Eight Bells for Island Yacht Club?

Ros de Vries
Jun 8, 2020 · 8 min read

I live in the Mission District, San Francisco. Due to a concentration of rental properties and working class residents, the proximity to the city and an influx of highly-paid workers, the Mission has developed a lively activist scene, whose mother-cause is affordable housing and the fight against gentrification.

Now, if you’ve secured housing that’s affordable and secure, there’s little incentive to take upon yourself the activist mantle. “I don’t believe in gentrification,” a sailing buddy told me once, “we all just exist together, right?”

Like this buddy, it is certain that many yacht club members — the majority being older, white and educated — have never been threatened by gentrification. They are, after all, the gentry. But privately owned waterfront land is desirable and in limited supply… And with only four yacht clubs in the Bay Area holding their own titles, it’s inevitable that property developers would find a yacht club or two standing between them and their next “community” of sleek waterfront condos.

And they did. Treasure Island Yacht Club was displaced for two years, returned to TI, but may have to move again at the end of 2020. Presidio Yacht Club faces an uncertain future. And Island Yacht Club — well, you’ll see.

Svend Svendsen understood how quickly it all could all go south. Born in 1936, he grew up in a Denmark under direct military occupation by the Nazis, from 1943 until Allied victory in 1945. During that time, Svendsen delivered messages for the Danish underground, which would have forced him at a young age to take neither safety or security for granted.

Skipping many years ahead, Svendsen established a large boatyard on Clement St, Alameda. Apart from the boat works (which still exists, albeit in Pt. Richmond), the yard was home to 80 maritime businesses, including a variety of boat riggers, naval architects, Hogin Sails … Heck, the first American to complete the Vendee Globe worked for Svendsen there, being Bruce Schwab.

Svendsen’s Boat Works at Alameda Marina, before moving to Pt. Richmond in 2018. Via: marinas.com

And then there was a boating club, my club — Island Yacht Club, Alameda. An all-volunteer run effort, we hosted weekly sailboat races, the Women’s Sailing Seminar and a crabfeed that would sell out every year. At times, we were lousy with politics and infighting, but somehow, we always made it back to the slip with all crew accounted for.

Commodore Chris holds court at a member dinner, February 2020.
The IYC Annual Crabfeed, March 2020.

A club where the Treasurer/Quartermaster — a local, enigmatic liveaboard — would hole up in the clubhouse for two days straight, mopping floors, chopping greens and table-setting, in preparation for a member dinner.

Trevor prepares for the Crabfeed, March 2020.

A club where — not knowing any better — I introduced myself quickly to the estuary racing circuit, by flapping around a red protest flag, before my boat had even left the slip. The committee laughed about it for weeks.

A club where we unfurled the spinnaker during an (unbeknownst to me) white sails race… And it all got put down to antics. Goodness, did I learn a lot that season.

While I jest at my own expense, we do have a lot of very talented sailors. Paul Mueller, an 80-something year old Long Islander who reliably smokes us in his Mercury. George Lythcott, a singlehanded skipper for multiple TransPacs. A small but certain group of Friday night racers. A passionate sub-set of Santana 22 enthusiasts.

John and Esther talk tactics on Island Girl, IYC’s own Santana 22, February, 2020.

At the end of each race, we’d roll into the clubhouse with the jocularity of a college kickball team. Most Americans (and others, for that matter) may well imagine that yacht club membership comes with a white turtleneck, blue blazer and pocket kerchief, but for Island Yacht Club, nothing was further from the truth. Almost everyone at IYC had grown up sailing — and even when economic opportunity served or failed them in adult life, Island Yacht Club was the club they could afford to actively race in. The old guys almost always wore beat-up racing swag — typically, a Great Pumpkin Regatta shirt from ’08, paired with old Nikes.

John tends the IYC bar, March 2020.

My husband and I, both relative newcomers to the club, are proud to be labeled estuary “swamp sailors” by our shinier kin at Richmond Yacht Club. I feel it is progressive to promote a humbler view of sailing. A view in which a couple of dumb kids can push a club boat out of the slip on a Friday evening and be moved by the fiery glow of sunset over the City. We didn’t need to be Silicon Valley millionaires. A few knots of breeze, some beers and we were fine.

For us, this was the golden age of sailing. And all it cost was IYC’s dues, or roughly one dollar fifty a day.

On May 27, 2013 Svend Svendsen died after a long battle against cancer.

In September 2018, a proposal was unanimously accepted by Alameda City Council, to redevelop the 44-acre boatyard to feature 760 units of housing, alongside some maritime businesses.

Developer artwork of the new Alameda Marina, via alamedamarina.com

Now, we all knew after the proposal went through, that our time on Alameda Marina was eventually going to come to a close. In the Bay Area, where discussions over environmental impacts and community appeasement often last for years or decades, what was truly surprising was how quickly it all came together.

The honest, albeit naive, opinion was that we’d have a runway of 3–5 years following the 2018 approval, during which time we’d find a home.

Then we got the eviction notice on New Year’s Day, 2020. We’d have to be out by that April. The supposed runway went from 3 years, to three months.

Despite being a longtime tenant, Island Yacht Club was entitled to nothing. There was nothing in the Alameda Marina masterplan about maintaining a longstanding club for both new and existing Alameda residents… And even if we were invited to come back, where would we live in the interim?

The result, of course, was our club officers looking into — then nixing — some rather creative opportunities, including: the conversion of a houseboat down in Oyster Point (too much money and work to fix up), cohabiting with a sailing school (drinking around kids — nope) and even reviving an abandoned ketch in Oakland Marina (too much dry rot).

As the social media flag bearer for the club, I fielded curiosity and suggestions, almost all unsolicited. The majority of offers were genuine and kind (with particular thanks to Treasure Island Yacht Club), but some verged on predatory. “Would it be good, you know, if you transferred your membership to our vastly more expensive club? After all, we are in the neighborhood. Let your Commodore know.”

The lure of someone else’s clubhouse, with weekend brunches and “speaker series” events, is appealing. But Commodore Chris would chide us for even suggesting a merger. He’d ask, is it worth giving up our identity, for that?

After the coronavirus pandemic gave us a momentary, albeit ineffectual stay, we had to be out of the club by June. While we took inventory of 50 years of club possessions, the developer scooped up the land, unearthing a soggy foundation of rotting wooden piles, the remains of a maritime history before ours. I felt there was a poetic side to this. Prior to 2017, one could assume that IYC would sail on forever… But indeed, our keel was gone. And with it, our static stability.

Preliminary excavation by the developer, November 2019. The crocodiles are a typical Chris gag.

The last few days of the club were spent as cheerfully and productively as could be mustered during a pandemic. Being at IYC felt like eight bells to a beloved old uncle, with people coming and going to pay their respects — not to mention, stuff all kinds of gear into boxes, while sneaking much of it to their homes or to the trash. The sunny weather and mid-70’s temperatures made for an atmosphere of cautious relaxation, with almost everyone taking their masks off while outdoors. And of course, there was a night or two when it was determined that the best way to dispose of the club bar was to pour round after round of “honor” drinks. Not one volunteer grumbled about the labor, but a fair few were nowhere to be seen until late the following day.

Chris, John and Nathan take a dockside break, May 2020.

50 years of club history — towering regatta trophies, plaques for consecutive wins of the “Opening Day on the Bay” boat parade, photo books from the Women’s Sailing Seminar, Nautical Ladder mats and knick-knacks — it all got loaded into a truck, its home for now being a shipping container in Fairfax.

The IYC shipping container, June 2020.

The squeaky front door was closed. The club boats convalesce in their slips. Our members dial into weekly Zoom meetings, waiting out the pandemic, waiting for what’s next. Waiting feels like all in these doldrum days. But… if you ask Commodore Chris, he’ll tell you with an smile as warm as summer on Huntington Lake:

“We’ll be back on the water soon! Race committee can still take their spot on the end of the slip! After, we can all head to BoatHouse Tavern and it will be sweet!”

Then as always, “Man, I just want to sail!”.

Chris is 100% correct. Perhaps not about drinking at BoatHouse Tavern, or even sailing this season. But the one thing he wanted to save, well, he’s got it. Yes, we still have our identity.

The Island Yacht Club charter, dated February 26, 1970. The club’s annual fee was $25.

At Close Quarters

True sailing stories and salty tales by Ros de Vries