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The club that puts kids in charge

In the summer of 1887, a group of boys needed a place to launch their boats. The Eastern Yacht Club had waterfront space and decided to rent it to them for $1 per year.

In the summer of 1887, a group of boys needed a place to launch their boats. The Eastern Yacht Club had waterfront space and decided to rent it to them for $1 per year. The objective was to promote small-boat sailing and encourage sportsmanship. For a name the boys chose Pleon, Greek for “sailing.” The Pleon Yacht Club was born, and the rent has stayed the same for more than 100 years.

Situated on Marblehead Neck, Pleon has produced some of our country’s top yachtsmen, including America’s Cup sailor Robbie Doyle, 2006 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Jud Smith, and world-class sailor Dave Curtis. A new generation — the offspring of some of Pleon’s prestigious alumni — is now making their marks in sailing: Gretchen Curtis, Ethan Doyle and Darby Smith, among others.

Pleon’s young members run the club’s races and organize the events, and although the sailors who pass through don’t always take to the competitive side of the sport, they all look back on their Pleon days with fondness. The fact that kids run the place and adults (technically) aren’t allowed on the property is obviously difficult to maintain at times, but the commitment to Pleon remains unchanged. It is a haven for youth sailors, a place where lifelong friendships begin.

“Pleon is totally unique in that it’s a yacht club run for kids by kids,” says resident Bill Lynn, a former collegiate all-American sailor. “And that’s not just window-dressing; it really is run by kids. The only adult involvement is a board of directors — legally required to be a non-profit — and the program committee. These two groups are essentially there to help with things like hiring instructors, registering sailors for the program, raising money, and maintaining the facility and equipment. The key word is ‘help,’ as it really is the flag officers and their committees [all kids] that run the show during the summer.”

Growing up in an environment where youth are given full responsibility for their organization offers a unique life lesson. “The Pleon Yacht Club is a fantastic venue for the development of young sailors,” says Marblehead sailor Jack Cochrane. “It is available to all juniors, not just yacht club members’ children. Those who participate have the opportunity to expand their sportsmanship, racing and organizational skills so important for their future endeavors.”

This summer, the Pleon Yacht Club is host to a number of important junior events. Along with Junior Race Week — always held the third week of July — the club hosted the nation’s best young female sailors from July 29 through Aug. 4 for a national regatta known as the U.S. Junior Women’s Single-Handed Championship for the Nancy Leiter Clagett Memorial Trophy.

The US Sailing-sponsored event — held at Pleon for the first time and drawing girls (ages 13 to 17) from as far away as Texas and California — is named for a woman who in her youth was a vital part of the Pleon Yacht Club. In fact, when Nancy Leiter was growing up in Marblehead in the 1930s she was a young fleet captain of Pleon and a great competitor.

In the 1940s Leiter married Tom Clagett, and the two remained involved with competitive sailing throughout their lives. In 1980 Tom initiated the Nancy Leiter Clagett Memorial Trophy in honor of his wife, who died in 1977. He saw a need to promote women’s youth sailing, and through his efforts the event has become a springboard for some of the best female sailors racing today. Now in its 27th year — Tom Clagett died in 2001 — it has nurtured the likes of America’s Cup sailor Melissa Purdy, match-racing champion Elizabeth Kratzig, and 2006 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year Paige Railey.

“This small club has played a key role in the formation of young sailors who, like the late Nancy Leiter Clagett, become lifelong sailors and in turn encourage the next generation of sailors,” says Peter McManus, one of a handful of adults who helped organize the regatta. “Not only is this competition a great example of the competitive and Corinthian spirit of sailing, but hosting it at the oldest junior yacht club in America is a great opportunity to showcase our town’s century-long commitment to youth sailing.”

Off the water, however, Pleon gives Marblehead the opportunity to showcase another aspect of its commitment to its youth. “Pleon is not so much about preparing kids to be top-flight racers or professional sailors, although Pleon does do this as well,” says Lynn. “Rather, it’s about developing leadership skills, personal responsibility and accountability — all qualities you find in graduates of the Pleon program and all things that we all want our kids to learn. In this way, Pleon’s not just creating the next generation of outstanding sailors; it’s also creating the next generation of solid citizens.”