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The history of Fishers Island

Author John Rousmaniere has a new book on the Fishers Island Yacht Club

Author John Rousmaniere has a new book

on the Fishers Island Yacht Club

Since it was discovered by Dutch explorer Adrian Block in 1614, Fishers Island has had a rich maritime history. Its challenging waters have attracted yachtsmen for years.

In 1928 a group of sailors and powerboaters gathered to form the Fishers Island Yacht Club, a small club with a big interest in boating. Three quarters of a century later, the modest yacht club has trained many elite sailors and been associated with some noted sailboat designs.

To commemorate the club, noted author, sailor and historian John Rousmaniere has penned a book, “Sailing at Fishers: A History of the Fishers Island Yacht Club” (2004, $50). The 160-page hardbound book, a co-publication of Mystic Seaport and the Fishers Island Yacht Club, explores not only the history of the club and its members, but of the island itself. The book chronicles the shipwrecks, hurricanes and the island’s economic history, among other topics.

The book is illustrated with nearly 200 images from the Henry L. Ferguson Museum on Fishers Island, The Rosenfeld Collection at Mystic Seaport and several families’ private collections.

The book actually has humble beginnings, according to Rousmaniere. After 75 years, members wanted to record the club’s history. “As older members were dying off, they wanted to chronicle the history,” says Rousmaniere.

Former commodores John Burnham, editor of Sailing World magazine, and Peter Rugg contacted Rousmaniere, whose books about the sea and boats include “The Annapolis Book of Seamanship,” “After the Storm,” “Fastnet, Force 10,” and “The Clubhouse at Sea,” a history of the New York Yacht Club’s clubhouse. Rousmaniere, who lives in Stamford, Conn., and New York City, worked on the book on and off for about a year, juggling other projects as well. He interviewed dozens of people and sifted through reams of historical information, and eventually his research evolved into a book that he hopes will interest yachtsmen, history buffs and those curious about island living.

Although it’s located about three miles off the Connecticut shore, Fishers Island is part of New York state. The island was largely isolated until the late 19th century, when entrepreneurs decided to develop Fishers into a resort and yachting center. Families from Connecticut and New York would come by steamboat and stay in the summer in cottages that dot the island. Later, visitors would arrive by commuter yachts and other private vessels. Sailing was one of the many leisure activities available, and the traditional New England catboat was a popular vessel.

The island’s first yacht club was founded on Hay Harbor in 1886. “[It] had the life span of a flea,” says Rousmaniere. A second club, originally called the West Harbor Yacht Club, was started in 1928. The following year, the name was changed to Fishers Island Yacht Club.The founding commodore was Arthur E. Whitney and the first rear commodore was a woman — a rarity in those days — Nancy Archibald Fuller.

Some of the noted designs raced by the club’s fleet racers include several built by noted yards such as Herreshoff, Nevins and Luders. These included the Fishers Island One Design, Fishers Island Sound 31, Herreshoff 23-foot Class, Luders 16, Rhodes 27, Bullseye and International One Design Class. Rousmaniere’s book also chronicles the club’s successful junior sailing program. The first junior programs began in the 1920s with the Bullseye class, in which many Fishers Island sailors won national championships. In recent years, the program has expanded and continues to produce some of the nation’s best sailors, Rousmaniere says, such as 2004 Olympic sailor Isabelle Kinsolving, who campaigned in the women’s 470 division.

“Now I think Fishers Island is one of the powerhouses,” says Rousmaniere.

He says the island-wide sailing program is successful because the parents are interested, the instructors motivate students, and no one is discouraged from sailing. “They work hard at the junior sailing program,” he says.

While some of the biggest names in sailracing have trained at Fishers Island, the dues are reasonable and the clubhouse itself is very modest. “It’s about the size of your average tool shed,” says Rousmaniere.

With the Fishers Island book complete, Rousmaniere is currently working on books about the history of Olin Stephens-designed Bolero and the Bermuda Race, which celebrates its centennial anniversary in 1906.

“Sailing at Fishers: A History of the Fishers Island Yacht Club” is available for $50 from Mystic Seaport.