Celebrating a century of admiring the scenery and hoisting the sails at the BYC
Photographs by Cybelle Codish
If it offered nothing else but the setting, that would be enough to join Detroit’s Bayview Yacht Club (BYC). In fact, some members refer to the club on the city’s far east side, celebrating its centennial this year, as simply “The View.”
It’s no wonder. Looking out a bank of windows from the upstairs Commodores’ Room at roughly the spot where the Detroit River meets the mouth of Lake St. Clair, one espies Peche Island, the tip of Belle Isle, and the shore of Windsor.
Then there’s all that sapphire-blue water, which even during a visit on a blustery but sunny late March afternoon, one can imagine dotted with sailboats propelled by a warm summer breeze.
Nobody could blame members if they spent all their time ogling the water from the dining room, bar, or from other panoramic clubhouse rooms, but most of them are serious sailors who yearn to be on the water, not just near it.
Compared to other yacht clubs, Bayview may not have the most elegant clubhouse, and it lacks a swimming pool, tennis courts, and other amenities that other clubs can boast about. But therein lies the charm for its 1,000-plus members, says Commodore Hanson R. Bratton. He says owning a boat isn’t a requirement for membership, but the club tries to engender a love for boating among members. Socializing is terrific, but first comes sailing.
“Bayview Yacht Club is a smaller club with a real focus on sailing in general,” he says. “We want people who are interested in learning to sail, or continuing to be involved in sailing.”
Bratton says that, although BYC must compete for sailors with nearby yacht clubs such as the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club and the Detroit Yacht Club, there’s no animosity among them. Rather, the feeling is more of camaraderie.
“There’s an organization called DRYA, the Detroit Regional Yachting Association, and there are 18 local clubs that belong,” Bratton explains.
“The clubs get along very well; they’re very cooperative, realizing that we have the same goals to support sailing and life on the water.”
But he adds a practical note: “We do have to fight for members.”
And the commodore has a ready pitch for BYC.
“We have a great dining room and a world-renowned bar,” he says. “And we’re relatively inexpensive compared to a lot of the other clubs. People who want more amenities like pools or racquet courts, well, they’re certainly going to be paying for that. And we’ve got the greatest view in the world.”
And as if to underscore how serious BYC is about its mission, he adds:
“A lot of clubs close for a period during the winter, but we stay open year-round.”
BYC is sitting pretty in its 100th year, but it wasn’t always so. The club spawned from a very humble beginning in 1915, when a quartet of sailors decided to start a yacht club.
The first tin boathouse, located south of the current building near Water Works Park, on what was then called Motor Boat Lane, was a modest structure. A pastel painting of it, executed by BYC’s fifth commodore, Floyd S. Nixon, hangs in the BYC banquet room today.
As the city and the economy burgeoned in the Roaring ’20s, and sailing became more popular, larger quarters were needed. The current clubhouse, at 100 Clairpointe St., was completed in 1929, although Bratton says additions were appended “piecemeal through the years.”
BYC’s focus isn’t just on the experienced boater, but on the up-and-coming generation of sailors. In addition to the Adult Sailing Program, dedicated to newbies and those who want to improve their skills, BYC offers a Junior Sailing Program, geared toward those “young salts” with a love for sailing.
Bratton points to a cluster of dinghies in the water, in which sawed-off sailors will climb into and learn to sail. He says it’s good for the tiny “tars” to learn safety and sailing early.
“In some respects, it’s like day care in the summertime,” he says. “It’s amazing to watch the kids because they’re in these little boats alone and it teaches them to be independent, not to be afraid,” he says.
“We have all kinds of coaches around to keep an eye on them,” he adds. “While we teach them proper sailing and safety, the youngsters learn to be confident and self-reliant.”
That “world-class bar” Bratton mentioned isn’t an exaggeration. Bar manager Jerome Adams, who has held court at the BYC slinging drinks since 1967, is responsible for creating The Hummer, the club’s signature cocktail, since 1968. That libation has achieved global attention (see this month's drink recipe).
Bayview may be celebrating a significant milestone this year, but so is Adams. On June 7, he’ll turn 75, and his pouring arm shows no signs of slowing down. On our visit, he had already prepared a batch of Hummers in preparation for the thirsty cocktail crowd.
Bayview also holds a mammoth yearly event, loosely called the Port Huron to Mackinac Race, but known officially as the 2015 Bell’s Beer Mackinac Race. It’s typically a two-day race that put Bayview on the global map among yachting clubs. This year’s competition, which begins July 18, marks the 91st journey, and Peter Wenzler, the 2015 chairman, believes it could be among the largest races, with 150 or more boats registering. At press time, nearly 200 boat crews from Newfoundland to Chicago had entered. June 1 is the entry deadline.
That’s a far cry from the first race, in which only a dozen boats entered and most didn’t even make it to the finish line. Wenzler says there are two courses: The Cove Island Course, which is about 259 nautical miles, and the Shore Course, which is 204 nautical miles. The difference is that the longer journey veers into the northeast corner of Lake Huron to Cove Island, then heads west to Mackinac Island, whereas the Shore Course loops from Port Huron directly to Mackinac, close to the Michigan shoreline.
This will be Wenzler’s 33rd race, which makes him an Old Goat, the affectionate term BYC uses to designate anyone who has participated in at least 25 Mackinac races. This is Bratton’s 24th race, one year shy of being an Old Goat. Those who’ve completed 50 races — and Bratton says there’s
a handful of them — are known as Grand Rams. These “ancient mariners” wear the title proudly.
Wenzler has placed first three times and has flagged (nabbing first, second, or third) 18 times, so he knows what it takes to make it to the finish line. And, he says, having the biggest boat is no guarantee of winning.
Beyond having fun, his advice to the crew is to practice safety drills and make sure helmsmen know where their safety equipment is and that
the boat is sound and fit.
After that, he says it’s all about strategy and having savvy sailors on board.
“You should try to get as many helmsmen as you can on a boat because there are lots of jobs. There are guys who raise and lower the sails, guys who trim the sails, for instance,” Wenzler says.
“Helmsmen are important because you’re sailing nonstop for a couple of days and nobody can drive nonstop for that long a time, so you have to rotate through the positions,” he says. “There’s nothing worse on a distance race than having someone there who can’t drive because you lose
a bunch of ground.”
Then there’s the weather, that unpredictable factor that can wildly alter the outcome of the race.
“You have to plan your approach with a forecaster’s mindset,” Wenzler advises. “Say the wind right now is blowing out of the southwest; what will it be doing six hours from now? You want to position your boat on the race course to take advantage of the changes.”
Wenzler recalls a couple of notable years when the weather played a dramatic role in the race. One was in 1993 when everyone arrived early at the finish line because of the downwind.
“The wind was blowing up to 35 knots out of the east,” Wenzler remembers. “When we went around the mark at Cove Island, we put up the spinnakers and just screamed across the lake to Mackinac Island.”
A spinnaker is a balloon-shaped sail designed for sailing with the direction of the wind, often called flying.
Another wild year was 1985, which started fine, but sailors soon faced the opposite situation than in 1993. Once they rounded Cove Island, they faced an upwind gusting between 25 and 40 knots, with waves sometimes towering above 20 feet.
“It blew solid like that for the next 28 hours, and we had more boats than ever drop out that year,” Wenzler says. “Pretty close to half the fleet dropped out. One boat in particular, The Tomahawk, sank during that race, but the crew was rescued.”
Thankfully, most Mackinac Races aren’t nearly as turbulent as 1985’s. When the race is done, the top three winners in each class are awarded a flag and trophy.
Then it’s time for some fun.
“At the island, we recognize the winners at a party on the Grand Hotel property on Tuesday,” Wenzler says. “Then we invite all the winners — first-, second-, and third-place teams — to a party here at Bayview in September.”
Bayview hosts many other races besides the Mackinac, including the 11th annual Women on the Water (WOW) Regatta, held June 20 this year, and the Detroit Cup (Aug. 27-30).
“Throughout the sailing season, which starts in the middle of May and ends at the end of October, you can virtually sail and race almost every day
of the week, with Monday being a little on the light side,” Bratton says.
Parties are big events at Bayview, whether it’s saluting a regular holiday such as Easter or the completion of a regatta. When members aren’t hoisting sails, they’re hoisting drinks.
As Bratton says, perhaps also summing up why BYC has endured for 100 years: “We sail hard and we play hard.”
Bayview Yacht Club, 100 Clairpointe St., Detroit; 313-822-1853. For more information or to enter the 2015 Bell’s Beer Mackinac Race, go to byc.com.