A Short History
By past Commodore P. James Roosevelt
The name ‘Seawanhaka’ is derived from a tribe of Indians who made their home on Centre Island.
Seawanhaka was founded in September 1871 aboard William L. Swan’s sloop GLANCE anchored off Soper’s Point, Centre Island. As first officially recorded, there were twelve founders.
By acclamation, Swan was elected Seawanhaka’s first Commodore. A half model of GLANCE hangs above the arch as one exits the main room of today’s Clubhouse, while private signals of the original members crown that exit.
The new Commodore, a member of one of the area’s foremost families, served for many years as the Corinthian organist and choirmaster at the First Presbyterian Church in Oyster Bay. He was a round, jolly man who encouraged sailing tests among the oyster fishermen and enjoyed gamming with friends and singing well into the night aboard GLANCE, a bottle of spirits handy on the main saloon table the while.
It was customary to hold Club meetings (both formal and informal) on the flagship. GLANCE at 41 feet was one of only two vessels in the original fleet up to that calling. As the Club grew full tilt, it became necessary for the Commodore to commission a new flagship. This was the 77-foot schooner ARIEL, launched in May 1873. She served as the flagship until 1876 when Commodore Swan declined re-nomination. Her model is on the north wall of the Model Room.
The Club burgee is a constellation consisting of 12 stars in the form of a vertical cross on a field of blue. The fact that this number coincides with the count of Founders s entirely coincidental, as the design was taken from the flag of the Admiral of the Brazilian Navy.
The Founders adopted a threefold statement of purpose:
Becoming proficient in navigation.
The personal management, control and handling of their yachts.
All matters pertaining to seamanship.
These remain today a valid statement of our goals.
A motto was adopted, ‘Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat’ (prizes/honors to those who deserve). This motto was originally awarded to Lord Nelson after his victory in the battle of the Nile.
Yachting depends upon discretionary income. Few Americans enjoyed such a luxury until post Civil War prosperity. The New York Yacht Club, founded in 1844 and a handful of others nationwide, had flourished before then, but the sport was unrecognizable by today’s gauge. It was more like horse racing with gentlemen hiring professional skippers and crew to man their vessels which raced each other as a betting proposition.
The tactics of the game had their birth among the ‘sandbaggers’. These were 15 to 30 feet shoal draft, wide beam, planing, over canvassed vessels with enormous bowsprits and sternsprits. Their nickname derives from the dozen or so 50-pound bags filled with sand that the crew moved across the wide, open cockpit with every tack. A model of SUSIE S, possibly the most famous, hangs on the north side of the west wall of the Model Room. Various taverns, teams and villages backed ‘their own’, with the prizewinner often determined by a post race bar room brawl.
The concept of Corinthian sailing caught on and the Club grew like a fire. In his final speech as Commodore, Swan charged: 'Prosecute vigorously the popularization of Corinthian races with which Seawanhaka is so closely identified, as I feel assured it will not only be to it a tower of strength, but also that it is the only true and enjoyable kind of yachting'.
As the young club grew, so did the size of its members’ vessels. Gradually then, beginning around 1875, the center of the Club sailing activities gravitated from Oyster Bay to New York Harbor, the center of yachting. This move accelerated and fed on itself to such a degree that those members remaining in Oyster Bay felt sufficiently ‘out of it’ to found their own Oyster Bay Yacht Club. Meanwhile, Seawanhaka became part of the main stream of the sport. Thus, in 1881, we leased a basin for ourselves on Staten Island, and in 1887 leased a Clubhouse in Manhattan. Prior to this, the Club flagship and Delmonicos had been adequate for meetings. While at Staten Island in 1881, the word ‘Corinthian’ was incorporated into the Club’s title. The term was not initially one of respect.
In 1891, it was decided to seek a permanent waterfront home. No more leases. A committee was formed to consider locations. Possibilities included Manhasset Bay, Pelham, City Island, New Rochelle, Port Chester, Rye, and Centre Island. The last was selected, not out of any sentimentality, but only when it was determined that a horse and carriage could cross the causeway at all but full moon high tides, and that the recent extension of the LIRR made Oyster Bay more accessible than 15 years before. The report was accepted with enthusiasm. Robert W. Gibson, a recent member, was chosen to design the new Clubhouse. Bonds were sold to purchase the land and build facilities; and dues were raised to $50.00 per year.
Saturday on Memorial Day weekend in 1892 dawned bright and fair. At a noon day signal from the flagship, the hearts of the 350 present were filled, flags were broken out, a band played, salutes were fired, ships were dressed, a merger with the Oyster Bay Yacht Club was celebrated (the crossed burgees and the clock over the main mantle were given then to perpetuate the event) and the new Clubhouse was opened.
It had been only twenty-one years since the experiment began Surely, those pioneers could not have imagined all that they would accomplish for yachting in that short time. Here is a list of some of them:
The first Corinthian yacht club
The first open Corinthian race (in NY bay)
The first swipes at sandbagger racing with the passage of yacht racing rules (among the first) that specifically forbid the use of shifting ballast in a race
Prohibition of professionals on the helm in most local races
The first scientific handicap rule
The first spinnakers flown in a race (off Staten Island)
A design by a member of a yacht on paper, VINDEX (east corner of north wall of Model Room) as opposed to the practice of the day which was to whistle a model by seaman’s eye and build off that.
Surpassing all this, Seawanhaka members, with their emphasis Corinthianism, had transformed the entire motivation, methods, and objectives of the sport.
Seawanhaka’s approach to the sport marked the death knell for sandbagger racing. The very spirit of the sport had been transformed. Next the wide, shallow, centerboard, type common to New York yachts of all sizes came under Seawanhaka attack, as members introduced the concept of the cutter. Cutters differed from sloops in possessing two headsails, very narrow beam, deep keels, outside lead and British ancestry. The extent to which one was a cutter crank depended on the ratio of length to beam. A true disciple would aspire to LWL at 6 times beam. Fine examples of each type are in the Model Room. Here too emotions ran beyond all reason by today’s standards. Newspapers were full of disparaging references on both sides. So intense was the exchange that the subject was still one of debate on the Club porch as late as 1950. However, the victory of the compromise sloop, PURITAN, model on the north wall of the model room, in the America’s Cup match of 1885 really decided the issue. Two notable landmarks along the way were the fatal capsize of MOHAWK, the 140-foot centerboard schooner owned by the Vice Commodore of the New York Yacht Club in 1876; and the triumphant invasion (sponsored to a degree by SCYC members) of the cutter MADGE (north wall of the Model Room) from Britain in the fall of 1881.
How can we depict the character of early members, record their notable deeds or even describe some of their achievements in design, sail handling and courage? They were incontrovertibly a breed apart.
With the Club now permanently established on Centre Island, two youngsters who would leave their mark on yachting and Seawanhaka forever began to be heard from. One was C. Sherman Hoyt; the other was Clinton H. Crane.
For 1892, A. Cary Smith (yacht designer, notable artist and one time Club measurer) was commissioned to draft a 21-foot one-design class, possibly the first one design in the world (hard by the southeast window of the Model Room). Racing in these as a teenager, Sherman began to appear in the winner’s circle to an embarrassing degree from his elder’s point of view. He was to become a delightful man, slight of stature, brown as a prune from the sun, with twinkling blue eyes and an iconoclastic sense of humor. He would win races at home and abroad, in dinghies, six meters, ocean racers and, for that matter, save the America’s Cup in J boats in 1934. He remained a prime personage in yachting until his death in 1961. C. Sherman Hoyt was the first world-class yachtsman in America.
Clinton Crane was of a more serious turn. He was an engineer and designer, for his friends, of 6 meters, 12 meters, J boats, various one-designs and a host of famous vessels. In 1895, the Seawanhaka Cup was presented for competition in small boats, as an international match race series. It remains the oldest, active yachting trophy originating in America. After an initial defense, with a marconi rig (30 years ahead of its time) sloop, the Club received a challenge from Canada. Crane designed a half-rater, which after a series of trials in 1896 was selected to defend. She lost. Crane was to spend over half a lifetime endeavoring to bring the Cup home. In 1928, in 6 meters in Scotland, he succeeded. Half models of Crane’s successful challenger and subsequent Seawanhaka Cup winners are in the bar. Aside from all of this, he served the Club in a variety of ways including Commodore and wise, old counselor.
The great burst of sailing talent that emanated from the Club in the period from 1920 to 1940 learned most of the finer points of the sport from these two men. And the world wide yachting reputation that Seawanhaka still enjoys can be traced to their exploits.
Following World War I, some Americans and Englishmen proposed a series in small boats to cement relations formed during the hostilities. Thus was born the British American team race series. According to the notable authority, Eric Twinname, this was the first international team race ever. The idea was to race under the British International Rule of Measurement while in England, and under the American Universal Rule over here. Regardless of the outcome, the location would alternate. Thus, in 1921, we designed and sent forth America’s first four 6 meters to Cowes. A large painting by Norman Wilkinson of one of the races hangs by the bottom of the main staircase. The names of our skippers and crews send thrills even as late as today. But, our initial, inexperienced designs were inferior to the British and we lost. Then, said the British, they would not come over and race us except under their own measurement rule. We acquiesced. Thus for 1922, more 6 meters were built for the trials than any other year in Class history. A painting by Norman Wilkinson of the start of the 6th race of the 1922 series hangs in the Taft Room.
There has never been an era like that of the 6 meters. From this one team race grew more team races, match races and fleet races – all of top rate, international caliber.
The parachute spinnaker was perfected by Seawanhaka members in this competition; the genoa jib was first introduced in America by an Italian challenger for the Scandinavian Gold Cup, emblematic of Class supremacy. New concepts in tactics, tuning and design were developed in this Class. To be an international competitor on the top level in America, one had to be a member of Seawanhaka. Oyster Bay was the center of international small boat racing. The men and women who competed were the finest in the country. The glamour of 6 meter racing inspired a Hollywood movie (“Nothing Sacred” starring Frederick March and Carole Lombard) in which a Six (Briggs Cunningham at the helm and crew in wigs) sailed up the East River.
After the Second World War the 6 meters proved too expensive and exotic to continue their dominance of the sport, although ‘Swede” Whiton, two time Gold Medal Olympic winner, tried his best, with Eric Ridder and others to perpetuate the Class. Briefly the 6’s were succeeded by the 5.5 meters, another development design. After a decade of much keen competition and great excitement, this class too faded away on the East Coast. Club burgees of some of our international competitors are hung in the bar.
The post World War II years ushered in the golden age of one design racing. Since birthing the concept in 1892, Seawanhaka has always enjoyed a one-design class. There had been the 21’s, the fifteens, the knockabouts, the Raceabouts, the Nut Class, the Kittens, the Fish boats, the S Class, the SC 21s, the Seabirds – all active local classes (half models on the south wall of the Model Room) and others owned by members who participated in racing outside the Club. In 1950, Club members introduced the Raven, a national one-design class of 24 feet, centerboard, planing sloops. And members began t win national one-design titles. After these came the Shields, the Solings, the Etchells, the J24s, and the Sonars. And more national titles. Then, members of the next generation like Steve Benjamin, Stewart Neff, Gary Knapp and Peter Johnson were winning International titles in Fireballs, Penguins, Finns, broadboats and 470s. And they still are.
As ocean racing became popular, you can be sure our Club members were among the first to take part n Trans-Atlantic, Bermuda Races and Southern Circuit events. Their yachts won all manner of trophies. Our record of winners in the biennial blue water thrashes to Bermuda, at that time the most esteemed big boat event, was unsurpassed. Those same yachts dominated the NYYC Club Cruises, then as now, top events for cruising boats.
A steady stream of competent, competitive yachtsmen and women was and still is supplied by the Junior Club. Robert MacArthur, in his 1922 book on the history of the Racing Rules, avers that Seawanhaka was the first Club in America to have an organized Junior program – starting before the turn of the century. A separate clubhouse was built and a Junior Club incorporated in 1936, ahead of most others.
Seawanhaka members have exerted an influence on yachting out of all proportion to their number. Single file and as teams they have paraded across the deck of yachting history – studying wind and weather patterns, tides and currents, designs of sails and forms of hull, innovative uses of chemicals and natural elements, geodetic surveys and the course of the heavens. In addition, our members have developed the current racing rules, promoted yachting unions on the national level, continue to devise scientific handicapping systems, engineer rigging and weight saving schemes, invented the so-called Olympic course, supplied the nation with gold, silver and bronze medallists in the Olympics, provided the first Americans to win the Scandinavian Gold Cup and the French One Ton Cup, brought home a number of national and international class championships. And there’s so much more.
What is the reason for this? For more than a century, Seawanhaka members have held to the belief that amateur, or Corinthian, is not an excuse for inferior performance; on the contrary, they have shown a desire to compete against the very best, a willingness to experiment, to take the sport seriously, to discover enjoyment in self-sacrifice, to strive for mastery – individually as well as together, to encourage newcomers to the sport, to give prodigally of their time, and to share their discoveries as well as their winning secrets freely.
Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat
May We Follow In Their Wake