A Brief History
The Second Oldest Yacht Club
The records of the Southern Yacht Club trace its history back to the club's founding in the Gulf Coast resort town of Pass Christian, Mississippi in the year 1849. Only the venerable New York Yacht Club can document an earlier founding date. As such, SYC is proud to bear the mantle of the second oldest yacht club in the United States.
New Orleans in the antebellum era was a thriving port city, banking center and cultural leader. However, during the summer months, many New Orleanians would retreat to the Gulf Coast to flee the city's heat, humidity and outbreaks of yellow fever. Summer homes, hotels and boarding houses dotted the coast along the Mississippi Sound to Mobile Bay. The first recorded regattas in this region were held as early as the 1830s in the coastal ports of Biloxi and Mobile.
A favorite destination among New Orleanians was the Pass Christian Hotel. There, SYC’s organizational meeting was held on July 21, 1849 and the hotel became its headquarters for several years. James W. Behan was elected as the club's first president (the title "commodore" was not used until 1854) and eighteen yachts answered the starting gun for the club's inaugural regatta that summer.
Activities continued at "The Pass" until 1857 when the club relocated to New Orleans and held its regattas on Lake Pontchartrain. Meetings were held at various locations in the city.
The Race to the Coast
The year after its founding, on July 4th, 1850, SYC held the first of what was to become an annual race from New Orleans to Pass Christian. The racecourse winds its way across Lake Pontchartrain, through The Rigolets to Lake Borgne and then into the Mississippi Sound. This annual Race to the Coast continues today and is one of the very oldest regattas still regularly contested in the Western Hemisphere.
A Clubhouse, at last
The seventeen years of Civil War and Reconstruction greatly curtailed boating activities until 1878 when the club was reorganized and its first postwar regatta held. The following year, a handsome clubhouse was built over the water on the shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain beside a burgeoning recreational destination, known as West End. The clubhouse became the scene of many elaborate social events, as well as numerous regattas.
In 1899 a new and larger clubhouse was erected under the leadership of Commodore Albert Baldwin. Regattas continued on the lake with the fleet competing each summer in interclub races on the Gulf Coast. This second clubhouse was extensively enlarged and renovated in the 1920s. The grand ballroom addition hosted many gala events which, notably, featured many of the emerging jazz pioneers of the day. In the 1930s, the Municipal Yacht Harbor, a WPA project, was built adjacent to SYC, greatly expanding the capacity for mooring recreational boats.
During World War II, the grand clubhouse saw heavy use by the US Navy and Coast Guard and following the war in 1949, it was replaced by a modest concrete and steel structure. This third clubhouse was expanded in the 1960s and '80s, and another major expansion was set to begin in 2005, but fate was to intervene.
The Gulf Yachting Association
In 1919, America's Cup celebrity and sailing benefactor Sir Thomas Lipton (who had lived in New Orleans as a young man), donated an elaborate trophy to Southern Yacht Club for an Interclub Challenge amongst Gulf Coast yacht clubs. This effort helped spark the reorganization of the Gulf Yachting Association. Originally conceived in 1901 by members of SYC and several other Gulf Coast clubs, the GYA brought together yachtsmen from Texas to Florida and as far inland as Arkansas to encourage the sport of yacht racing.
The Fish Class sloop, designed by Southern member Rathbone DeBuys, had its debut in 1919 and quickly became the most popular one design class in the Gulf South. Other early classes of yachts introduced were the Massachusetts Bay 21 Footer, Star and Sound Interclub.
The popular Fish Class became the standard-issue yacht of each GYA club for the annual Lipton Cup Challenge, which remains keenly contested to this day. The GYA's year-long interclub series is named for SYC Commodore Auguste Capdevielle, who passed away in office in 1940. In 1968 the Flying Scot replaced the aging Fish Class as the GYA interclub yacht. Today the GYA has over thirty member clubs.
The Olympic Games
The 1932 Olympic Games saw Southern Yacht Club Star Class skipper Gilbert Gray and crew Andrew Libano win a Gold Medal. It was the United States’ first-ever Gold Medal in sailing.
In the 1956 and 1960 Games, Gene Walet III represented the USA in the Dragon Class. Among Walet's crew was his father Eugene Walet Jr. plus Daniel B. Killeen and Allen "Pudgy" McClure Jr.
In 1968, G.S. "Buddy" Friedrichs, Jr. with crew Barton Jahncke and Click Schreck won the Olympic Gold Medal in the Dragon Class. SYC sailors continued to be regular participants in the Olympic Trials, but none would reach the Games again for almost 25 years.
Southern's next Olympian was Flying Dutchman sailor Steve Burdow, crewing for Paul Foerster in the 1992 Games. The pair won the Silver Medal that year.
From 1996 to 2008, SYC was represented in four straight Olympic Games in the Tornado Class. Skipper Johnny Lovell and crew Charlie Ogletree dominated the US Tornado Class during this period, winning multiple national and international championships. Their greatest success came in 2004 when the pair won the Silver Medal at the Athens Games.
In 2008, SYC was represented in two Olympic classes in Tsingtao, China. John Dane, III had made several runs at the Olympics during his lifelong sailing career, but it was not until 2008 at the age of 58 that he finally achieved his goal. Sailing in the always competitive Star Class, Dane and his son-in-law Austin Sperry peaked at just the right time to win the Olympic Trials and represent the USA in the 2008 Games.
The Olympic Sailing Association at New Orleans was founded by Southern members to encourage development of future Olympians. This successful non-profit organization maintains a strong presence throughout the Gulf Coast region. Perhaps the OSANO's greatest achievement, was never fully realized. As of 2005, the Gulf Coast region was set to host the US Olympic Sailing Trials in advance of the 2008 Games, but sadly, fate had other plans for the region.
Hurricane Katrina made landfall just east of New Orleans on August 29, 2005 causing widespread destruction throughout the region, including crippling damage to numerous Gulf Coast yacht clubs. Though only modestly damaged by wind and flood waters, Southern's clubhouse was ultimately destroyed by a massive fire which burned unchecked in the hours following the storm. Sadly, many historic trophies and other priceless artifacts were lost in the fire.
After two years of construction, Southern Yacht Club's fourth West End clubhouse was opened in 2009. Once again, SYC has a permanent home and, like the clubhouses before her, she is the crown jewel of the New Orleans Lakefront.
Over the years, Southern Yacht Club sailors have won four Olympic medals and numerous national and international championships. Through more than one hundred and sixty years of prosperity and adversity the Southern Yacht Club has maintained a tradition of keen competition, sportsmanship and eponymous hospitality.