Beyond their Terms

At one yacht club, past flag officers don’t just sail into the sunset after their stints, they combine their collective talents and contribute in other ways.

yacht club officers
Left to right: Past commodores Mike Meehan, Steve Lapp, Christopher Widdis, John Garth, Dianne Welch, Bill Van Winkle, Linda Kelly and Bob Kelly assemble to talk improvements in local sailing.Gary Jobson

An interesting question came up in a recent email from my longtime sailing friend Bill Van Winkle, of New Jersey. “I’m wondering how many other sailing or yacht clubs have an active and influential past commodores group like we have at the Shrewsbury Sailing & Yacht Club,” he asked rhetorically. The question made me think about the ongoing contributions of past commodores at yacht clubs around the country.

At many clubs, immediate past commodores continue to serve on the board of directors for another year or move on to a nominating committee. I was inspired to learn more about Van Winkle’s group, so a few days later I made the 190-mile drive from my home in Annapolis up to Oceanport, New Jersey. There I met eight former commodores on a Sunday afternoon, and over the course of my visit, I learned of the many activities of this small and influential body, some of which could be inspirational to other yacht clubs.

The formation of the Shrewsbury YC’s past commodores group was inspired by the Blue Gavel movement, also known as the Inter­national Order of the Blue Gavel, which was formed in 1953 and currently lists among its ranks dozens of past commodores from the United States, the United Kingdom,

Canada, New Zealand and Japan. The Shrewsbury group publishes a periodic newsletter and posts information on the club’s website, but its members are careful not to impede the management or initiatives of the current club leadership. They do, however, send one representative to board meetings to give reports and learn how they might contribute. The group provides an avenue for alumni to be helpful without getting in the way.

The club was originally called the Shrewsbury Sailing Association. There was a movement long ago to add the word “yacht” to give the club equal stature with regional yacht clubs.

Apparently it was a highly controversial topic at the time, as several members threatened to leave. Eventually the name was changed with the compromise that the word “sailing” would still be included. The Shrewsbury Sailing & Yacht Club is now 80 years old. There are 36 living past commodores, all of whom belong to the past commodores group. The group’s dues are $50 annually, which is put into a general fund for specific purposes to which all members agree. Over the years, they have built up a modest endowment. With only 202 members total at the club, 15 percent of Shrewsbury’s members are past commodores, which provides for a great deal of institutional knowledge.

I sat with the past commodores in the main room in the clubhouse, which is only in use during the summer sailing season. The same issues we discussed could easily apply at any other yacht club around the United States, but their primary focus was bolstering junior sailing. The group provides scholarships for Shrewsbury’s summer junior sailing program, allocating full scholarships to two select young sailors each year. To identify these sailors, the group conducts an annual writing contest, but in the interest of staying up with the times, in the past two years, the selection committee has allowed for one-minute video presentations as an alternative. The most recent prompt was “why I think it would be fun to learn to sail.” The 70- to 120-word essay must be handwritten.

In 2003, the group selected two 10-year-old girls, Jenny Lane and Nikki Thomasian, and the commodores were proud to tell me that Lane went on to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where she was a member of the varsity sailing team. She is now an ensign stationed in Alaska. Thomasian attended Brown University and is now in medical school.

Six scholarships are also awarded for a two-week “mini camp” for third- and fourth-graders from four local elementary schools. The past commodores explained that it takes considerable work to convince school administrators to send youngsters to the camp. To bolster their pitch, they produced an eight-minute video to show school officials the lessons and values of sailing as a lifetime sport. Apparently school administrators are nervous about losing students in their in-house sports programs, and even though the Shrewsbury River, Navesink River and Atlantic Ocean surround the area, I was told that very few young people have the opportunity to get out on the water. Some of the award recipients bring their parents into the fold, and many of the adults become Shrewsbury members. Thus the scholarship program is an effective tool for recruiting new members. I was told there’s considerable concern about the average age (currently 58) of Shrewsbury’s membership, which is an issue at many U.S. yacht clubs. Adding engaged young sailors, as well as their parents, helps balance out the club’s aging demographic. The past commodores provide a few Optimist dinghies for youngsters without their own boat. The group also takes on other projects, including buying new trophy cases and supporting the local sailing team at Monmouth University. Prioritizing junior sailing is essential because the group believes Shrewsbury’s future depends on it.

The commodores presented me with a copy of their annual yearbook. It’s filled with color pictures of members sailing or racing on their boats, and the smiles throughout left me with a warm feeling: Clearly, the Shrewsbury Sailing & Yacht Club’s past flag officers contribute to the club’s sustainability.

The season extends from late March through October, when the property is filled with one-design boats that race on the Shrewsbury River. The club is only 27 miles from the lower tip of Manhattan, but it feels a world away from New York. During my visit, several one-design classes were out racing, including Flying Scots, cat boats, Comets and Lasers. Everyone at the club is an amateur sailor, and after racing, the sailors gathered on the large dock to discuss the results. It was a vibrant and encouraging scene that reminded me of the social importance of our clubs.

Shrewsbury has had its challenges over the years, and the commodores group is always ready to assist. In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy swamped the clubhouse (the high-water mark is about 4 feet up the lower level’s wooden wall). With the support of the past commodores, the entire membership pitched in to help through the lead-up to and aftermath of the storm. I learned that the club’s insurance agent is a member, and he helped the claim process move along swiftly. The club was completely refurbished, and the season started the following April.

Another past commodore explained how the club was devastated by a similar storm in 1992, and how they learned from that tragedy about how to prepare for an approaching hurricane. One day before Sandy arrived, members moved the club’s entire fleet of boats to a high school parking lot several miles away on higher ground. They also removed valuable items from the building. The precautionary measures paid off: In the aftermath of Sandy, the most significant task was replacing the clubhouse’s flooring and decks.

Yacht clubs are the backbone of sailing in America, and the Shrewsbury Sailing & Yacht Club is one of more than 700 organizations dedicated to providing a home and base for sailors. The example set by this medium-size club and its past flag officers can easily be replicated by any motivated group of alumni officers.