Birth of a Yacht Club

PHILBROOK PAINE: is a native of Durham, New Hampshire, and the author of REPORT FROM THE VILLAGE which W. W. Norton published in May. This is his first appearance in the ATLANTIC.

Sailing was great fun that first summer. A boatbuilder in a city nearby had glued together a couple of fourteen-foot cats. He sold one to me and kept the other. On breezy afternoons I would call his shop and taunt him, “Hey, Ned, you landlubberly sloth. Get your floating coffin down to the flock, and I’ll beat you around the black can and over to the nun.”

Unless he was involved in some major crisis, such as a customer, he would accept the challenge, and we would put in three or four hours of informal racing on the bay. These were filled with lively conversation and splendid sailing, which resulted in quite a bit of splintered plywood and some slight damage to the government buoy system. We didn’t know it at the time, but our two boats represented the perfect yacht club.

The following winter, Ned was foolhardy enough to build two more boats identical to those he and I sailed. That was the fatal step. We now had a class. And if you have a class, you have to have a name for it. So we hit on Merry-Mac because Ned’s last name was McIntosh and until then he had been merry.

These two boats were promptly sold, and he plunged on to the final folly. He built two more and disposed of them. Thus we had a yacht club. All that winter the six families held meetings.

We elected a commodore, a vicecommodore, a treasurer, and a secretary. We named a racing committee, a social committee, a protest committee, and a trophy committee.

Ned and I didn’t race as much the next summer as we had previously because we were too busy starting races, timing races, and buying trophies for the end-of-the-season Labor Day clambake. We had also begun paying dues to buy the trophies.

Although the six families raced only on Sundays during July and August, we all agreed to meet once a month at somebody’s home during the winter. On each occasion we held a business meeting. And there was an incredible amount of business to be conducted.

For one thing, if you have a yacht club, pretty soon somebody wants to put it into capital letters — Yacht Club. But you can’t just say Yacht Club. It has to be a specific Yacht Club. After nine meetings we compromised on Great Bay Yacht Club. The commodore put the initials GBYC on his automobile number plates, and we were off.

Now, a yacht club cannot operate without a burgee. Nobody was quite sure how we could fly a burgee from a fourteen-foot catboat, but everybody was willing to give it a try. To obtain this symbol of nautical stature we elected a burgee committee. It was a hardworking bunch. Eventually we compromised on a cormorant (or a goose, or an owl) flying through the letters GBYC. But he didn’t fly very long; no professional burgee manufacturer would touch him. So after five more meetings we settled for a couple of bolts of lightning that remotely resembled M-M, which of course stood for Merry-Mac. By this time, Ned and I privately thought that they could just as well have represented Muddled-Mess.

But there was no turning back. We had to have bylaws. The club had grown to twelve families, and it was imperative that we try to quiet down the meetings. So we gave a lawyer a life membership, and he copied the bylaws of some other yacht club. These were submitted to the bylaws committee and then to the whole membership, and eight meetings later they were adopted.

The principal issues at stake were how to keep people out and how to get people in. It was the old problem of the Right People. So we named a membership committee. To head it, we elected a professor of political science. He gave the problem his earnest attention for approximately twenty hours of lively debate before coming up with a complicated blackball technique that worked by mail. It has never been used.

During the fourth summer, Ned and I managed to sneak down to the bay a few times by ourselves, but most of our official yacht club activities were centered around the rapidly expanding role of the protest committee. We had warned the others not to fool around with racing rules, but our advice went unheeded.

During this period, we were still holding our races at a public float, and our dues were being spent on ever larger and more magnificent trophies. But then a horrendous thing happened. We elected a property committee. Its function was to seek out a suitable piece of land on which the club could build its own dock — and eventually a clubhouse. At that time dues were bringing in one hundred and twenty dollars a year, so it became apparent that if the property committee was going to make much headway, we would have to take in more members. To accomplish this we employed a time-tested strategy. We passed the word that the Great Bay Yacht Club was exclusive. People rose to the bait like hungry fish. During the next winter we extracted an initiation fee of twenty-five dollars, plus annual dues of ten, from twelve new families. Some of them had never before sailed a boat.

The additional members presented a problem. We had expanded to the point where we could no longer meet in anybody’s home. This gave the social committee something to do, and we started meeting in a hired hall. The meetings were a flop; the informality was gone. Besides, half of the members were strangers to the rest of us. This called for a name tag committee.

In the meantime, the property committee had found a piece of land, consulted earnestly with the lifetime member lawyer, and signed a deed. The site of the future clubhouse left something to be desired for boating activities because it was located two hundred feet from deep water. The answer was a dock committee. This in turn spawned a float committee, a marker committee (it picked up the racing markers), and oddly enough a lawn committee.

But most of the members were now happy. The club had been registered in Lloyd’s. It had an official burgee, a nice little mortgage, a rescue launch, approximately fifty families, four pages of specifications for boats participating in Marblehead Race Week, and a committee for that event.

If Ned and I had not already been appalled by our creation, we soon would have been. Some committee decided that the club required an official historian. It selected me Perhaps it knew what it was doing. I was certainly well fitted for the join I could record precisely when and how each mistake had been made. The major one, of course, was the building of those two additional boats back in 1953.