Think “Yacht Club” and the projector at the back of your mind might reel through some images of white and beige linen, TV footage of The Captain and Tennille, and a sleek ship skimming through green waves, its happy crew of adults cupping tanned hands around salt-rimmed drinks. In other words, it all sounds very fun, safe and relaxing, but this impression betrays the origins of the clubs’ eponymous vessels. The word “Yacht” derives from the Dutch word, jagen, which means hunting (jagen shares the same Germanic roots that would later sprout that enlivening spirit, Jägermeister). For those fearing that the next sentence had something to do with seal clubbing or penguin poaching, fear not: the word refers to boat-hunting, the primary vocation of pirates, and of the aggrieved Dutchmen who went out to recapture boats from said pirates.
Anyone who pays attention to the grim piracy situation in the gulf of Aden could easily see that “yacht” doesn’t really describe the vessels used by contemporary marauders, and the only eye patches on today’s yacht enthusiasts were put there by a swinging boom or botched LASIK surgery. And it’s been pretty much this way for almost two centuries— barring the surgery. In a fun bit of cultural recycling, the vessels whose speedy, sturdy design once enabled rogues to apprehend loot and hostages became the useful toys of well-off folk who considered the yacht’s speed and grace as ends in themselves, and used the vessels to expand the field of recreational activities far beyond the reaches of summer’s shoreline.
Russia claims the first Yacht Club (called The Neva Yacht Club), with the date placed around 1718. But their claim is a little iffy: the club was a governmental initiative of Czar, shipbuilding enthusiast, and all-round mountain of mortifying manliness Peter the Great, and a proper yacht club should be the product of the free assembly (and ample capital) of boat-minded citizens. The first one of those is the Royal Cork Yacht Club, founded in Ireland in 1720. As to those patriots out there dying to add Yacht Clubs to the list of true-blue American First —sorry, Canada put one on the continent before we did (Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, 1837).
Benicia’s Yacht Club has existed since 1972. A handsome two-story white building that looks over the Marina with a balcony that is the envy of every sunset enthusiast who passes beneath it.
Steve Gilliland, member since the mid-80’s and current Vice Commodore, describes the club as “low-key, friendly, and open.” Gilliland mans a 44 ft. sailboat called “Current Affair” (note to punsters everywhere, if you want a pun to last you could do much worse than writing on a large boat).
Gilliland is also BYC’s event chairman, and is centrally involved in the Opening Day ceremonies taking place on Saturday, April 16. Artists and craftspeople pitch their tents around the grounds, kids take part in a rubber duck race, and non-members get a chance to hang out in the club. The centerpiece of this celebration is “the blessing of the fleet”, a tradition with deep roots in Mediterranean fishing communities. In BYC’s version, members decorate their boats according to a designated theme (this year’s is “Island Time”), line up in a prescribed order, and parade their boats through the harbor to receive blessing from a member of a local clergy. After the parade has past, judges deliberate over which boat had the best decorations.
Anyone who’s spent much time around sailors knows that the jargon of their pastime can sound a little obtuse, and slightly Dutch, so Opening Day gives folks a chance to, as it were, test the waters (although the absolute best way to this, Gilliland counsels, is take a guest ride on one of the boats racing in the Thursday night “Beercan series” beginning this Spring). Sailing expertise, while honored, is not mandated: not every member knows how to tie a fine mariner’s knot or clean a hull, nor do they need to. It’s a social club too, with a buffet on Wednesday, live music on Fridays, and a rotating assortment of fun events—spaghetti dinners, crab feeds, and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations with green beers.
A sizable percentage of Yacht Club members don’t own boats. But with a club like theirs, who could blame them?
Inviting, bright wood stools gird a well-stocked bar in the center of a large room further distinguished by trophies, hanging televisions, and space enough to seat hundreds, or provide room for an impromptu bit of couples dancing. A colorful row of burgees hang out of the blue-painted beam running across the ceiling. To solidify the informal vibe, BYC calls the room the “Emperor Norton Lounge,” after one of the great benevolent eccentrics in American Culture (Norton proclaimed himself emperor of America and traveled the streets of San Francisco in Imperial regalia, issuing decrees on various subjects and producing his own unconvincing but nevertheless honored currency). In an effort to make BYC more kid-friendly, they’ve recently added a rec. room fitted with a flat screen TV and a Wii gaming system.
Opportunities for BYC fun extend far beyond our little slice of the straits. The Yacht Club sponsors and enacts “Cruise Outs,” overnight/weekend missions where the fleet travels to other Northern California Yacht Clubs (BYC in turn is a popular destination for other clubs). And then there is September’s famous Jazz Cup, an intense daylong race from Treasure Island to BYC.
And more excitement lies ahead. In the future, the club plans on growing their junior sailing program (open to all interested youths), and possibly acquiring some larger boats to foster a beginning adult course as well, and give non-owners a chance to enjoy the more pronouncedly maritime privileges of club membership. So whether there’s a salty sea captain within you you’ve been dying to free, or you’d just like a nurse a beer on a Friday afternoon without dealing with any of the inconveniences endemic to dive bars, there’s a club in town for you, and for one special day, you can get in for free.