.

Peril and Opportunity

In April 1917 the United States entered World War I. Several younger (under 40 years old) yacht club members volunteered for service, and for many others the idea of pleasure cruising in a time of international conflict seemed somewhat frivolous. But there was opportunity as well as peril, and the next three years proved to be perhaps the most pivotal in the history of the Seattle Yacht Club.

When the Montlake Cut joining Portage and Union bays was finished in 1916, the yacht club's commodore, Norval H. Latimer (1863-1923), immediately recognized that the completion of Lake Washington Ship Canal practically demanded a club facility somewhere on Lake Union or Lake Washington. Latimer was a dynamic businessman with fingers in many pies, and he soon persuaded several other Seattle titans (and yacht club members) to join his crusade to find land on which to build what would become one of the finest yacht-club headquarters on the entire Pacific Coast.

In 1908, a plat had been filed for the northern part of the Montlake neighborhood. Much of this land was designated as Montlake Park, but a portion was set aside as the "Casino Grounds" for the upcoming Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (Sherwood). No casino was ever built, however, and the state deeded the land to the City of Seattle in 1909. On September 17, 1917, with the country deep in war, the club secured the Casino Grounds as its future site.

It was about as perfect a location as one could imagine for a yacht club. Located adjacent to Montlake Park, it had frontage on Hamlin Street and nearly 150 feet of sheltered lakefront on Portage Bay just around the corner from the Montlake Cut. Club members would have easy access to both lakes, and to Puget Sound through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. Before the deal even closed, noted architect and yacht-club member John Graham Sr. (1873-1955) had prepared sketches for a clubhouse on the site. In October 1917, an article in Pacific Motor Boat magazine lauded the development:

"The most ambitious and significant step ever taken by the Seattle Yacht Club and one that promises to increase immensely the membership, popularity and prestige of this already strong organization, has been successfully engineered by the officers and directors of the club during the past month, and announcement is now made that the club is to have a handsome new home and grounds fronting on the north end of Lake Union opposite the State University which when completed will be finer than any other yacht club on the coast" ("Seattle Yacht Club to Have New Home").

It was still wartime, and serious fighting lay ahead. More members of the club entered the service, and interest in recreational boating dwindled. But a central cadre of Seattle yachtsmen kept things afloat. In June 1918, just months before the war's end, they sold the Seattle Yacht Club's old headquarters in West Seattle to the U.S. government for $3,000. The club would be homeless for a time, holding its meetings in the director's room of Dexter Horton National Bank (of which Norval H. Latimer was president). But better days were ahead.

Postwar Renaissance

World War I ended on November 11, 1918, and was followed by a period of economic stagnation as the wartime boom collapsed. With no permanent home and no moorage, yacht club membership plummeted to 70 active members by the end of that year, but they were very active members. In March 1919 it was announced that more than 50 prominent business leaders had pledged funds in excess of the $50,000 estimated cost of the new clubhouse. The announcement seemed to breathe new life into Seattle's boating community. A month later, The Seattle Sunday Times reported:

"The plans of the Seattle Yacht Club to build a new $50,000 clubhouse at the north end of Lake Union and the publicity that has been given to the project have caused a revival of the yachting spirit in this city such has not taken place for several years.

"Six months ago, the sport of yachting on Puget Sound was practically dead and today it is on the verge of the greatest boom it has ever had in this district" ("Plans to Build Dozen Yachts Here Underway").

In a drive to attract new blood, the club removed its membership cap of 350 and temporarily reduced the initiation fee from $50 to $25. Architect Graham quickly finished the clubhouse plans, and by May 1919 the piers and locker rooms for the new facility were complete, allowing members to moor their boats at the site. A year later, on May 1, 1920, the new clubhouse was dedicated in a ceremony that drew more than 1,000 people. The final cost was approximately $90,000, nearly double original estimates, but, as stated in The Seattle Times, the new clubhouse "was the finest of its kind on the Pacific Coast and one of the handsomest in the United States" ("Seattle Yacht Club Will Christen New $90,000 Home May 1"). That same day, the Montlake Cut saw its first Opening Day parade and, with a few exceptions, it has been held there on the first Saturday of May every year since.

The Clubhouse

In July 1920, Pacific Motor Boat ran a lengthy article detailing the events surrounding the Seattle Yacht Club's dramatic renaissance:

"Today the active membership has grown to over four hundred, and the club is ensconced in a new $100,000 [sic] home, the finest of its kind on the Pacific Coast, and the fleet, more than doubled in size since the armistice, and containing some of the finest yachts in the country, is comfortably moored at the club's own piers in a fresh water basin absolutely protected from storms and located almost in the heart of the city" ("The Creation of the New Seattle Yacht Club").

The clubhouse has very much the same exterior appearance that it had when new, although it was expanded in 1967. Its style has been described as "Colonial Revival," and more precisely as:

"[A] a two-story T-shaped wooden-framed structure composed of intersecting clipped gambrel-roofed wings with an original 1920 northern secondary wing, a tower, a colonnade, and a newer, 1967, two-story flat-roof service wing addition" (National Register of Historic Places, 7,2).

The clubhouse is sheathed in white-painted cedar shingles, and a classical colonnade wraps around its north and west faces. The only major exterior change came with the 1967 addition of a new dining room on the southwest corner. Fittingly, the addition was designed by John Graham Jr. (1908-1991), son of the original architect.

For 92 years (as of 2012), the Seattle Yacht Club's "main station" has been a fixture on Portage Bay. Viewed from the west, its architectural beauty stands out against the University of Washington's institutional blocks to its north and the concrete ramps leading to the 520 floating bridge to the south. To the east and northeast are some of the most attractive homes in the Montlake neighborhood, and directly north, bordering the cut, is Montlake Park. A decorative yardarm and anchor are displayed in front of the clubhouse on an irregularly shaped piece of green lawn that is owned by the parks department, but which the club uses and maintains by agreement with the City.

A Private Club with a Public Spirit

With the exception of newspaper accounts of races and other newsworthy events, much of the history of the Seattle Yacht Club was lost when nearly all of the organization's records up through the mid-1960s were discarded. Contemporary newspapers provide a litany of annual races and regattas, but little about the club's inner workings or deliberations.The club is a Seattle institution, and its contributions to the city are many and varied. When the yacht club was listed in the National Register for Historic Places in 2006, its entry was based on its role in the social history of Seattle. The nomination states, "Not only have many members made significant contributions to history outside of the Yacht Club, the Seattle Yacht Club, itself, has made a significant impact on Seattle's cultural events" (Nomination, 8-1).

The Seattle Yacht Club is and always has been a private club. Applicants for admission must be sponsored by a voting member. Yachting was beyond the reach of most in the early years, and the club's membership was dominated by the city's financial and social elite. Now, however, a much broader range of the public is represented.

The yacht club has worked to stay engaged with the city in multiple ways. In 1928, club members first opened their boats to special-needs people for annual cruises. The first, on June 9, 1928, saw more than 75 of what The Seattle Times termed "shut-ins" taken out for a three-hour cruise before the annual Rudder Cup powerboat race around Mercer Island ("Seattle Club Host"). Records are incomplete, but cruises for special-needs children and adults continued, if not annually, at least with some frequency. In 1960, three SYC members started the "Seafair Special People's Christmas Cruise" as a regular, annual event. Soon other clubs and organizations joined in, and by 1980 more than 800 special-needs children and adults boarded one of the estimated 300 vessels taking part for a few hours of fun on the water. Today (2012), it is known as the Seafair Special People's Holiday Cruise, and includes yacht clubs and other organization from Seattle, Bellevue, Bremerton, Tacoma, and Olympia.

On October 29, 1929, known ever since as "Black Tuesday," the stock market crashed, marking the start of the Great Depression. The Seattle Yacht Club and even its most well-heeled members were deeply affected, as were most Americans. There were resignations, empty berths, reduced services, and creditors left unpaid. A small cadre of members worked to keep things afloat and maintain the club property. Famed designer and sailor Ted Geary was club commodore in 1930, but late that year the hard times drove him to Southern California, where the movie industry was booming and some of the wealth it generated was being spent on yachts. There were hopes in Seattle that the Depression would be short, and on Opening Day in 1933 club members hung "Old Man Depression" in effigy from a yardarm. ("35 Craft to Enter Yacht Club Meet").

Unfortunately, it would take much more than magical thinking to dig the world out of the hole into which it had plunged. But the club's Opening Day regatta took place every year throughout the Depression, providing the public some much-needed diversion, and many of the annual races continued, although with fewer entrants. The Seattle club, like many nationwide, lowered the veil of exclusivity somewhat in the late 1930s and started actively soliciting new membership applications through promotional flyers and other means.

Things started to look up by 1940. That year the club purchased a fleet of "Penguins," small, cat-rigged (a single sail on a mast stepped far forward) sailboats ideal for teaching. These would at first be used to instruct the children of club members, but the Junior Sailing Program would eventually be open to the public. Now one of the club's most popular offerings, in 2012 it hosted 39 sailing classes for more than 500 youngsters, members and nonmembers, aged seven to 17. Group classes for adults and private sailing lessons are also open to the public. The club sponsors a Junior Race Team and High School Sailing Team, and the Opti Green Fleet Program, which teaches racing skills to those aged 8 to 13.

The country was pulled out of the Depression in part by the support it first provided to its allies and then its entry into World War II on December 7, 1941. Seattle Yacht Club membership rolls, still anemic from the long years of a sputtering economy, suffered another hit when many went off to serve in the military. Some club members who did not serve in the regular forces participated in other ways. A Seattle Yacht Club Red Cross unit was formed to gather and prepare clothing and bandages for the armed services. And in July 1942, the U.S. Coast Guard established Flotilla 24, made up largely of SYC volunteers and their vessels. This unit was assigned to patrol the Northwest coast and inland waters until sufficient numbers of military ships could be constructed. Before the war's end, 60 yachts from the Seattle Yacht Club and 300 members had been on active duty in Puget Sound.

The Opening Day parades went on throughout World War II, but were smaller affairs, and participation in the regular races associated with yachting season was slight. By 1944 the club's active membership had fallen to 139, but on Opening Day that year the Seattle Yacht Club and the Queen City Yacht Club, located across Portage Bay to the west, cooperated to treat 200 wounded sailors and their nurses to a day on the water.

War's End and a New Role for Women

As the war drew to a close in the summer of 1945, pleasure boating returned to its pre-Depression form. The 1946 Opening Day parade drew more than 300 vessels. The end of fuel rationing revived the moribund motorboat community, and races that had been canceled during the war years were resumed. Opening Day the following year saw nearly 400 boats participate. In 1947, with its memberships rolls up to nearly 800, the clubhouse on Portage Bay finally received some long-needed maintenance and improvements, including larger windows and a doubling of dock storage for its fleet of Star-class sailboats.

Social change also came to the Seattle Yacht Club in the postwar years when, in 1950, the first SYC Women's Group was formed. One of its founders, Margaret Marlatt, noted:

"This was the beginning of women's lib at the Seattle Yacht Club. Women joined Power Squadron and many of us learned to skipper the family boat" (Warren, 174).

The Women's Group eventually had its own burgee and Opening Day trophies, put on
Easter and Christmas parties for children, and was deeply involved in volunteer activities. It encouraged girls to learn sailing skills, started a rowing program for women, and sponsored members in racing competitions. Although it met some early resistance from the club's all-male hierarchy, it is now a highly valued and respected component of the organization.

Thunderboats and Roostertails

In 1950, the Seattle Yacht Club jumped into a whole new type of racing -- unlimited hydroplanes. A thunderboat called Slo-mo-shun IV, designed largely by Ted Jones (d. 2000), built by Anchor Jensen (1918-2000), and piloted by Stan Sayres (1896-1956), all from the Seattle area, set a new speed record of 160.3235 mph on Lake Washington on June 26, 1950.

The Seattle Yacht Club sponsored the Slo-mo in the Gold Cup race on the Detroit River a month later. It became the first boat from west of the Mississippi River to win the national trophy, and it held onto it tenaciously. For the next four years, the Gold Cup was run on Lake Washington, and it was won every year by either Slo-mo IV or its sister craft, Slo-mo V. Lee Schoenith and Gale V from Detroit finally wrested the championship back in 1955, and the club soon stepped back from the unlimiteds, due largely to expense. But the thunderboat races that it first brought to Seattle more than half a century ago are still an annual Seafair tradition.

The Seattle Yacht Club Today

Still in its historic headquarters on Portage Bay, the Seattle Yacht Club, now in its third century, continues to be a vital resource for Northwest boaters. Members have the privilege of using its 10 outstations: Elliott Bay, Eagle Harbor, Friday Harbor, Gig Harbor, Henry Island, and Port Madison, all in U.S. waters, and Cortes, Ganges, Garden Bay, and Ovens Island in British Columbia. The main station at Portage Bay offers its member 134 covered boat slips and 125 uncovered moorages. The largest vessel that currently calls the yacht club home when not at sea is 272 feet long.

The club continues its sponsorship of the annual Opening Day parade,  when more than 200 members volunteer each year to make it a success. Since 1987 the club has worked closely with the sponsor of the Windermere Cup crew races in the Montlake Cut, which take place on Opening Day and draw rowers from around the world, more than 700 in 2011 alone. The Special People Cruise continues each year, and the club's educational programs for members and the public have proved a valuable contribution to the region's boating community. In addition, Seattle Yacht Club sponsors and participates in a number of regattas, cruises, races, and other activities each year. Of special note is the annual Leukemia Cup Regatta, held by yacht clubs across North America each year. In 2012 alone, the Washington-Alaska chapter, with significant support by the Seattle Yacht Club, raised more than $250,000 for blood cancer research and patient services.

In 1992, the Seattle Yacht Club Foundation was established, with the mission "To foster, promote and educate the public in the art and skills of boating with an emphasis on supporting youth engaged in amateur competition" ("SYC Foundation"). In 2011 the foundation, which operates with less than 1 percent overhead, provided more than $26,000 in grants to individuals and organizations to promote boating education.

Now in its 120th year (2012), the Seattle Yacht Club has grown and matured with its home city, maintaining an aura of exclusivity while becoming more open to and involved with the broader community. With a current membership of more than 2,500, Seattle Yacht Club has come a very long way since its early days as the near-exclusive preserve of the city's wealthy movers and shakers. Seattle has more pleasure boats per capita than anyplace else in the county, and the Seattle Yacht Club has played a large part in making boating more accessible, more enjoyable, and more safe for the many thousands who take to Northwest waters each year.


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