EDGARTOWN YACHT CLUB
PAST AND PRESENT
The Edgartown Yacht Club has played a leading role in perpetuating the maritime tradition of Martha’s Vineyard and Edgartown.
At the turn of the twentieth century, many prominent summer and permanent residents belonged to the Home Club. The clubhouse, formerly the home of Captain Alexander Fisher, an old time whaler, still stands at 7 South Water Street (and is part of the Harborside Inn property). It was open year-round. Among the Home Club’s treasures was the masthead light of Admiral Cervera’s flagship, which was sunk off the southern coast of Cuba during the Spanish-American War. In the summertime the Home Club sponsored races for the large cabin catboats, which were without auxiliary power, and carried much larger spars and sails than are usual today.
At a meeting on January 5th, 1905, the racing members of the Home Club decided to establish a separate organization and the Edgartown Yacht Club was founded later that year. Our first Commodore was Edward H. Raymond.
The first clubhouse of the Edgartown Yacht Club was a rented harbor-front property complete with building, grounds and dock on the south side of Main Street. It was on the site of the present Harborside Inn property. The Club’s racing fleet gradually expanded; by 1914 it included a one-design class of fourteen-foot open catboats, a one-design class of gaff-rigged centerboard Herreshoff sloops, of fifteen feet on the waterline, and a mixed class of cabin knockabouts of about eighteen feet waterline length.
During the next few years racing continued and clam bakes and old-fashioned ice cream parties were held. Nevertheless, at this time some active members moved on, finances were strained, and there was divided opinion as to what direction the Club should take. Some felt that the Club should join forces with the Chappaquiddick Improvement Company, which had constructed tennis courts, built a clubhouse on Pease’s Point Way and announced plans for a golf course.
Other members wanted to remain as an independent nautical organization, and they prevailed, and, in 1917, a floating clubhouse was built and moored at Mr. Chadwick’s North Wharf, now the location of Edgartown Marine. This facility was maintained until severe storm damage forced its abandonment, in 1921.
Sailing and racing increased substantially from the early twenties. Alexander M. Orr was Chairman of the Race Committee from 1925 until 1969, and was Commodore from 1935 until 1937; he took the lead in encouraging the younger generation of sailors in the building of a racing fleet. Six jib and mainsail Cape Cod clinker-built dories, seventeen feet overall, were purchased in 1921 and by 1923, there were fifteen of these boats in the harbor. That year, the Club sponsored the formation of the Edgartown Junior Yacht Club, one of the first of its kind, to encourage young people to learn sailing, seamanship, racing rules and tactics and other phases of yachting. Since that time, our juniors have had their own clubhouse and elected their own officers and committees, while competing in races and participating in other marine outings. At present, the Club owns a fleet of Optimist sailing dinghies, Widgeons and 420’s in which is offered sailing instruction to a large number of children under the tutelage of experienced instructors.
In 1924 the members elected a committee, headed by Admiral Loring Swasey, a noted naval architect, and instructed it to establish a new racing and yachting headquarters to replace the floating one abandoned in 1921. After a search, the committee rented a small cottage with a porch overhanging the water and adjoining the Harborside Inn. That clubhouse stood at the present site of the Navigator Restaurant.
That year, also under Admiral Swasey’s direction, the first Edgartown Regatta was held. Over the years this event became an annual competition, attracting hundreds of captains and crews of cruising and one design classes from many yacht clubs, as well as our own sailors. Many schooners participated. Yawls were new to the scene and were gaff-rigged. Marconi sloops were still in the neophyte stage and considered extreme.
In the years 1924 to 1926 the dory class was enlarged. One of the most famous graduates from this class was Virginia Weston Besse, winner of the Prosser Cup seven times and the Adams Cup once. Rear Commodore William Nelson, Jr. also sailed a dory and represented the Club in many interclub races. An additional class of fifteen foot Barnegat Bay gaff-rigged sneakboxes was added and regular races were held for a handicap class of larger sloops including three Wianno Seniors and two Herreshoff Fifteens. The next year, 1927, saw the launching of the first one design class specifically built for the Club; ten Edgartown Fifteens, designed by Burgess, Swasey and Paine, measuring twenty-two-and-a-half feet on deck. Built by Nantucket Boatyard at the head of Nantucket Harbor, the Edgartown Fifteens were fitted with a half keel and half centerboard and jib-headed Marconi rig. These were probably the most advanced racers for these waters. Unfortunately, the 1938 hurricane destroyed most of the fleet.
In August 1926, Elmer Jared Bliss was elected Commodore of the Club. He was a successful corporation President, grandson of Edgartown Whaling Captain Jared Fisher and prominent in national yachting circles. Mr. Bliss’ belief in the future of Edgartown as an important yachting center motivated him to purchase the Osborne Wharf at the foot of Main Street, where in years past the town’s whaling ships had berthed. He commissioned architect Albert Chapman Femald, of Fuller Street, Edgartown, to draw plans for a clubhouse to be constructed on a new pier replacing the old wharf. The building contract was awarded to Frank L. Norton & Son and our magnificent clubhouse was completed in 1927.
For the next three years the Club leased the property from Mr. Bliss. Many members, however, felt he should not carry alone the capital outlay he had made. In the fall of 1929, a group of thirty-eight members formed a group, The Edgartown Associates, which purchased the property from Mr. Bliss who generously set a modest price below his cost. The next year the Edgartown Associates also purchased the holdings of the Chappaquiddick Association (formerly the Chappaquiddick Improvement Company), which included the excellent tennis courts and clubhouse on Pease’s Point Way.
The years following construction of the new clubhouse saw outstanding expansion of activities. New one design classes were introduced including twenty eight-foot overall Vineyard Sound Interclubs, designed by Commodore Francis T. Meyer and built first by Bigelow at Monument Beach, Buzzards Bay; twenty-five foot Katamas, seventeen-foot Rovers and thirteen-and-one-half foot jib and mainsail Beach Boats. During this time boats were listed by waterline length, not overall.
The Beach Boats, also designed by Commodore Meyer, were built by Manuel Swartz (aka Roberts). This was probably the most successful small boat the Club ever had. Glen Foster, a young Club member, sailed in this class. He took sailing classes at the Club instructed by Peter Clough and Jack Graham and later went on to win a bronze medal in the Olympics.
The Club also participated in significant events such as the National Finals for the Sears Cup sponsored by the North American Yacht Racing Union, regularly in Southern Massachusetts Yacht Racing Association events and team races with Vineyard Haven and Nantucket. Social events were also enjoyed as the bar and galley were well patronized especially on dance and buffet nights. The first visit of the New York Yacht Club cruise fleet was on July 1, 1858, and since then this memorable event occurs at the beginning of August in most years.
Although damage was sustained, the Club property survived the Hurricane of 1938. At the end of that decade there existed a racing fleet of fifty-three boats in seven classes, as well as a sizeable roster of cruising power and auxiliary yachts. Successful regattas continued to be held each year and an ocean race around the island was initiated.
In 1940, Commodore Elmer J. Bliss discovered an old sailing ship figurehead in Honolulu and had it shipped to Edgartown where it was mounted on the clubhouse gable overlooking the harbor. It became known as “the White Lady” to sailors from all over the world. Alas, in 1957 she had to be taken down to be preserved, but Commodore E. Jared Bliss, Jr., arranged to donate the White Lady to the Mystic Seaport Museum for inside display in exchange for an accurate weatherproof copy created by their staff sculptor. That reproduction graces the clubhouse to this day. The younger Commodore Bliss served the Club in many ways. Starting in the 1920’s he guided the Junior Yacht Club in its formative stage; he was Commodore in 1950 - 1952 and again in 1954, and a Trustee and Committee Member for many years.
Although many members of the Club served in the Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard and other posts during World War II, the Club continued limited activities. In addition to wartime challenges, the Club was hard hit by the Hurricane of 1944 which buffeted the clubhouse with gusts up to eighty-five knots. The Club’s china service was smashed, its piano ended up on the Coal Wharf and the Committee boat, Defiance, was badly damaged.
After the war the Club quickly re-established its pre-war verve, and under the guidance of energetic, talented officers, trustees and committee members, new programs were established and growth continued. New classes were promoted and accepted including the thirteen-and-one-half foot centerboard Wood Pussies, the nineteen foot molded plywood SMYRAS designed by Philip L. Rhodes, the C. Raymond Hunt designed International 110’s, and in 1967, the thirty foot International Shields, designed by Cornelius Shields, Jr..
The twenty-seven-foot Soling Class was raced from 1968 to 1972. Between Edgartown and Vineyard Haven the Vineyard Sound Soling Association had the largest fleet in the world of this Olympic Class boat. In 1973, the high performance thirteen-foot, ten inch Laser was introduced. In 1974, the 12 foot Widgeons appeared and in 1975, the Herreshoff 12’s started racing. At present, the one design racing classes include the Shields, Rhodes 19’s introduced in 1949, Herreshoff 12’s, Collegiate 420’s introduced in 1983, Widgeons and International Optimist Dinghies.
In 1964, Robert P. Brown Jr., who had been Commodore from 1947 until 1949, led a group of members who raised funds and enabled the Club to acquire all of the assets of the Edgartown Associates, making the Club its own landlord at last.
In recent years, the tennis program has been very popular for many members who play both informally and competitively. For their use are the seven excellent Har-tru courts, rebuilt in 1986 and four all weather courts, rebuilt in 1988. Awards are presented for the five senior and twelve junior events that are held annually. In addition, both senior and junior teams compete in annual matches with teams from the Nantucket Yacht Club. During the season, instructors are available for lessons and many members have benefited from their competent instruction.
The Entertainment Committees have planned and conducted many successful social events for both seniors and juniors in recent years, and today’s activities don’t end at Fall Decommissioning, for the Winter Activities Committee sponsors a Christmas Ball & Buffet, a New Year’s Day Brunch, as well as regular musters and other functions throughout the colder months.
In 1990, the Club’s Flag Officers led by Commodore S. Bailey Norton, Jr., presented to the Board of Trustees a plan and opportunity to purchase an adjoining property of land, building and docks located at 15 - 21 Dock Street. The main intention of the purchase was the plan to move the Junior Yacht Club and Junior Sailing headquarters from its Dock Street parking lot location into larger quarters with direct water access and docks. Following a period of planning and extensive renovations, the new Junior Yacht Club facility was commissioned with great fanfare on July 6th, 1996. For generations to come, the Club’s junior sailors will benefit from the wisdom and foresight of Commodore Norton.
Thus, the Club carries on as the members observe the traditions of the past and through continuous effort and participation, nourish and enhance the rich heritage for present and future generations.