HISTORY…50 years in the making!
The first road was a donkey trail leading off Bluebeard’s Road, dipping to and around a two-acre salt pond, which housed an active colony of no-see’ums, and ending in a thicket of scrub at the Caribbean’s edge. The year was 1964 and an acre of this wilderness was to become the site of the St. Thomas Yacht Club.
In the early sixties the land now known as Vessup Bay, Cowpet Bay, and Deck Point began to open up. The south end of Cowpet, rimmed with numerous bays and coves, had some breathtaking possibilities for a yacht club. It provided a protected harbor with good holding bottom; there appeared to be white sand under the scrub, and the salt pond could be filled for additional land.
On the evening of October 26, 1964, a group of weekend sailors met at the office of the Vessup Bay Estates – then as now in the cottage-like building at the corner of Bluebeard’s Road and Vessup Road. They enthusiastically agreed to organize a yacht club at the Cowpet Bay site. For two months a bulldozer worked along a stretch that is now the beach, eliminating brush and uncovering the sand below (sometimes scooping as deep as ten to fifteen feet). A dredge was hired to deepen the water of the bay, fill in the salt pond, and pump extra sand onto the beach.
In November the Yacht Club of St. Thomas (changed in 1969 to St. Thomas Yacht Club) was incorporated as the Deck Point Corporation with fifteen charter members and fifteen regular members, not quite a dozen boats, and a lot of sailing interest. It was firmly stated that this was to be a sailing – not social club. Naturally the first thing that happened was a party.
The opening party on a sunny December Sunday was an al fresco lamb barbeque on the beach. Cable spools were used for tables, an improvised icebox served as the bar. Guests were invited, and membership applications were stacked on the bar. Initiation fee was $250; dues $150 per year. Non-resident members paid $125 initiation, $70 dues. A set of by-laws and house regulations had been drawn up. There were to be nine members on the Board of Governors. Flag officers were to be elected from the Board by members.
There was a new road, a swimming beach, and moorings. A shack had been hammered together by the members between Christmas day and New Year’s Eve 1965 in a rush for a beachside New Year’s party. Exactly a year later, the present Clubhouse was finished in another flurry of activity, in time to herald the arrival of 1966. And the first section of the concrete dock was in operation.
Kendrick Bragg, AIA, was commissioned to draw up plans for the Clubhouse. To save construction costs, he designed the steel frame of the building like a giant erector set. It was cut in Puerto Rico and shipped in pieces to St. Thomas, to be put together and bolted here. Members gave labor and time; contractors, working at cost, moonlighted evenings when machinery and welding equipment could be borrowed.
Early Years of Sailing and Boating
The fleet was small… a half dozen sailboats, a powerboat or two, and a few Sunfish. On those early weekends, families arrived carrying pails, part of a pitch-in effort to clear the sands of broken shells and coral left over from the dredging. There was no staff. Saturdays and Sundays a duty roster of two members took turns as bartenders.
The first Commodore, by popular acclaim, was Ahto Walter. Ahto was a seaman extraordinaire who had many transatlantic crossings by sail and was one of the founding members.
One of the first races sponsored by the Club – around the island clockwise – resulted in the handsome, and perpetual, Lady Tristram Cup. The Coral Bay Race, first official overnight race, took place April 3 and 4, 1965. Entries crossed the starting line near Hassel Island and finished in Coral Bay, St. John. Anchors were dropped and that evening there was a steak cookout and prizes for the most original April Fool’s costume. Returning the next day, the boats wound up at the Yacht Club for a buffet supper for $3.00 per person. By the October 30, 1965 Halloween Race around St. John, dinner prices had begun to rise. That end-of-the-race buffet was $3.75.
Engraved invitations were sent out two weeks ahead for Saturday, March 12, 1966, the official opening of the Clubhouse. At 6 pm the Commodore, officers, and wives formed a gala receiving line to greet 150 guests, including the Governor, for an inaugural reception, and later, dinner and dancing.
The fleet was growing. So was the Club. Over a hundred members joined the first year and by 1967 there were 140 regular members. The trend was to small boats… Snipes, Sunfish, Solings. More and more sails sprinkled the bay on Saturdays and Sundays, racing to Christmas Cove and back around St. James.
Sailing Success Came Early
From the beginning Club sailors did well in off-island competition. In 1966 Rudy Thompson and John Hamber won a silver medal sailing a Flying Dutchman at the Caribbean and Central American Games. A year later, when the Virgin Islands gained Olympic status, they represented the Club and the Virgin Islands at the Pan American Games in Canada. The following year Rudy and John (Flying Dutchman class), Per Dohm (Finn class), with Richard Avery as alternate, flew off to Mexico in their new Olympic uniforms.
The Club’s first Caribbean Midwinter Regatta, for Finns, Snipes, and Sunfish, (previously a Puerto Rican event), was held February 2, 3 and 4, 1968. Club members provided housing for off-island competitors, the Clubhouse was headquarters for food and fun. Word spread and the following year there were over 100 entries, many top-racing skippers from Brazil, Sweden, the Eastern Seaboard, and Puerto Rico, along with an editor from Yachting Magazine to cover the story. The Regatta Committee raised $75,000, found housing for 63 of the visitors, opened the Clubhouse for morning coffee and Danish, lunch every day, cocktail parties, and two dinners, the last a grand buffet attended by 300, the largest crowd the kitchen had handled to date.
In 1969 the Club changed its corporate structure. Five years before, at the time the Deck Point Corporation was organized, it had been decided that when the Club had matured the charter members would turn over all of its assets and liabilities to the membership, so the Club would be member-owned. Now it was time for Deck Point to bow out. On November 14 of that year the Club was officially transferred to the membership. The Board of Governors was enlarged to twelve members.
The year 1970 was a successful one for the Club. Richard Griffin won the North American Sunfish Championship. The very first World Championship Sunfish Regatta, the brainchild of Rudy Thompson, was held here in February. It has since become an important and popular annual event at different sailing grounds from South America to the Bahamas.
The Mast and Cannon
The mast which stands at the edge of the terrace facing the sea, and flies the U.S. flag and Yacht Club burgee, is made of greenheart wood and was ordered from Surinam. It was arranged that a ship bound from Surinam to Bermuda should carry the new mast on deck, change course (300 miles) and drop it at a rendez-vous place in Pillsbury Sound between St. John and Great St. James. Fifty-five gallon drums were tied to the mast for flotation, and it was dropped overboard. The lines holding the drums came undone and the mast sank to the bottom of Pillsbury Sound … forever. As sailors are never daunted, a new mast was instantly reordered. Same freighter, same course, but a different rendez-vous. This time the freighter came as awesomely close to the Yacht Club as it could get (outer buoy lines). Proper barrel hitches were used, the mast was lowered, and tidily hauled ashore.
Another piece of scenery, the cannon next to the mast was made by a former member’s foundry in St. Louis as a special gift to the Club, flown to Puerto Rico, and from there delivered to us by the Navy.
In 1971 an extra acre of land adjoining the Club was bought for $40,000. A poll taken that year among the members showed such an interest in tennis that two tennis courts were completed in 1972. With tennis a new look came to the Club. At the bar, players in carefully selected whites and pastels mingled with sailors dressed in anything. Conversation, always sprinkled with handicap ratings, spinnaker news, and spectacular starts now shared time with player rank, smashing serves, and tennis elbow.
From the start the courts were in use from sunrise to sunset, except for high-noon heat. A Pro Shop (built by tennis-playing members) and a third court were completed in June 1975.
Squash arrived at the Club in 1974, in the form of twenty players in search of a court. They suggested that their initiation and dues would pay the cost of construction if the Club built a court. The Club agreed, and more than twenty players signed on immediately.
Sailing Accomplishments Go Abroad
Our sailors continued to travel. Chris Rosenberg captured the North American Junior Sunfish Championship in 1971. At the 1972 Sailing Olympics held in Kiel, Germany, members from the St. Thomas Yacht Club made up the entire Virgin Islands effort, sailing a Soling, Tempest, Star, and Finn. In 1974, Art Andrew came home with a gold medal in the Finn class from the Pan American games held in the Dominican Republic.
Racing classes were changing. Small boats began to be replaced by small cruiser racers in a handicap fleet. More sailors were competing in big boat racing in the Caribbean and at Antigua Race Week. The Club’s own International Rolex Cup Regatta was introduced in the fall of 1974, offering a three-day, three race challenge, and bringing in many entries from neighboring islands.
The first Olympic medal to be won for the Virgin Islands was in 1988. Peter Holmberg, sailing in the Finn Class, bought home the Silver Medal from Seoul, Korea.
In June of 1977 a shaded seating stand was completed on the Clubhouse side of the tennis courts, long-needed for spectators and waiting players. There were now 238 resident memberships, 61 non-residents, and a fleet of 140 boats.
In 1987 the shed used to store sailing gear mysteriously burned to the ground. Five years later the Junior Clubhouse and new lockers were built on the site and are now used as a bandstand and second bar for Club parties.
The first Olympic medal to be won for the Virgin Islands was in 1988. Peter Holmberg, sailing in the Finn Class, brought home the Silver Medal from Seoul, Korea.
Hurricane Hugo roared through the island on the night of September 17, 1989, and dawn brought the sight of over 20 boats driven ashore and lying on the beaches and rocks of Cowpet Bay. The dock was swept away and the Club roof and windows were badly damaged. With the help of an SBA loan and the hard work of many members, Hugo damage was repaired by the end of 1990.
Resurgence of Junior Sailing
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the Club made a major commitment to re-establishing junior sailing by hiring instructors and coaches to give direction and impetus to the program. As more and more children became involved, the need for a Caribbean regatta for juniors existed. Several club members founded the Caribbean International Optimist Regatta (now the International Opti Regatta) in 1993. The event has become the premier junior sailing regatta in the Caribbean and it is known around the world as an ideal place to compete for novices and experts as well. Children from ages 6 to 15, representing 10 or more Caribbean islands/nations, all of North America, parts of South America and countries in Europe participate annually. An event that started with about 23 boats has grown to almost 100 of these single-handed dinghies.
The annual Women’s Laser Regatta – Caribbean Championship is a Ladies-only sailing event that combines instruction with competition, at all skill levels. The event began in 1986 as a one-day regatta, started by Nance Frank & Dee Spear. It has been held annually with the exception of 1995, when it was canceled due to Hurricane Marilyn. Hurricane Lenny in 1999 forced the rescheduling of the 13th event into January of 2000. At its peak the regatta had grown into a major three-day event, attracting up to 60 women from the Caribbean, the United States and Europe.
With its emphasis on instruction as well as competition, the event for the past two years hosted Betsy Alison (five-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, former Women’s Laser World Champion and currently a top-ranked match racer) as a guest lecturer who provided on-water coaching and post-race review. As a direct result of this event, Antigua and St. Maarten have organized Ladies Laser competitions, developing a Caribbean Women’s Laser Circuit.
America’s Cup Comes to St. Thomas
In 1997, STYC issued a challenge for yacht racing’s foremost event, the America’s Cup. A letter proudly hangs in the Clubhouse accepting this challenge and Carol Hindels, our Commodore at the time, became the first female to ever issue a Challenge. Olympic medalist Peter Holmberg, headed up the syndicate with great support from the V.I. community and many of the Club’s members, Dick Johnson, Maurice and Denise Kurg and Bill Canfield to name a few. Peter Holmberg started training a team with an emphasis on developing local talent for his crew. Unfortunately, financial considerations finally brought a halt to the VI Challenge before they could compete. However, Peter managed to merge the syndicate with that of Dennis Connor’s Stars & Stripes campaign where Peter represented the STYC as an important member of the Stars & Stripes afterguard. Meanwhile past commodore Henry Menin served as an umpire and Deputy Chairman of the International Jury for both the Louis Vuitton Cup Challengers elimination series in 1999 and the America’s Cup XXX in 2000.
New Program to Promote Club Racing
In 2000, under the inspiration and leadership of Chris Rosenberg, the Club embarked on the creation of a new program to promote club racing for sailors of all skill levels and age groups. Now known as the IC24 Class, the fleet started as 6 boats in 2001 and had grown to 10 boats by the 2002 Rolex Regatta. Club racing has now become a regular event on Fridays and weekends.
The St. Thomas Yacht Club grew to over 400 members through 2005 and the IC -24 class has also thrived to over 13 boats with more on the way. An additional 25 IC-24 sailboats have also been built on the neighboring islands of Puerto Rico and Tortola that created a fantastic one design racing fleet in Club waters. The first few years of the new millennium also brought a strong youth sailing program to the club with the advent of lasers, optimists and 420’s to our fleet. Our youth sailors distinguished themselves as being some of the best in the entire US and in International Regattas led by Cy Thompson, Thomas Barrows and Taylor Canfield they won two North American championships and two US National High School Championships.
In the Fall of 2006, STYC was proud to host the North American Finals for ISAF’s Nations Cup World Championship. This revived an interest in Match Racing at the Club. STYC was also selected to host the 2009 US Sailing Women’s National Championship that will once again allow the Club to host another wonderful match racing event. In 2008 the first Carlos Aquilar Match racing championship will also be held in club waters in remembrance of Carlos who did so much for our junior sailors before his untimely passing.
Peter Holmberg, the Virgin Islands only Olympic Medalist, continued to represent us well in the Americas Cup where he helmed both the American Challenger Oracle and the Swiss Defender Aligni in successive Cup summers. Kirst Federsen was also on Aligni design team and Henry Menin served on the International Jury St. Thomas Yacht Club has remained and will remain in the future a wonderful Club with a great sailing tradition.