At the Essex Corinthian Yacht Club in Essex, Conn., three of the founding members sit around a wooden table in a dining room on the second floor, each with a cold drink in hand.
The surface of the table is scratched and lined with age, familiar and comforting. A warm sea breeze off the Connecticut River makes it apparent that, even on this chilly March day, spring is destined to break through.
It has been 25 years since these three men — Dan Daniells, A.J. Wasley, and Dennis Walker, sat with five other people much in this same fashion, and carved out a yacht club that would be affordable, comfortable and accessible to people from all walks of life.
“All the founders grew up in this building when it was the Essex Yacht Club and we all learned how to sail together,” says Daniells, 55, who still resides in Essex. “When it moved next door — its current location — this building sat empty for three years. We decided we wanted to do something with it.”
That “something” was to create a more casual yacht club with an even more family-oriented atmosphere. The building had been constructed in 1937 specifically for a yacht club so there was very little the founders had to do to prepare the facility for their needs. It also happens to own a piece of history. The mantle on the fireplace has a piece of Osage, a ship built in 1814 that was never launched, rigged or registered and was burned to the ground during a British attack on the shores of Essex during the War of 1812.
“We looked at this building and saw the fireplace, a great view — it was all right here,” says Wasley, 58, who lives in East Haddam and travels to the club on a regular basis.
Walker says they were able to get an eight-year lease on the upper floor of the property, which includes the porch, meeting and dining facilities.
The club’s burgee, a large blue C with an art-deco red E within it, was designed by founding member John Fields on a paper napkin during one of the initial meetings. On July 14, 1984, they sent out a letter — with the signature burgee at the top — announcing themselves to the surrounding community.
That first season they had 100 people respond to the letter, enthusiastic about being a part of the new club on the block. One of those initial members was Soundings founder Jack Turner.
“He never wore socks, even in the wintertime,” says Walker, who now lives in Guilford. “He would refuse to give up those Top-Siders.”
People could pay $100 initially to join for the remainder of that year. Dues would be $200 the following year. “Corinthian” was chosen for the name because of its reference to an amateur yachtsman. The original letter and news article hang in the club’s dining hall to this day.
“We wanted to attract people who were interested in boating, but they didn’t necessarily have to own a boat,” says Walker. “We were overwhelmed by the response.”
Walker says that in order to create a casual atmosphere, they instituted a fully functional galley that serves lunch and dinner at various times throughout the year with a BYOB policy. They even have their own jazz band.
“We all had young kids at the time, so making family activities was a priority for us,” says Daniells. “We hold races on the river often.”
Of the initial 100 members, Walker says 25 to 50 percent already belonged to another club. That was fine with the Corinthian founders.
“We weren’t looking for competition; that wasn’t our purpose in creating it,” says Walker.
By 1987, the club had grown and members were able to extend their lease to include the lower floor as well.
“The downstairs had been a sign carver’s shop,” says Walker. “In one year, through all-volunteer help, the downstairs was completely renovated.”
Two years ago, a chair lift was installed to help handicapped people up the stairs, and last year Brewer Marina bought the property and became the club’s new owner.
The maximum number of memberships is 250, dictated by the zoning code for the building and members currently number in the mid-230s, with an estimated 25 out-of-state members from such places as Florida, New York and Massachusetts. That number is a 15- to 20-person jump from last year, says Jeff Going, a member since 1992. Club members have not been unaffected by the economy, however, and a few people have had to leave.
“We’re very lucky to have seen steady growth, especially now,” says Going, 62.
Walker says it’s a frightening thing to see other venerable yacht clubs vanish. The Knickerbocker Yacht Club in Port Washington, N.Y., which was founded in 1874, folded in early February.
“We’re very lucky to actually see a surge of membership,” says Walker. “But it’s the membership that keeps the club going. We have everything from young people with families to people our age.”
Wasley says many of the founders grew up sailing and boating with their families on the Connecticut River. Though Wasley and Daniells do not currently own boats, being a part of the club allows them to associate with other boaters and create opportunities for them to get out on the water. Current Commodore Lewis Davidson says the members held a fund-raiser last year and purchased two Ideal 18 sailboats for members to use free of charge. As part of this year’s 25th anniversary celebrations, the club planned to use the vessels to start an adult sailing program this spring.
For the members who do own boats — such as Walker who owns Schemer, a Mainship 400 trawler -— members gather together annually for the Armchair Cruise. They discuss trips they’ve taken during the last year, and share travel tips and photographs.
“One year we had a couple that traveled to the Thousand Islands,” says Walker. “I’m hoping to do the same trip with my trawler next year.”
The May 23 event was scheduled to include the christening of The Corinthian, a 34-foot wooden launch built by 87-year-old member Peter Schellens in the shed of his house in Essex with members Dave Edwards and Rod Lucas.
Walker says the club is run in a very democratic fashion and all members are invited to join various work parties — invitations they are free to accept or decline depending on their work schedules. Anyone interested in joining the club must be nominated by an existing member and go through an application process, which includes the yearly fee of $845.
“We have one longstanding member who now lives in Florida who comes up once a year for lunch,” says Walker. “He calls it his ‘$800 hamburger.’ ”
Walker says they rely on members for much of the club’s improvements. For instance, the lower level of the building was opened up in January as the “River Pub” when a member donated an HDTV to allow for sports and event viewings. Members also produce “Bell 8 Seaworthy News,” an monthly online newsletter.
And, of course, there are parties. One of Wasley’s fondest memories of the club involves the party thrown to celebrate his 40th birthday. Just as the party was in full swing, the galley “blew up.” Something in the stove had caught fire. A quick-thinking member grabbed the fire extinguisher, but the foam had ruined all the food.
“I remember my wife calmly turning to me and saying, ‘Honey, order pizza for 100 people,’ ” says Wasley. “That’s my favorite story.”
Walker recalls when, in spring 1985, the cannon they shot off to commemorate the club blew out every window in the paint and marine shop next door.
“It was a pretty good blast,” says Wasley.
Outside pressures, such as family and his law practice, led Daniells to drop his membership for several years, but he says the social and relaxing atmosphere drew him back.
Upcoming events include the three-mile harbor race with the Essex Yacht Club slated for July 11 and a big anniversary bash to take place Sept. 9.
“It’s going to be huge,” says Walker. “We filled a need; people really feel they can belong here.”
For information about the club, visit www.essexcorinthianyc.org.
This article originally appeared in the Connecticut & New York Home Waters section of the July 2009 issue.