Northport Yacht Club celebrates its 75th year

By Jordan Bailey | Jul 31, 2014
Photo by: Jordan Bailey Jake Kelley raises the spinnaker on a 17-foot Daysailer with new sails commemorating the club's 75th anniversary during the Northport Yacht Club's junior sailing race July 24.

Northport — Under glorious skies after the morning's rain, eight crews in Daysailers tacked and trimmed their sails, rounded an orange buoy, then let their sails out wide to capture what they could of a faint summer breeze during a junior sailing race Thursday, July 24. The sailing program is the "pride and joy" of The Northport Yacht Club, now in its 75th year.

Approximately 100 people, both club members and Bayside residents, attended a 75th anniversary event July 19 at the home of James "Uncle Jim" and Joanne Coughlin, where former officers were recognized and former Commodore Bob Witherill gave a talk on the history of the club.

He said the club was founded around the sailing races that were organized by Eben Bassett in the 1930s. Fred Scribner, the agent for Bayside village, set up an organizational meeting in the fall of 1938, and the club was officially founded in 1939. That was the year WItherill joined, at age 14, and he is still a member today. He remembers the dues were $1 for social members and $2 for boat owners at the time, which is a little more than half the price of dues today, adjusted for inflation. Now a membership is $30, or $40 for boat owners.

Witherill, who spent most of his summers in Bayside since he was two years old and now lives in Belfast with his wife Jean, said the most of the first club members were from Bangor. Steamboats would come down from Bangor bringing the entertainment and spectators for band concerts. Women and children would stay in the cottages there for much of the summer while the men would commute to Bangor to work. Now the membership has shifted to include mostly summer residents and renters, many of whom return to the area each year.

In the early days of the club, sailing races were held every Sunday and people would come from neighboring towns to watch. The races were organized with the spectators in mind: the whole six-mile triangular course could be seen from the shore, and handicap adjustments (based on the size of the boats) were applied in the beginning of the race so that whichever boat crossed the finish line first was the winner. Results were published in The Republican Journal, and the races became well-known in the area.

"A lot of people would come down to watch the races during the Depression because it was a good, free, Sunday afternoon activity," Witherill said. "I used to go down to the wharf and hang around and hope someone would give me a ride on a boat or take me on as crew for one of the races."

Witherill recounted an event one Sunday in 1941 when George Bryant, one of the founders of the club, offered his 12-foot sailboat he had built to Witherill to sail in the race while Bryant would sail his other 15-foot boat. Witherill won the race, which happened to be the club's first trophy race. The race organizers presented the trophy to Bryant, as the owner of the boat, but Bryant gave it to Witherill for sailing it. This was the first of 18 trophies Witherill would win over the years. The adult Sunday sailing races still go on at the club to this day.

In the late 1960s, Walter Downs organized a sailing instruction program at the club, using small single-sailed boats called Turnabouts. He convinced a couple of families in the area to buy two boats and the club to buy a third. He ran the program on a volunteer basis for six to eight years, which kept the costs down and allowed more money to be spent on boats. Eventually he built the fleet up to six boats. Downs gave up the program because of poor health in the mid-'70s.

The club's current commodore, Gordon Fuller, was following the July 24 race in his motorboat. "Because they're all exactly the same size, the only advantage is the weight of the crew, and skill," Fuller said. During the first downwind run, most of the boats were at a near standstill waiting for the wind to pick up. Then one of the crews, led by Jake Kelley, raised its spinnaker, a large sail set in the front of the boat, and sailed into the lead, briefly, until they rounded the next marker and were passed by a boat sailed by Erik Ekberg.

After Downs program ended some of his former students, including current Commodore Fuller, restarted the program in the late 1980s.  Fuller wanted the students to learn to sail with more than one sail so he worked on building up a fleet of Daysailers, which have a jib in addition to the mainsail.

That program has lived on to this day, and the junior sailing program now has a fleet of eight 17-foot Daysailers, two 23-foot Sonar keelboats and two Vanguard 420's. The yacht club board hires one head instructor, two assistant instructors, and a couple of senior liaisons. The club also pays one instructor per boat, the number of which depends on how many students are participating each day.

The program is funded by tuition and club fundraisers to pay for staff, insurance, workman's compensation and to purchase one new set of sails each year. Mooring gear is more expensive because of the depth of the harbor. The boat maintenance costs are kept low in part because much of the work is done by volunteers during work parties every Saturday morning in June. When the club raises more money than it needs to run the program it donates its surplus to area causes such as the Northport Food Pantry.

Right now the club is looking for more students in the 10-14 age range, because their regulars have mostly reached the age where they want to be instructors.

"We're in a bit of an instructor glut," said Fuller.

Parents can bring a child to the club on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9 a.m. to register for that day's lesson, which ends at noon. The day begins with instruction in the club house followed by a couple of games or activities and the rest of the morning is spent on the water.

"It's a fairly cheap babysitting service," Fuller joked. The lessons cost $35 each, or $90 for the three-day week. The club does offer scholarships if a family needs it.

Toward the end of the July 24 race, the pack had spread out along the course, but Ekberg was still in the lead. He and his crew won the race that day.

"In a way the club has come full circle with sailboat racing again being the dominant club activity," Witherill wrote in a booklet about the history of the Northport Yacht Club.

Junior sailing races, which are open to the public as space on the eight boats allows, are held Thursdays at 5 p.m., followed each week by a barbecue and potluck dinner. Adult sailing races are held Sundays at 1 p.m. An annual Around Islesboro Race is held each September.

The club also acts as the major social entity for Bayside, organizing the Fourth of July Games which include a water slide, bonfire in the evening and a band concert co-sponsored with the Bayside Historical Preservation Society; holding fundraising events such as the "Mother of All Yard Sales" and pancake breakfast; and throwing the occasional cocktail party.


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