The Yacht Club begins

In August 1874, residents of the Wisconsin town of Geneva (as it was then known) and around Geneva Lake welcomed a very important visitor—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 in what was becoming an increasingly popular resort area, 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 perpetual trophy. The actual Sheridan Prize, designed and built by the Chicago firm of Giles, Brother & Company, 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.

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 and owned by Julian Sidney Rumsey, a pioneer Chicagoan, successful grain merchant, past mayor of the city, and a former president of the Board of Trade. Newspapers reported that Nettie’s victory was greeted with “great cheering by friends and screeching of steam whistles.” Nettie repeated her win in 1875.

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 form 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 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 handsome and detailed 10-inch sterling silver model of the sandbagger Nettie.

In 1891, the Yacht Club reorganized, and in 1894 it was incorporated under its new name, the Lake Geneva Yacht Club. In 1902 (some yearbooks 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 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.” As stated in an early LGYC yearbook, the rules regarding moveable ballast were that “After the starting signal is given no throwing out, taking in, or booming out of ballast will be allowed, and each yacht must bring back the same persons with which it started.”

In 1892, Julian M. Rumsey, son of Nettie’s original owner, realizing that Nettie was no longer competitive, loaded her with rocks, towed her out to deep water, bored holes in her hull, and watched her go down. Such was her spell that in 1939, following the 65th running of the Sheridan Prize Race, the judges’ boat and the trailing gallery proceeded to Nettie’s grave and paused there as the winning skipper cast a wreath upon the water.

By 1895, the Lake Geneva Yacht Club’s fleet included nine 25-foot sandbaggers, fourteen 21-foot sandbaggers, four 18-footers, twelve 15-footers, a number of “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 governed the event then and continue to do so today, adopted a new rule for the Sheridan Race, which stated 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.

Sailboats on Geneva Lake have undergone numerous refinements since 1902, when bilge boards and double rudders came into general use. New classes differed from one another primarily in length and sail plan. Of the two original ILYA classes, A and B, 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 a full program of fleet races for Class A, Class E, Class C, Class MC, Melges 24, Melges 17, Class X (a junior boat, known initially as a Cub), and the International Optimist Dinghy. A typical schedule may also feature national championships in various classes and invitational regattas, all of which attract sailors from other areas. On the last Saturday in August, if conditions permit, the Yacht Club holds the annual Sheridan Prize 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, clarified eligibility requirements, and described the race 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 back to the Yacht Club to finish.

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 was an ILYA founding member (i.e., a participant at the organizational meeting 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 a 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 very 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.

The Lake Geneva Yacht Club has been host to 16 ILYA Annual Regattas. In 2014, the ILYA announced a new format for its annual regatta. Rather than hold the event at a different club each year, the ILYA selects a single club as host for up to three consecutive years, a system that started  in 2015 with the Lake Geneva Yacht Club. The Inland fleets for 2015 at LGYC were classes A, E, C, MC, and Melges 17.

For more than 100 years, the Inland Lake Yachting Association and its Annual Regatta have been central to the enjoyment of the sport for LGYC sailors of every age. 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. Over the years, Lake Geneva sailors have raced with distinction in ILYA Annual Regattas, and they have been honored, too, as winners of the Edmund Pillsbury Memorial Cup, which was established in 1952 and is presented to the skipper with the outstanding record in the regatta. The ILYA committee awarded the first three Pillsbury Cups to Lake Geneva skippers: Bill Freytag in 1952, Class C; Jane Wiswell in 1953, Class C; and Jim Lund in 1954, Class D. To date, the ILYA has awarded the Pillsbury Memorial Cup to LGYC skippers 18 times, most recently, in March 2015, to Vincent Porter. LGYC members who have been inducted into the ILYA Hall of Fame are Buddy Melges, Ernst C. Schmidt, Dr. Otto L. Schmidt, Bill Bentsen, Jane Pegel, and William H. Freytag Jr.

The Geneva Lake Sailing School

During the Yacht Club’s early years, the children of members had many opportunities to learn about boats. In the late 1800s, the Jack and Jill Yacht Club (with Henry H. Porter as its commodore and a stated objective of “Co-education in Yachting”) sponsored races and distributed trophies, as did the Junior Yacht Club. It was not until the late 1930s, however, that LGYC officers focused seriously on the benefits of offering young people regular educational programs about sailing technique, seamanship, 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 the following year it 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 building just west of the Yacht Club.

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 programs for children, high school students, and adults. The staff includes a full-time executive director and more than 15  instructors who oversee beginning and intermediate sailing camps, advanced racing programs, US Sailing Keelboat Certification, and learn-to-sail lessons for adults. The fleet includes prams, International Optimist Dinghies, Club 420s, Class X, O’pen Bics, Windsurfers, Lasers, Sonars, an MC, and powerboats for the coaches. The GLSS executive director is Joe Kutschenreuter, former head racing coach at the Lake Beulah Yacht Club and, more recently, captain of the sailing team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was a member of the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association All-American Team. Among his sailing credits are the 2000 ILYA Optimist Dinghy Championship, the 2006 ILYA Class X Senior Championship, the 2006 ILYA Youth Championship (Laser Radial), and the 2012 ILYA Class C Championship.

As its founders intended, the Sailing School is helping to perpetuate the sport of sailing on Geneva Lake by offering students of all ages an opportunity to learn to sail and improve their sailing and racing skills.

Clubhouses and the Buddy Melges Sailing Center

With the consolidation in 1902 of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club and the West End Yacht Club and a combined membership of more than 100 soon after that merger, the time was right to construct a clubhouse. In 1906, Kellogg Fairbank, the son of the first commodore, N. K. 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 clubhouse, set on the lakefront in wooded surroundings, featured generous verandas and some sleeping accommodations. In 1916, however, Mr. 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 more than a decade.

In 1926, Yacht Club officers and other members identified available 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 improvement of the property. The corporation renovated the residence on the grounds, leased it to the Yacht Club for $800 a year, installed piers, slips, and other facilities, and in 1927 built the Geneva Lake Boat Repair and Storage Company (later named the Geneva Lake Boat Company) on the west side of the property. 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 collaborated on plans to construct a two-story building just east of the Boat Company on land donated to the Sailing School by Honorary Commodore Schmidt. The property had approximately 112 feet of lake frontage and extended from the lake south to the road. 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 with a number of events: it published a commemorative book on its history (edited by Harold S. Hamlin Jr.); it held the ILYA Annual Regatta; its racing sailors and Mike Kurzawa donated six centennial crew trophies to the ILYA; and it ran the 100th Sheridan Race on August 31, the very day of its anniversary—“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 and close to five acres of land. 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 they 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, after years of discussion, the members and Boards of Directors of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club and the Geneva Lake Sailing School agreed on plans for the construction of a new  shared facility. 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 with the Sailing School on the first floor and the Yacht Club on the second floor. An upstairs deck provides more than 3,000 additional square feet of space. An agreement between the two organizations calls 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 Yacht Club. The entire property, which consists of 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.


Race committee boats have been essential in implementing the Yacht Club’s busy racing schedule, and most of the early boats used for this purpose were owned by members. The club bought the two most recent boats, however, specifically for race committee 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, Flagship II, was the result of efforts by a number of Yacht Club members between June 1977, when the project began under Commodore George L. Kummer Jr., and May 1978, when it was completed under the guidance of Commodore George H. Kiefer Jr. in time for the racing season. Vineyard Yachts Inc., in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, built Flagship II, a Wasque 26 lobster boat design with a fiberglass hull. Admiral Harold S. Hamlin Jr., USN, Retired, supervised the selection of the hull and builder, and veteran race committee member Bob Pegel supervised the layout and finishing work for the teak cabin and superstructure. He also built the signal board. Flagship II is equipped with VHF, GPS, compass, anemometer, audio hailer, and hydraulic windlass.

Excellence in sailing and service

In the years since 1874, the Lake Geneva Yacht Club has progressed from a small group of boat owners, many of whom used professional helmsmen, to a membership with an impressive record of successful competition at local, regional, national, and international levels. Two individuals have achieved particular stature in competitive sailing: Jane Wiswell Pegel and Harry C. (Buddy) Melges Jr. Both were top competitors in Cub races in the 1940s and went on to win in a number of scow classes during the decades that followed. Both were inducted into the Inland Lake Yachting Association Hall of Fame. Both have won numerous iceboat events. At the national level, Jane Pegel’s United States Sailing Association titles include the Mrs. Charles Frances Adams Trophy for the US Women’s Sailing Championship in 1957 (with crew Michael Sennott Roche and Judy Gale Nye), sailed in Corinthians, and in 1964 (with crew Marnie and Nancy Frank—fellow LGYC members), sailed in M-20 scows. In 1974 and 1975, Pegel won the Allegra Knapp Mertz Trophy for the US Women’s Singlehanded Championship, sailed in Lasers. She was named US Yachtswoman of the Year in 1964, 1971, and 1972.

Buddy Melges won the Clifford D. Mallory Cup for the US Men’s Sailing Championship in 1959 (with crew Richard Reynolds, LGYC, and John B. Shethar Jr.), sailed in Corinthians; in 1960 (with crew Gloria Melges, Edward Smith, both LGYC, and John B. Shethar Jr.), sailed in E scows; and in 1961 (with crew Dr. A. R. Wenzel and John B. Shethar Jr.), sailed in International Dragons. His racing achievements also include 5.5 Meter World Championships in 1967, 1973, and 1983, and Star World Championships in 1978 and 1979. Melges was named US Yachtsman of the Year in 1961, 1972, and 1978. In 2011, Buddy Melges was named to the National Sailing Hall of Fame, a member of its first class of inductees.

In 2007, Clifford Porter won the D. Verner Smythe Trophy for the US Junior Singlehanded Championship, sailed in Lasers. In 2014, Malcolm Lamphere won the Robert L. Johnstone III Trophy for the US Youth Sailing Championship, sailed in Lasers.

On the international front, Buddy Melges won the Bronze Medal in the Flying Dutchman Class (with LGYC crew Bill Bentsen) at the 1964 Olympic Games in Japan; the Gold Medal in the Flying Dutchman Class (with crew Bill Bentsen) at the 1967 Pan American Games in Canada; and the Gold Medal in the Soling Class (with crew Bill Bentsen and Bill Allen) at the 1972 Olympic Games in Germany. In 1987, Melges was helmsman of the Heart of America challenge for the America’s Cup. In 1992, Buddy Melges won the America’s Cup as helmsman in Bill Koch’s successful America 3 campaign. In 2001, he was named to the America’s Cup Hall of Fame. In 2015, Buddy Melges was named to the World Sailing Hall of Fame by the International Sailing Federation, the world authority for the sport.

In 2002, Harry Melges III won the International Melges 24 Class World Championship at Travemunde, Germany, and in 2013, Brian Porter won the International Melges 24 Class World Championship at San Francisco. In February 2014, US Sailing named Brian Porter the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year for 2013.

Members have also brought honor to the Lake Geneva Yacht Club for their recognition by the national and world authorities of the sport. In 1972, for his outstanding contributions to sailing, Buddy Melges received US Sailing’s Nathanael G. Herreshoff Trophy, and, in 1986, he was the first recipient of US Sailing’s Sportsmanship Award, the W. Van Alan Clark Jr. Trophy. In 1994, Bill Bentsen was the recipient of US Sailing’s Nathanael G. Herreshoff Trophy. In 2007, the US Sailing Judges Committee honored retired senior judges Bob Pegel and Bill Bentsen by bestowing on each of them the title of Judge Emeritus in recognition of long and distinguished service to the Judges Program, to race management, and to the sport. In 2009, Bill Bentsen received the International Sailing Federation’s highest honor for service, the Beppe Croce Trophy, for his contributions in the development of the racing rules.