Favorable Winds

Hoisting the sails (and an adult beverage or two) with the nation’s oldest boat club

Sure, the annual Port Huron to Mackinac race in July gets a lot of attention — they even have a big beer sponsor (Bell’s Brewery). But while the prestigious race has been around since 1925, it’s a spring chicken compared to the Detroit Boat Club and its annual Regatta.

Founded in 1839 — a mere two years after Michigan became a state — the DBC holds the title as the nation’s oldest boat club. Originally a rowing club, it was one of the organizations that helped form The Detroit Regional Yachting Association (DRYA) in 1912.

What makes the club’s longevity even more remarkable is the fact it has no real home — at least for now. That’s because it vacated its longtime Belle Isle location, the beautiful but now-shabby looking structure on the left as you cross the MacArthur Bridge, after the city of Detroit changed their sweetheart deal of a $1 per year lease to $10,000 a month (at first) and then $12,000 per month.

That led the DBC to file for bankruptcy in 1992, and by 1996, the club’s belongings were put into storage.

The interior of the DBC’s former home is maintained by Friends of Detroit Rowing. The building hosts weddings and other events, and now houses the Belle Isle Art Gallery. The building’s future is a bit more bright now that the State of Michigan and the rowing club have a 30-year lease on the property.

A spinoff called Friends of Detroit Rowing (FDR) remained on Belle Isle and struck a deal with the city: Rowers could still use the spot as a base for their program; in return, FDR would maintain the clubhouse.

With the loss of their clubhouse and boat wells, a core group of DBC membership continued to meet, mostly in Detroit-area private clubs. They also managed to keep their annual regatta afloat.

So while the Mackinac race approaches its century mark, by the time this issue hits readers’ mailboxes, the hearty, 125-member strong DBC will have run its 123rd Annual Sailing Regatta (scheduled this year for June 24).

The regatta usually attracts over 100 boats in 15 classes, ranging from 19 to 55 feet long.  Some of the participants use this race as a tune-up to the more popular Mackinac race.

On race day 2016, we joined a handful of early morning volunteers setting up tables and looking heavenward to check out the weather.

Dick Morris, “commodore-in-waiting” of the DBC (he became commodore for 2017), is hanging out on the dock of the Grosse Pointe Club, also known as “The Little Club.” Since the DBC has no permanent home, they partner with other clubs to run their races and hold their meetings.

Morris has been involved with the DBC’s annual regatta for more than six years, and a member of the club for 10 years. The longtime sailor also belongs to the Detroit Yacht Club and teaches sailing for both clubs.

But for this race, Morris is staying ashore. That’s because it takes a lot of volunteers to run the regatta.

We’re invited to tag along with one of those volunteers, Dave Aller, the 2016 commodore. His powerboat, named “Two Dog Night” after his elkhounds, heads out to a checkpoint at one of the turns.

It’s a bright, sunny, and not very windy day, so we’re pestered by the ever-present, but important, fish flies. While they crunch under car tires and gum up porch lights, they’re also a sign of a healthy aquatic system.

Not that anyone’s fishing in this group.

While the apparent lack of wind sounds nice, it doesn’t make for a thrilling, white-knuckle race. Because of the lighter breeze, many sailors hoist spinnakers, those large and colorful sheets that billow out in front of the vessel, trying to expose as much sail surface as possible.

Our photographer, Roy Ritchie, doesn’t mind that at all. It makes for better pictures.

Less than gusty wind conditions makes for a more “colorful” race, as crews hoist large sheets called spinnakers to billow in front of the vessel.

Ritchie has tagged along with Geoff Horst, who’s vice commodore of the Little Club. While Horst would also rather be sailing (his parents were members and he says he’s been sailing since he was “in the womb,”) he’s volunteered to motor Ritchie around to photograph the action.

As we head back to the docks, Ritchie tries to send one of his cameras up on a drone for some big-time, overhead, dramatic action shots of the finish line, but the wind finally picked up to the point where he doesn’t want to endanger his expensive equipment.

Good news is, the fish flies are not so pesky anymore. And there’s all sorts of action on the Little Club’s dock, as the various classes of vessel cross the finish line, some volunteers calling out their times, others jotting them down.

After the race, we head down the Detroit River to watch the winners hoist their awards — and a few adult beverages — for the closing ceremonies at yet another location, under a tent at Kean’s Marina (next to Sindbad’s).

And while the regatta is one the DBC’s biggest events, the year is from over. Their activities are about more than racing. DBC-owned sailboats (Flying Scots) are available for use by any certified member. They first have to pass an entry-level class that’s offered to those with little or no sailing experience.

Sailing lessons, taught by Commodore Morris and other volunteers, are held jointly with the Edison Boat Club at their clubhouse on the Detroit River.

Later in the year, the DBC holds a “rendezvous” for members and guests. It’s at an offsite location where sailors old and new show up to have a bit of fun … a place where you can drive if you don’t have a boat to stow away on.

And one day, maybe, just maybe, that rendezvous will end up on Belle Isle, where the DBC’s former home sits waiting for a miracle to happen.

The Friends of Detroit Rowing have been working to remodel the 1902-era clubhouse. Even though it looks run down from the outside, the interior has been maintained. They’ve been hosting weddings recently, and it also houses the Belle Isle Art Gallery

For now, the DBC’s rendezvous stays on the road. But Morris says there’s a chance — perhaps — that the Belle Isle club could once again become home. They’re in discussions to “get back in,” and chances are better now that the state and rowing club have a lease for 30 years.

DBC is also working with groups like Belle Isle Conservancy. At a recent brainstorming session, Morris says the third top priority was improving the boat club exterior, and perhaps eventually providing docks where boat-owners could dock and spend the day at Belle Isle.

“I missed out on being commodore for the 175th anniversary,” Morris says. But to be the commodore when the DBC could announce a return to Belle Isle?

Now that would be cause for hoisting a few!

For more information, visit detroitboatclub.com. For sailing lesson information, email learntosail@detroitboatclub.com