Sailing For Singles

By Ann Dermody

Got a boat but no crew? Consider joining a club to set you up. No, no, not like that!

Photo of Singles on Sailboats sailing clubMembers of the Annapolis based "Singles on Sailboats" head out for a day sail. (Photo: John Parsons)

It is a particularly warm and sunny Sunday in November. The Sheraton hotel in Annapolis, Maryland, is abuzz with chatter, the clinking of glasses, high-pitched laughter, and loud guffaws. If you didn't know better, you might think you'd walked into a wedding reception or a high-school reunion. The reality is neither of the above. It's a Singles on Sailboats (SOS) club rendezvous, one of their regular Sunday brunches, social hours, and speaker dates, and I've been invited in by Commodore Sandy Huberfeld, a petite dark-haired social whirlwind. As Sandy wheels me around various guests, offering introductions and telling me what so-and-so does in the club, it's clear this is a very active and engaged group.

Singles on Sailboats does exactly what it says on the can, and it's got nothing to do with single-handing on a sailboat. It's a club for singles — the great unmarried, if you like — who fancy sailing … and occasionally fancy each other, if the setting is right. There are a few rules. The loudest and clearest is that you can't be married. That said, the organization is adamant it's not a dating club. There are some married couples in the club. There are rules about that, too. If you're marrying someone already in the club, you can both remain members.

Pam & Barney Nanni
(Sailing Singles Club, Michigan)

It wasn't exactly smooth sailing for Pam and Barney Nanni when they were introduced back in 2006. Barney's first wife had passed away a couple of years earlier, and he was encouraged to join Sailing Singles by a friend. At the club the same friend introduced him to Pam. They met again at another event soon afterward in downtown Mount Clemens, Michigan.

"We didn't date right away," recalls Pam. "I think he asked for my number and then he didn't call," she laughs. "We met again at another event, and he claimed he'd lost it and asked for it again. Then I had a Sailing Singles party at my home and he came to that." The pair never looked back and married in 2007. Sailing Singles has had something of a healthy track record for singles meeting future spouses.

"I think in one year we had five marriages," says Pam. She attributes that to the fact that those who like to get out on the water are adventurous sorts by nature. "Boating people are fun. And they don't like to stay on the couch."

When Pam and Barney met, she owned a 22-foot Larson that they've since sold. "I live right on the water and we talk every year about whether this will be the one when we get another boat." In the meantime they sail on friends' and other club members' boats.

The strength of SOS's popularity is played out in its 700-plus-strong membership, a sizable number when you consider the population of Annapolis is less than 40,000. But being a strong boating town and on the doorstep of several large cities, it draws from Maryland, Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Started 36 years ago, the age range, at least at today's gathering, is middle-aged and up.

It might all sound like any regular club, but there's one distinct difference. Members here have each other's backs. Several times over the course of the next three hours, I hear stories about people helping each other move, picking each other up from appointments, or fetching and carrying when someone's seriously ill. In other words, all the things those with spouses or family nearby take for granted. Many of the members moved here for work, often years ago, and lacked the family network of home. SOS has filled that niche for several. There are Thanksgiving and Christmas Day parties when one member or another opens their home for dinner to other members who aren't away visiting relatives for the holidays. There are overseas cruises and flotillas; in February, 37 club members chartered seven boats in the BVI, and this summer, 118 members will take several self-drive boats on the French canals.

Bill Small & Barbara Billek
(Singles on Sailboats, Maryland)

"I bought a Sabre 30 sloop in 1986, but didn't have a crew," recalls Bill Small. He heard about Singles on Sailboats from a friend who'd bought a boat from a member and contacted the organization. He received a club newsletter in the mail and saw Barbara Billek's name as the one to contact for his area. "I called her up to get more information and she explained the process. I said, ‘You mean I'll be contacted before sailing events to ask if I want to participate and, if I do, I'll be offered crew who'll show up with the food for weekend cruises?' That sounded pretty great to me!" Barbara also made it clear Singles on Sailboats is primarily a sailing club rather than a singles club. "I said that was fine with me; I wasn't looking for dates, I was looking for crew!"

As it turned out, he found both in Barbara. "We started carpooling to SOS events, and before the first cruise of the next season, she was first mate and permanently invited to sail aboard Silver Cloud," says Small. In 1987 the couple sailed 15 weekend cruises and a few day sails with the club, and then did a 10-day extended cruise alone on the Chesapeake Bay.

"I took early retirement in 1994 to spend even more time on the water. The following year Barb's company was bought out and we decided to get a boat that would take us south for the winter." The same year they headed south to Key West aboard Small Favors, the first of five winters aboard in Florida.

And then, of course, there's the sailing at home. Over 100 individual members own boats, with most used for club activities being in the 30- to 45-foot range. The sailing season is launched each spring with an "IRS" mid-April cruise (to celebrate the end of tax season) and extends through late fall with a "Blue Lips" cruise in early November. Weekend cruises or day sails are held almost every weekend in the season, and members participate as crew — sailing, preparing meals, and cleaning up the boat at the end of the trip. Typical weekend cruises see 15 or more boats in a Chesapeake Bay anchorage or marina. Day sails hone members' skills and are usually followed by dinner or drinks at a local restaurant.

Singles on Sailboats is only one of several singles sailing groups around the country. Pamela Rupinski is commodore of Sailing Singles on Lake St. Clair, Michigan. "We have about 125 members and 23 of those own boats," she says. "You don't need to own a boat to join, or even have experience. I joined because I wanted to learn how to sail. I think most people join for the sailing, and the social side is a secondary pull." Like the Annapolis club, they have a calendar full of sailing and social activities, and while they're also not a dating club, Cupid has been particularly active up in the frozen North. "Yes, we've have had quite a few marriages," says Rupinski. "If members get married within the club, they're allowed to stay." 

— Published: June/July 2014

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