HISTORY of the LAKE GENEVA YACHT CLUB
The Yacht Club Begins
In August 1874, residents of the Wisconsin town of Geneva (as it was then known) and elsewhere on Geneva Lake welcomed Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan, the famous Civil War army officer, who since 1869 had been stationed in Chicago as commander of the Department of the Missouri and who in 1871 had coordinated military relief efforts during the Great Chicago Fire.
To celebrate his stay, General Sheridan’s hosts selected August 31 for a yacht race named in his honor, and they raised $200 by popular subscription for an appropriate trophy. The actual Sheridan Prize, designed and built by the Chicago firm of Giles Bro. & Co., would not be completed for more than a year, but the promise of an annual competition with its elegant award was enough to generate great interest and lay the groundwork for establishing a yacht club.
According to the Lake Geneva Herald, the excitement surrounding the inaugural race “was of the keenest kind.” The fleet consisted of seven boats of various lengths known as sandbaggers, and the newspaper described the course as “a double triangular race, being 3 miles South from Whiting House pier, then 2 miles East into Button’s Bay, then North to the place of starting, then repeat, being nearly 16 miles, besides tacking.” General Sheridan observed the race from the judges’ boat. The winner on corrected time was the 21-foot topsail sloop Nettie, sailed by Billy Woods, master of a local passenger and freight schooner. Nettie’s owner was Julian Sidney Rumsey, a pioneer Chicagoan, successful grain merchant, past mayor of the city, and a founding member and former president of the Chicago Board of Trade. Newspapers reported that Nettie’s victory was greeted with “great cheering by friends and screeching of steam whistles.”
On April 29, 1876, the year of the nation’s centennial, a small group of boat owners and enthusiasts gathered at the Whiting House, the popular hotel at the foot of Broad Street, to establish what they initially called the Geneva Lake Yacht Club. Those present adopted a constitution and bylaws, determined sailing rules and regulations, enrolled 18 yachts, elected more than 40 members, and chose Chicago industrialist Nathaniel Kellogg Fairbank as their first commodore. They also memorialized the year 1874 not only as the date of the first Sheridan Prize Race but as the official founding date of the new club.
In May, the Geneva Lake Yacht Club elected 16 more members, one of whom was General Sheridan, and in August the club held the Sheridan Race for the first time under its auspices and rules. The winner was Geneva, owned by General A. C. Ducat, and General Sheridan presented the new trophy, a hand- some and detailed 10-inch sterling silver model of the sandbagger Nettie.
In 1891, the Yacht Club reorganized and was incorporated in 1894 under its new name, the Lake Geneva Yacht Club. In 1902 (some accounts say earlier), it merged with the West End Yacht Club based in Fontana.
Early Boats, Scows, and the Classes Today
Sailing craft on Geneva Lake in the late 1800s varied in length and rig, but most were called sandbaggers – broad-beamed, open, shallow-draft sloops that had evolved from workboats. Sandbaggers carried huge spreads of canvas and 50-pound sandbags for ballast that the crew shifted with each tack. According to one early report, most boats sailed with a “plucky” crew of ten or more, known for their “skill, courage, genius, alertness, and agility.”
By 1895, the Lake Geneva Yacht Club’s fleet included nine 25-foot sandbaggers, fourteen 21-foot sandbaggers, four 18-footers, twelve 15-footers, several “less strenuous” catboats in the 15- to 25-foot range, 11 steamers, and two launches. By the end of the decade, however, the design scene on Geneva Lake had changed drastically as the sandbagger type was pushed to near extinction by the Inland Lake Yachting Association’s longer, narrower, lighter boats that were easier to handle, required fewer crew, and, as one writer expressed it, were “balanced to a nicety.”
At a Yacht Club meeting on August 21, 1899, the Sheridan Prize trustees, who govern the event, adopted a new rule for the Sheridan Prize Race stating that all boats in the competition must be classified as Class A within the Inland Lake Yachting Association rules. Five Class A boats (sometimes called 20-footers for their measurement rating) showed up for the 1899 Sheridan, and Benjamin Carpenter and his fellow owners, sailing their gaff-rigged centerboarder Algonquin, were the first to win the Sheridan Prize in a scow. Since then, the Sheridan Prize Race has been held in the 38-foot Class A except from 1975 through 1978, when the A fleet was all but dormant and the trustees invited the 28-foot Class E to race.
In March 2013, the Sheridan Prize trustees added an amendment to the Trust Agreement of 1969 and stated that the race shall be sailed in One-Design Class A Scows as defined by the National Class A Scow Association. They also clarified eligibility requirements and defined the course: a start at the Yacht Club with the fleet sailing a windward course, if possible, to either Fontana or Lake Geneva, then to a mark at the other end of the lake, then to the Yacht Club to finish.
In 2016, the Sheridan Prize Trustees honored the request of Charles Colman to race his new replica sandbagger Tattler II, named for the winner of the Sheridan Prize Race in 1892. Colman’s boat and her plucky crew completed the course, crossing the finishing line after the A-boats to great cheering and applause.
Sailboats on Geneva Lake have undergone numerous refinements since 1902, when bilge boards and double rudders came into widespread use. New classes differed from one another primarily in length and sail plan. Of the two original ILYA classes, A and B, the 32-foot Class B disappeared in about 15 years. By the mid-1920s, the classes racing at the Yacht Club were the 38-foot A, the 28-foot E (new on the scene and “bound to become very popular”), the 20-foot C (sanctioned by the ILYA in August 1905 to race in 1906), and the 24-foot centerboard sloop called Class X, which disappeared from the roster by the end of the decade. During the years that followed the gaff rig lost popularity, hiking straps replaced the need to “ride the boards,” and materials and techniques evolved as builders and sailmakers continued to experiment.
The Yacht Club’s calendar today includes fleet races for Class A, Class E, Class C, Class MC, Melges 24, Melges 15, Melges 14, Class X (a junior boat, known initially as a Cub), and the Optimist Dinghy. A popular new competition that started in 2018 is the Women on the Water program, a joint effort with the Geneva Lake Sailing School, which supplied its 23-foot Sonars for the series. LGYC racing schedules may also feature national championships, invitational regattas, and the multi-class ILYA Annual Championship. On the last Saturday in August, if conditions permit, the Yacht Club holds the annual Sheridan Prize Race.
The Inland Lake Yachting Association
In January 1898, delegates from 17 clubs in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin met in Milwaukee and established the Inland Lake Yachting Association (ILYA). Its purpose was to “encourage and promote yachting and interlake racing on the inland lakes of the West under uniform rules of measurement, classification, racing, and sailing.” The new organization formulated a set of rules for two classes to race without handicap, which fostered the rapid development of scows. The Lake Geneva Yacht Club is an ILYA founding member (i.e., a participant at the organizational meeting at the White Bear Yacht Club in Minnesota in 1897) and a charter member (a participant at the Milwaukee meeting in 1898).
In the early years of the ILYA, only one boat from a class in each of the member clubs could compete in the Annual Championship Regatta, which after 1902 was to be held only at Oshkosh. In 1905, so that more boats could compete on a variety of lakes, eight yacht clubs in southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois formed the Northwestern Regatta Association (NRA), which adopted the specifications of the ILYA scows but allowed unlimited entries for its own annual regatta. The first three Northwestern regattas were sailed on Geneva Lake. In 1913, the president of the ILYA and the commodore of the Northwestern Regatta Association was Dr. Otto L. Schmidt, a trustee of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club and its past commodore. He and others sought to consolidate the ILYA and the NRA, and after the joint regattas of 1915 in Oshkosh and discussions “to consider the advisability of such a union” the two organizations merged in 1916.
In the mid-1930s, the ILYA oversaw the development of a boat for young sailors, which became the popular 16-foot Cub. In 1940, the Lake Geneva Yacht Club was host to the ILYA’s first Cub championship regatta. At its 1947 meeting, the ILYA changed the boat’s name from Cub to Class X.
For more than 100 years, the Inland Lake Yachting Association and its Annual Championship Regatta have been central to the enjoyment of the sport for LGYC sailors. The ILYA fostered the design of local scow classes, established these classes as the area’s primary racing boats, oversaw development of non-scow types, and today continues to govern and promote competition and encourage excellence in training and race management throughout its member clubs. Since 1900, the Lake Geneva Yacht Club has hosted the ILYA Annual Championship 18 times. (To access ILYA racing records, visit the Inland’s website, www.ilya.org)
Geneva Lake Sailing School
In the late 1930s LGYC officers decided that the Yacht Club should offer young people regular well-designed educational programs on sailing technique, seaman- ship, and safety. In 1938, with the encouragement of Commodore A. F. Gartz Jr. and Secretary-Treasurer and Past Commodore Ernst C. Schmidt, the Yacht Club hired Jerome Kipley as the first instructor of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club Sailing School, and in 1939 the club hired George Herbert Taylor for the post. Taylor, who had been a member of the US water polo and breaststroke teams at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, used his own A scow and a rejuvenated Marconi-rigged 24-foot Class X centerboarder for instruction. By the end of the season, Taylor had 40 students, and the Yacht Club bought additional boats for the program and received others as gifts.
Many members were active participants in the ongoing progress of the Sailing School, and Ernst Schmidt continued to play a critical role in its positive development with his counsel, help, and financial support. In 1953, with the guidance of attorney William H. Freytag Sr., the School reorganized and was incorporated as the Geneva Lake Sailing School, Inc., and the Yacht Club and the Sailing School became separate but supportive entities. In 1991, the Sailing School’s office and classrooms moved to a small building just west of the Yacht Club. In the summer of 2015, the Sailing School and the Yacht Club moved into new premises, with the first floor of the shared facility devoted to Sailing School activities in space designed to enable its programs to flourish.
Thanks to the teaching skills of many instructors and directors and the efforts of dedicated boards of directors, today’s Geneva Lake Sailing School is a respected community resource that provides quality sailing education and diversified pro- grams for children, high-school students, and adults. The staff includes full-time executive director Marek Valasek, who represented Slovakia in the Finn Class at the 1996 Olympics, and coaches and certified instructors who oversee beginning and intermediate sailing camps. In 2016, GLSS launched the Buddy Melges Racing Team program to promote youth sailing at local, regional, national, and inter- national levels in the Optimist Dinghy and other classes. The GLSS fleet includes prams, Optimist Dinghies, Club 420s, Class X, O’pen Bics, Windsurfers, Melges 14s, Melges 15s, Sonars, MCs, Lasers, and powerboats for the coaches.
Race Committee boats have been essential in conducting the Yacht Club’s busy racing schedule, and most of the early boats used for this purpose were owned by members. The club bought its two most recent boats specifically for Race Com- mittee duty. The first of these, delivered in 1941 and named Flagship, was 24 feet overall and built by the Lyman Boat Works in Sandusky, Ohio. The current Race Committee boat, launched in 1978, is Flagship II, a fiberglass Wasque 26 lobster- boat design built by Vineyard Yachts Inc., in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts.
Excellence in Sailing and Service
In the years since 1874, the membership of Lake Geneva Yacht Club has progressed from a small group of boat owners, many of whom used professional crews aboard their sandbaggers, to a membership with an impressive record of successful com- petition at local, regional, interscholastic, intercollegiate, national, and international levels, including the Pan American Games, the Olympic Games, and the America’s Cup. Each year, the Awards and Trophies section of the yearbook records the achievements of those who have excelled during the previous year. The club’s history is rich with the names of the men and women who continue to inspire us with their sailing ability and for their volunteer service to the sport at every level. A re- cord of those members’ names and their awards is planned for the LGYC website.
Clubhouses and the Buddy Melges Sailing Center
With the consolidation of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club and the West End Yacht Club and a combined membership of more than 100, the time was right to construct a clubhouse. In 1906, Kellogg Fairbank, the son of the first commodore, N. Fairbank, and commodore himself in 1890, agreed to lease property he owned at Cedar Point to the Yacht Club for $500 a year. To support the project, members subscribed to a building fund. “The season of 1906 holds promise of being the most successful and enthusiastic in the history of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club,” stated text in the yearbook. “The year marks the first in the history of our own clubhouse, a home which is the culmination of great labor and many disappointments in the past, and now the strong factor in the future of the club. Its ideal location on Cedar Point, assures us the support of every resident on the lake, a spot which could not have been better chosen in its neutrality to everyone’s interests.” The new two-story building, set on the lakefront in wooded surroundings, featured generous verandas and some sleeping accommodations. Toward the end of the lease, Yacht Club officers requested changes to the financial arrangement, but their negotiations were unsuccessful. In 1916, Kellogg Fairbank chose not to renew the Yacht Club’s lease on the property. The members moved out of the building, fleets held races from members’ piers, and the club was homeless for the next decade.
In 1926, members identified property in Linn Township, directly across the lake from the mouth of Williams Bay, and formed a holding company, the Yacht Club Corporation of Lake Geneva, to raise sufficient capital for the purchase and improvements. The corporation renovated the two-story “modest residence” that had been built in 1878, leased it to the Yacht Club for $800 a year, installed piers, slips, and other facilities, and in 1927 on the west side of the property built the Geneva Lake Boat Repair and Storage Company (renamed the Geneva Lake Boat Company in 1931). In 1941, for financial reasons, the stockholders of the Yacht Club Corporation of Lake Geneva voted to conclude its affairs, and the mortgage holder, Ernst C. Schmidt, secretary and treasurer of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club, assumed ownership. The Yacht Club continued to lease the property. In the 1960s, the Geneva Lake Boat Company bought the property it had been leasing from Ernst Schmidt, a purchase that included the Yacht Club. In 1967, at the end of their lease with the Boat Company, the Yacht Club and Sailing School constructed a two-story building on land donated to the Sailing School by Honorary Commodore Schmidt. The building, just east of the Boat Company, had a total enclosed area of 4,310 square feet plus a partial basement and crawl space. The property had approximately 112 feet of lake frontage and extended from the lake to South Lake Shore Drive. The new combined clubhouse and school was ready in time for the 1969 season. The Yacht Club leased its facilities from the Sailing School.
In 1974, the Lake Geneva Yacht Club celebrated its centennial and published a commemorative book on its history, edited by Harold S. Hamlin Jr. The club also hosted the ILYA Annual Championship Regatta; its racing sailors and Mike Kurzawa donated six centennial crew trophies to the ILYA; and it held the 100th Sheridan Prize Race on August 31, “the great race of our Club,” as it had been described decades before.
In 1988, to protect their limited lakefront and create a family-oriented sailing center as a legacy for the 21st century, Sailing School and Yacht Club members took “a bold step into the future” and voted to buy the buildings and property of the Geneva Lake Boat Company, which included approximately 148 feet of lake frontage. In the fall of 1989, Past Commodore Thomas A. Lothian and Sailing School President Michael H. Sherin, both members of the LGYC board of directors, organized fellow volunteers and devoted thousands of hours to improvements on the property. (So industrious were Tom Lothian and Mike Sherin that members affectionately called them the T & M Construction Company.) The work included a new seawall, two new hoists, a launching ramp, landscaping, and the removal of the exterior of the boat company’s large blue metal building. Its interior office partitions, plus a new roof, siding, and fittings, became the Sailing School office and classrooms in 1991. In 1996, the Geneva Lake Sailing School and the Lake Geneva Yacht Club agreed to transfer the ownership of the property from the Sailing School to the Yacht Club, contingent upon a new lease, which was signed by both parties in 2002.
In 2013, the members and Boards of Directors of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club and the Geneva Lake Sailing School approved plans for the construction of a new shared facility. The agreement between the two organizations regarding the use, operation, and financial viability of the proposed and existing facilities on the property was signed in January 2013 by Thomas Freytag, as President of the Geneva Lake Sailing School, and John D. Simms Jr., as Commodore of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club. The agreement called for the Yacht Club to retain ownership and management of the property and for the Sailing School to construct and own the building, leasing part of it to the club. Construction began in October 2014 soon after the September demolition of the main Yacht Club and Sailing School buildings.
The new facility contains approximately 12,000 square feet of space: the Sailing School and its six indoor and outdoor classrooms occupy the first floor and the Yacht Club and its social areas, office, dining room, and trophy and photographic displays are on the second floor. An upstairs deck provides more than 3,000 additional square feet of space.
The entire property, which consists of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club, the Geneva Lake Sailing School, and approximately eight acres of land and structures from South Lake Shore Drive to the lakefront and between the east and west boundaries, has been designated the Buddy Melges Sailing Center in honor of Yacht Club member and former Sailing School student, instructor, and president, Harry C. “Buddy” Melges Jr., one of the world’s most accomplished and respected sailors.