Changing of the Tide: Yacht Clubs are Opening its Doors
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA — The phrase “yacht club” can conjure a number of thoughts. Some of those thoughts might be positive, others negative.
What is the reality of yacht clubs? Are these organizations truly for the elite, or are yacht clubs much more dynamic and have something to offer all boaters?
The Log spoke with several yacht clubs from Chula Vista to Ventura to get a better perspective of how yacht clubs have evolved over the years, what the organizations offer boaters and how some yacht clubs are making an effort to be as inclusive as possible.
Breaking down Stereotypes
The fictional Thurston Howell III of “Gilligan’s Island,” who was a member of the exclusive Sunnybrook Yacht Club, is sometimes “blamed” — albeit colloquially — for creating an impression of yacht clubs as a practice of the elite and wealthy.
Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club member J.R. Means said some yacht clubs might fit the stereotype but others are making a genuine effort to be as inclusive as possible.
“What we’re trying to do is take the desire of being on the water, leverage the people who have the boat, and extend it to people who don’t [have a boat]. Anyone who has a desire to be on or around the water, we give them an opportunity to get there,” said Means of Bahia Corinthian YC, a club trying to make the boating experience more affordable and accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.
Dana West YC Commodore Tim Randall said yacht clubs have different personalities; it is up to the boater (or non-boater) to find one compatible with their interests and lifestyle.
“I wouldn’t classify all yacht clubs as [stuffy]. They’re all a little different. They all have their good and bad and what people like about them,” Randall said. “If somebody comes up here we have no problem letting them in. C’mon in, check us out, come and have dinner, see if it’s something you like. We’re very open. We see ourselves as a younger generation club. We really try to have fun.”
Marjorie Irvin, who joined Los Angeles YC about seven years ago and sits on the club’s Board of Directors, said yacht clubs are more inclusive nowadays than in years past. The club is about to welcome its first female commodore next year.
“There was a time in yacht clubs when women couldn’t even have a membership,” Irvin said. “I never thought I’d join a yacht club. We are making leaps and bounds. The common bond is boating.”
Making Boating Accessible
Many yacht clubs are open to taking on non-boaters into their respective memberships. Bahia Corinthian YC in Newport Beach, for example, has advertised itself as a place to learn about boating and be part of the nautical lifestyle. Owning a boat is not a perquisite to join the club.
Members of Bahia Corinthian YC only need to have an interest in boating or fishing, Means said.
“If you don’t have a sailboat, you can join a racing crew,” Means said. “You just have to have the desire [to be on the water].”
Means added Bahia Corinthian YC members who have an interest in fishing but might not have the access to drop a line in the ocean can go sportfishing with anyone else in the club who has a boat and head out to sea to do some angling.
Non-boating members at Silver Gate YC in San Diego are encouraged to fill crew spots in racing events. The open invite to crew a vessel in a regatta or other sailing event allows non-boating members to be on the water with an experienced boater and promotes a collegial environment.
Silver Gate YC also makes boats, Lasers, sabots and standup paddleboards available to its members as part of its Fun and Fitness Fleet, giving non-boat owners more opportunities to experience the sea.
“You are around people who like boating. There are facilities to use and organized boating activities. It’s a whole family involvement,” said Silver Gate YC Vice Commodore Richard Benscoter.
Oceanside YC Commodore Michael Cobas said all of its members have access to club-owned boats. Yacht club and non-club members can participate in several events open to the public, including monthly sailboat racing regattas, the Junior Learn to Sail Program in the summer, Adult Learn to Sail Program, Fourth of July Dinghy Parade and Christmas Parade of Lights.
Dana West YC in Orange County is home to 400 paid members, though not every member has to own or lease a vessel to join the club. The club allows up to 100 non-boating members. Non-boater owner members of Dana West YC are invited to join their boating equivalents on sailing trips. Randall added non-boating members have hands-on opportunities to learn how to purchase a vessel or set sail on the Pacific Ocean.
“Today they might not be [a non-boat owner] but tomorrow they might be,” Randall said. “We tell them, ‘don’t sweat it, you can come with us and help show you [how to boat].’”
Redondo Beach’s King Harbor YC advertises it is actively looking for new members. The only requirement to join, according to the club’s membership department is “an interest in boating and having fun;” actually owning a boat is not required. King Harbor YC offers its members several fleets to become involved with angling and boating. Its Family Fleet sponsors annual activities for children and their families. The club also offers cruising trips to Catalina for new boaters (or non-boat owners) and a Handicap Racing fleet.
“King Harbor membership is open to all that have a boat and an interest in yachting activities,” said King Harbor YC Commodore Debbie Helling. “We have a diverse group of members ranging in age from 6 to 94. All income levels are represented.”
Yacht clubs are ultimately great places for to people to bond about boating and the ocean, explained Vice Commodore Carol Armitage of Los Angeles YC, which was founded in 1901.
“Our reason for being is to promote yachting, to promote seamanship and to promote boating,” said Armitage, who will be Los Angeles YC’s first female commodore. “It’s an opportunity to share experiences with like-minded people, if that’s where your interests are.”
Means joined Bahia Corinthian YC in 2003, when he was in his 30s. He believes the club evolved dramatically in the 12 years since he joined. The boating organization is making a concerted effort to bring more young people into the fold.
“We’re setting up a juniors program. It really encourages folks who do not have a large income to join the club,” Means said.
Janet Lawson, the rear commander at Ventura YC, said her club is also making an effort to welcome youth.
“Our club is also expanding our juniors program, which is very exciting. In a few weeks we will have about 100 kids here for a regatta,” Lawson said. “We also have a very active adult racing program, all comers welcome (including me, and when it comes to sailing I am really quite the dolt).”
King Harbor YC created the King Harbor Youth Foundation (KHYF), a nonprofit organization promoting youth sailing and introduces younger generations to the water.
“New Channels is a program that operates under the KHYF. It was developed as an avenue to get individuals on the water that would not otherwise have the opportunity. This outreach has provided opportunities for many people who have not seen or enjoyed ocean activities,” Helling said.
Efforts to ramp up youth membership are also underway at Chula Vista YC, according to the club’s treasurer Jim Ply.
A wide cross section of people have both joined and managed Ventura YC, according to one of the club’s directors.
“Our demographic probably echoes the community at large. We have had three women commodores [and] a black commodore. Our current rear commodore is a lesbian with a wife,” said Stan Whisenhunt, a club director. “We have business executives, school teachers, painters. Ventura YC members (probably like most yacht clubs) serve the community. We have former city council members, a current Port District commissioner, members who serve on boards such as United Way, Boys & Girls Club, and the like.
“As for wide range of people and incomes represented let me quote from the nominating committee chair: ‘I feel the group of nominees represent an important cross section of the club: women, moms, liveaboards, managers and blue collar,’” Whisenhunt continued.
Lawson, the rear commodore Whisenhunt referenced, said she was skeptical of yacht clubs at first.
“I avowed I would never join a club; looked too stuffy for me,” Lawson said. “However since joining I believe it is the best thing I ever did. I joined with Debbie Lawson who was my ‘domestic partner’ at the time. We were congratulated roundly when our Canadian marriage license became valid in the United States.”
She added the club keeps her active, particularly with blind-folded dinghy races, bowling with coconuts and cooking contests themed after the television show “Chopped.”
“We enjoy the social activities at the club. Rare is the event where one needs to dress up. Our favorite activity ashore is Sunday Munchies,” she said. “When we cruise to the local islands it is so nice to be with friends.”
Yacht clubs offer boaters something they might not have on their own: camaraderie and a helping hand.
“Second anchors are required at Santa Cruz and there is always a helping hand. If there is some kind of problem someone always steps up to help,” Lawson said. “The opportunity to use our boat out of the slip has increased dramatically since we joined.”
Randall added boaters who are not yacht club members could greatly benefit from joining a group best suited to their lifestyle.
“It’s camaraderie, we won’t leave you behind. If you have any problems or worries we’re all together,” Randall said.
Means was as skeptical of yacht clubs as Lawson when he first interacted with Bahia Corinthian YC in 2003. He and his wife walked into the club’s Halloween Ball, immediately turned around and left the event. Yacht clubs were different before he joined Bahia Corinthian YC in 2003, Means explained. There was an expectation of being around boats. Fast forward to 2015 and Means is an active member. The club evolved since he first interacted with the club 12 years ago, according to Means. He said yacht clubs have begun embracing wider interests and experience. The boating organizations started to realize the average age of their respective memberships is getting older, meaning an effort needed to be made to get younger in order to keep clubs alive.
“We’re trying to bring into the club and show you it’s not blue blazer and white pants,” Means said.
Yacht clubs also provide members an opportunity to give back to their community usually through the form of charity, education or scholarship.
Note: This edition’s story is part 1 of a 2-part series. Many yacht clubs make charitable contributions or host events for nonprofit organizations. The charitable efforts and community efforts will be the subject of part 2.