A Short History of Santa Cruz Yacht Club

This memoir is compiled from the recollections of Sam Leask, Jr., Worth Brown, Ernie Rideout and George Kane.

The roots of the Santa Cruz Yacht Club reach back to about the year 1925, when two local bankers, Bruce Sharpe and Charlie Towne purchased a 14-foot cat boat and began sailing it on Monterey Bay.

They were soon joined by local merchant Sam Leask Jr. Their mutual love of sailing led them to join the nearest yacht club, the San Francisco Yacht Club, which was located at Sausalito Cove. Soon after they joined, the overcrowded conditions in the cove led to a movement to relocate the clubhouse. The membership, however, was deeply divided as to whether to move the club to Belvedere Cove or to a site on the San Francisco waterfront. A majority favored the Marin site and the clubhouse was relocated. The remainder of the members split from the club and formed the St. Francis Yacht Club on the Marina.

The trio from Santa Cruz had friends on both sides of the schism and were caught in a quandary. Rather than choose sides, Sharpe put forth the idea of starting a yacht club closer to home.

Sharp, Towne and Leask invited a dozen or so friends to join them for dinner in a balcony room at the Saddle Rock Grill and a lively discussion took place about the possibility of forming a local yacht club. By the time “last call” was sounded, all those present agreed to become members, thus establishing the Santa Cruz Yacht Club. It was January 5, 1928.

The infant club did not immediately spark a storm of sailing activity. As Leask recalled: “...At the outset, the members’ knowledge of things nautical was decidedly limited. It was the era of prohibition and in order to hold the membership together we resorted to frequent expeditions to nearby bootleg establishments for meetings which were hilarious and convivial if not particularly yachting oriented.”

The SCYC kept up its San Francisco connections, sponsoring long-distance races with both the San Francisco Yacht Club and the St. Francis Yacht Club.

One of the first races that our Club sponsored was a power boat race from Long Beach to San Francisco.

The San Francisco boating fraternity welcomed the presence of SCYC members on their top-flight yachts which were manned by competent and well-disciplined crews.

Sharp was elected the first Commodore, Jay Harris - who designed the club burgee - the second, and Leask the third. Those who were present at the time agree that the first truly accomplished seaman to join the club was Lino Nicoli who owned the 42-foot yawl “Pathfinder.” It was Nicoli who first introduced many of the early members to the fine art of seamanship.

1949 SCYC BurgeeThe club purchased a pair of 18-foot cub class sloops, the original “Jack” and “Jill” which were moored in the lee of the wharf. The two sloops served the membership well, but the “Jack” was lost on the beach in an early winter storm in 1942.

Initially, club meetings were held in the Casino Building courtesy of the Seaside Co. About 1930, a gear room and clubhouse was established on the wharf. It was 6 feet by 12 feet and contained two lockers, a table, and a bench. The head was a hole in the floor.

The SCYC was active in hosting several long-distance races down from San Francisco Bay, including the still popular Windjammers Race (1938). Held on Memorial Day weekend and later on Labor Day, the Windjammers event blossomed into the premier local sailing event.

Dozens of the Bay Area’s finest yachts stood at anchor off the wharf following their run down the coast. Cries of “Shore boat!” echoed across the moorings, bringing Sea Scouts scurrying about dropping off Sunday papers and ice and ferrying sailors to and from shore. SCYC members prepared breakfast for the racers, providing sustenance for the long weekend’s activities.

The large regattas were suspended for the duration of World War II but most of the club’s yachts remained active.

By the mid-1950’s, the clubhouse boasted amenities such as a real head and a shower. There was a bar and couches and even a balcony ideally suited for firing the cannon at the start of a race or sipping a four-bit cocktail and watching the sunset over Lighthouse Point.

sc-harbor-constructionA few years later work began on the new yacht harbor at Wood’s Lagoon and the club began a search for property near the new marina. The present 4th Ave. site was purchased with a down payment put up by a group of members and was rented out until the harbor opened in 1964.

Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor Souvenir Edition, Santa Cruz Sentinel – April 17, 1964

It was not easy to leave their site on the wharf, one they had occupied for more than 30 years, but the membership went to work on the new clubhouse, building a deck and the steps that lead down to the harbor.

Just when it appeared that things were working out nicely at the new site, Mother Nature greeted the sailing community with two rather ominous omens. First, a major earthquake in Alaska generated a tsunami that noiselessly drained most of the water from the harbor, then, just as silently, filled it back up to a point where some of the docks nearly floated up and over the pilings. A short time later, the first of several anchovy kills turned the harbor into a reeking, paint-peeling muck. A thick layer of dead baitfish filled the channels, ruining brightwork and causing a stench that lasted months.

The 1970s saw Santa Cruz and the yacht club come to the forefront of the Ultra Light Displacement Boat (ULDB) movement that revolutionized yacht racing. In 1977 Bill Lee’s “Merlin” shattered the Trans Pacific Race record and Santa Cruz ULDBs of all sizes became the boats to beat. Merlin’s record stood for 20 years.

That same year, the clubhouse underwent a major expansion and remodel. Ten years later an interior remodel was completed and in 2012 the Club went through a complete remodel, including the addition of a Tram, assuming its present configuration. In 2013, the SCYC hosted the official ribbon cutting for the clubhouse tram and lower level remodel.

Major events held at the club include the Windjammers Regatta, the Day on the Bay Benefit Regatta, one design races, SCORE (Santa Cruz Ocean Racing Extravaganza), MISC Race Week, the West Marine Fun Regatta (which benefits junior sailing), as well as many local, national, world and Olympic class regattas. It also hosts the Lighted Boat Parade during the holiday season as well as cruising and social events throughout the year.

-  Niels Kisling (SCYC Historian)

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