A Burgee And An Idea

By Michael Vatalaro

"Virtual" yacht clubs run the gamut from online forums to successful cruising clubs.

Remember when you were a kid and you'd spend the summer scouting secluded locations in your neighborhood to build a secret clubhouse? There, you and the rest of the kids on the block could while away the days making up passwords, arguing about secret handshakes, and excluding your little sisters and brothers. If you were really into it, or had relaxed parents, you might even have secured a piece of plywood up a tree somewhere as a base of operations.

Being social creatures, our instinct to belong to and identify with a group is strong, and often times in society such groups form around a physical place, like a church, community center, or in colonial times, likely a tavern. But in this connected era, many of us would argue that the physical place is optional. Bill Falk is one who probably agrees with that. He's got a more informed perspective perhaps than most, given that he's both a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and commodore of the Back Creek Yacht Club (BCYC), a "virtual" yacht club with members up and down the Chesapeake Bay.

"'Virtual' for us means it's not brick and mortar," says Falk. "We don't have a building fund, maintenance, or personnel. We're virtual in the sense that we've got no costs or administrative headaches associated with a building. Instead, the focus becomes 100 percent about having a good time." Absent a clubhouse or facility with slips, the benefits of a virtual yacht club come from the interaction with other like-minded individuals. "It's all about the people," says Falk, who's also a member of a traditional yacht club with facilities on the West River in Maryland. "Virtual clubs are totally driven by the social side. They create a virtual community linked by a common ethos, created and sustained by social relationships."

Photo of sharing a meal aboard Dream Catcher during an SJSC weekend cruiseSharing a meal aboard Dream Catcher during an SJSC weekend cruise (Left to right: Dave McBride, Sara Dyslin, Niki Konstantinides, Marsha Dyslin).

BCYC members can expect a full social calendar, including an annual black-tie commodore's ball, an average of at least two events a month, including midweek "On The Hook" meet-ups, and a bevy of club cruises around the bay. The group of around 120 or so boaters is a half-and-half mix of power and sail, and very active around the region. During the group's weeklong annual cruises, it's not uncommon for 24 or 25 boats to participate. BCYC keeps dues to a minimum, and the dollars collected go toward activities, which help keep members engaged.

Given the scarcity of developable waterfront, and the costs associated with purchasing existing properties on the water, Falk sees any future growth in yacht clubs as coming from the virtual side. "The costs of acquiring a club space on the water with a building or dock are very hard for a group to afford. Unless a building is folded into a new development deliberately, it's hard to see how a new yacht club with a building and such would come into existence." www.BackCreekYC.org

A Meet-Up For Sailors

Trending more toward the truly virtual end of the spectrum is the Virtual Yacht Club, a roughly New Hampshire-centric collection of sailors (and their online profiles) who interact using a web-based program called Meetup. Founded in 2009, the group is now shepherded by Bob Janson, Rachael Schilling-Payne, and her husband Andrew.

Photo of Rachael Schilling-Payne, co-organizer of the Virtual Yacht ClubRachael Schilling-Payne, co-organizer of the Virtual Yacht Club, about to board.

During the offseason, members of the group can propose a meetup, generally a potluck or happy hour, in order to socialize with other members and get to know one another before boating together. Then, during the season, boat owners in the group will post sailing plans to the website on a Monday, announcing needs or availability for crew spots onboard for that weekend. Membership dues are just $10 annually to help offset the cost of the website. Around 100 people are registered to the group, but as with many associations, a core group of 20-25 actively participates.

"You're putting boat owners together with prospective crew, people who want to learn the art of sailing," says Janson. "For me, I don't have family around, and to get out on the boat takes one more person, so this is a way of meeting other sailors in the area." For Janson, who splits his season on the boat between Kittery, Maine, and Scituate, Massachusetts, the varied locations let him sail with other members from up and down the coast.

"We have members from Maine to Massachusetts," says Schilling-Payne. "With the geography of boat owners being in different harbors, the Meetup group is the best way to communicate. It's better than having a fixed location in some respects." www.Meetup.com/VirtualYachtClub

Photo of a Back Creek Yacht Club raft-up on the Magothy RiverA Back Creek Yacht Club (BCYC) raft-up on the Magothy River shows a nice mix of power and sail.

The Granddaddy Of Them All

The San Jose Sailing Club (SJSC) perfected the art of being a yacht club without a clubhouse years before anyone ever applied the word "virtual" to the concept. They celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009. Made up of roughly 60 boating families that keep sailboats in San Francisco Bay, largely in the Alameda basin, the club organizes monthly weekend-long cruises except in December. This active cruising schedule makes them popular with cruising sailors, even those who are members of more traditional yacht clubs.

"We have our monthly meetings in people" houses, sometimes at the West Marine in San Jose, and one a year at the South Bay Yacht Club," says Paul Anderson, current club treasurer and longtime member. "We started out as a dinghy-racing club. Now we're cruising-focused. There aren't many clubs on the bay that do as many club cruises as we do."

Photo of BCYC Commodore Bill Falk, his wife Geraldine on the right, and Madi YatesBCYC Commodore Bill Falk, his wife Geraldine on the right, and Madi Yates celebrate the arrival of their new boat.

Most of the cruises are weekend cruises to other yacht clubs or marinas around the bay. The South Bay Yacht Club also provides space for the SJSC to host parties during the year. SJSC also puts on one regatta, but that's about the extent of the racing. Most club members own cruising sailboats in the 25- to 35-foot range.

Anderson, who's also a member at the Golden Gate Yacht Club, now home to the America's Cup, says the lack of a clubhouse helps keep things informal at SJSC. "We have an annual meeting with a changing of the watch, but we don't black-tie it. Blue blazers are about as far as anyone will go." But the relaxed formality hasn't hurt their standing in the yacht club community. SJSC won the Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Association Club of the Year award two years running in 1996-1997, and their newsletter Back Wind won the PICYA Wilder award for best newsletter in 2011. www.SanJoseSailingClub.com 

— Published: June/July 2012

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