Model sailboat skippers gather for a regatta in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in this early 20th-century image from the collections at Mystic Seaport, the maritime museum in Mystic, Connecticut. The sport’s American origins trace back to the 1870s, and it thrives today under the auspices of the American Model Yachting Association (AMYA).
New York was an early hotbed for this type of racing. On July 4, 1872, “model yachting was initiated on the large lake at Prospect Park,” wrote historian Frank Nichols in Field and Stream. A second regatta in Central Park drew a field of 13 schooners and four sloops, along with 2,000 spectators, according to the New York Times, proving “the experiment of miniature yachting is destined to be successful.”
By the 1920s, the sport was more firmly entrenched in our culture. Five thousand people came to a New York regatta featuring a father-son race and races for girls. A youth regatta in the same state drew 200 entrants. Model sailboating, it seemed, was an affordable activity for young people, and boats were built in schools to teach woodworking, metal work and fabric handling.
Races mostly took place on open water. Early steering mechanisms included rudder vanes and were primitive. The remote control changed it all. Famed inventor Nikolas Tesla developed a wireless control for his model sailboat back in 1885, but the idea didn’t catch on until the 1930s, when it was used to control a boat’s rudder. “Sheer wizardry,” wrote the Boston Traveler in 1935. “A youngster pressed a button upon a little box on shore and the boat tacked in an orderly manner and swung off on the starboard leg of her course.”
With the advent of the remote control, powerboat racing soon came to Central Park. Though popular, the local club discontinued these races due to fires, explosions and injuries, to both ducks and people.
Better technology gradually made the sport more expensive, and as a result, participation declined. That is, until the creation of the AMYA in the 1970s as the national governing body for model yachting.
This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.