Sailing: 65 years of ups and downs

Last weekend, competing against Amherst and Middlebury, Williams Sailing hosted its first home regatta in 62 years. Although the event was tiny in comparison to other collegiate regattas and probably went unnoticed by most of the other schools in the Northeast Intercollegiate Sailing Association (NEISA), it was nevertheless a big step forward for sailing at Williams. The Williams Sailing Team has a long history with a great deal of success, though is has never received much attention from the College. Almost every other school in New England, including Amherst, has an established and competitive sailing team. In beginning to host its own regattas, Williams Sailing may finally manage to generate the support it needs to move up to that level.

Sailing first came to Williams as a club sport in the mid-1930s. Although there is no apparent record of when it was first formally created, the Williams Yacht Club’s first active racing season was in the fall of 1935 when freshman James P. Lewis ’39 seems to have sparked an interest in the club. In the fall of 1936, Williams sent crews to four regattas at MIT, Harvard, Dartmouth and Brown. They did quite well, taking a third, a fourth and a sixth in fleets generally numbering 15 to 16 schools. Interestingly, all of these regattas took place in November and December, after the end of the modern collegiate season, which would have made for some extremely cold sailing. Lewis was made Commodore of the Yacht Club in the spring of 1937 and continued to lead the Yacht Club until his graduation. During this time, the Yacht Club also had a program of bringing prominent yachtsmen to speak on campus during the winter.

The Yacht Club continued active fall and spring seasons that included participation in the Intercollegiate Sailing Championship for the McMillan Cup at Port Washington after the end of the school year. The Yacht Club held its first home regatta and gained the ability to hold practices in the spring of 1937 when members Peter Shonk and Ivor Catlin agreed to make their own boats available to the club by bringing them to Lake Pontoosuc. This first regatta was against Amherst, as well as a number of faculty members and was held in two Class B and two Dublin one-design dinghies. The Williams Yachtsmen handily defeated all challengers. The Pontoosuc fleet continued to grow, adding four College-rented Comet class knockabouts to the eight dinghies owned by club members in 1940.

In 1939, Williams Sailing reached its highpoint, buoyed by the strength of expert skippering by Arthur J Santry ’41 and Robert N. Bavier ’40. The Yacht Club won the national intercollegiate championships in 1939 and again in 1940 and maintained and undefeated series of first places for almost two years. Williams also had the honor of being the first school invited to the Naval Academy in Annapolis for an ocean race against the naval cadets. Under Bavier’s leadership, the Yachtsmen defeated Navy, on their home waters, by over half a mile. After graduating from Williams, Bavier continued in successful sailing, captaining Constellation to a 4-0 victory over the British challenger Sovereign in the 1964 defense of the America’s Cup.

Throughout the 1940s and early ’50s, the Yacht Club remained active, although they never quite matched the success of the 1939 and 1940 seasons. In 1952, with Bill Maclay at the helm, Williams again won the Intercollegiate Championship in Annapolis. After this point, however, the Williams Yacht Club appears to have slowly gone downhill and dropped out of sight. Although the Club continued to exist at some level, reports on their regattas in the Williams Record ceased. During this time, the Yacht Club was not competitive, and therefore failed to receive financial support from College. Thus, they no longer had boats with which to practice or hold regattas. The club was, in fact, little more than a group of people who entered and paid their own way to regattas at other schools. In 1964, after a surprising victory by freshman skippers Ted Green and Chris Dorin, an editorial appeared in the Record decrying the “Campus Indifference” under which the Yacht Club had to fight to exist. Noting that “Most people at Williams do not even know that there is a competing sailing team,” the article pointed out that Williams Yachtsmen actually had to hitchhike to regattas as the College refused to pay for transportation.

By 1970, the Williams Yacht Club had completely ceased to exist. In 1976, it was re-founded under the initiative of Professor Carl Van Duyne who raced in the Finn class in the 1968 Olympics and placed third in Finn Worlds in 1970. Out of respect for Williams’ early role in pioneering collegiate sailing, NEISA agreed to reinstate the reformed club as a full member without the normal period of associate membership. The new club sparked a great deal of interest and Professor Van Duyne hoped that the Yacht Club would be able to “purchase their own small fleet and perhaps sponsor their own regatta.” Unfortunately, funding for this never materialized, the Yacht Club remained without boats, and they were unable to practice or host regattas.

Williams Sailing continued at this level until 1995, when Brett McCloud ’98 captained Williams to victory in the Corinthian regatta at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point. In the wake of this victory, the Sailing Team received a $60,000 donation from an anonymous alumnus who wanted to help ensure the continuation of sailing at Williams. With this money, the team was able to purchase docks and boats and to work out an arrangement to create a home for itself at the YMCA marina on Pontoosuc Lake. By purchasing two additional 420 class dinghies this spring, bringing its total up to six, the Sailing Team finally acquired enough boats to host a regatta under NEISA regulations.

Despite all this, the future of sailing at Williams is uncertain. In order to begin to compete effectively against better New England schools, Williams sailing needs a racing coach and a secure financial source for replacing boats and equipment as they wear out. So far, Williams Sailing has existed on the strength of a few students who have been willing to put an extraordinary amount of effort into making it happen. The competitiveness and long-term stability of the team, however, can only be secured with the help of the College and the alumni.

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