By STYC member Deborah Bach on February 1st, 2009 www.threesheetsnw.com
This isn’t your ascot-wearing, martini-sipping yacht club. Far from it.
This is a yacht club launched by a man without a boat, in his tavern, in the hope of cultivating a more respectable clientele than the barflies who would show up in the morning at opening time.
But despite its rather dubious beginnings, the Sloop Tavern Yacht Club is going strong 30 years later, one of Seattle’s best kept secrets for sailors who are in it purely for the love of the sport.
“I’d say the club is for people who sail, not for people who want to act like they sail,” said Nate Creitz, 38, a STYC board member who is considered one of the top racers in the region.
“Yacht clubs are kind of stuffy places. (The Sloop) is much more casual and a much more fun group of people.”
The club’s genesis dates back to 1976, when Wayne Schmidt bought the Sloop Tavern, a slightly seedy watering hole not far from the Ballard locks. About half the bar’s regulars would show up early in the morning, and Schmidt began thinking about how to bring the clientele up a notch or two.
A friend introduced Schmidt to a man named Pete Martinson, a sailor who raced out of the Corinthian Yacht Club down the road at Shilshole Bay. Martinson and his fellow racers were looking for an after-race hangout, so Schmidt began hosting happy hours at the Sloop after each race. He decided to sponsor a race, with the view of holding a laidback event for people who weren’t necessarily serious racers.
To encourage a wide range of participants, the race organizers prohibited spinnakers and implemented a handicap system under which the slowest boats started first, enabling liveaboards with heavier boats to compete.
The inaugural race drew 42 boats, more than Schmidt had expected, and left the participants wanting more.
“We got a niche that nobody else was really serving,” said Schmidt, now 69. “It gave people a chance to learn how to race and they weren’t intimidated like they would be going and vying against all of the hot dogs on the Sound.”
Schmidt was interested in sponsoring more races. But as the owner of a tavern where boaters liked to imbibe, he realized the potential liability issues. To avoid such problems, Schmidt started a nonprofit organization and christened it the Sloop Tavern Yacht Club, a name that appalled some members of tonier clubs.
“There were people who thought we were a disgrace,” Schmidt recalled, chuckling. “On the other hand, we got a lot of support from a lot of members of the Seattle Yacht Club.”
The first memberships sold for $3 annually. To qualify, members had to have a sailboat longer than 20 feet, with a galley and a head (a bucket would suffice).
In the early days, the grand prize for races was a jug of wine that Schmidt found in the Sloop when he bought it. Too vile to serve to customers, the wine was instead passed around from winner to winner. Last-place racers had to fly the ”DFL flag” (Dead Fucking Last) for the weekend.
“The whole concept of Sloop Tavern races was to make them fun,” Schmidt said.
The club implemented “Jack and Jill” races so couples could compete together, and began holding overnight regattas. Boaters soon comprised almost all of the Sloop’s clientele. Over time the races drew more serious competitors, but club members say the STYC has managed to retain its irreverent character over the years.
And though the Sloop’s clientele is now as likely to include 20-something hipsters and nearby workers as sailors, the tavern still functions as a de facto sailing club headquarters.
A dusty case with glass doors holds club trophies and old framed photographs on the walls show former club members’ boats. Tacked up on a cork bulletin is the club’s official sign, two pieces of torn paper reading “Sloop Tavern” and “Yacht Club.”
The club’s motto? “Everybody deserves another chance.”
Former commodore Neil Bennett said the STYC’s existence as a “paper yacht club,” as opposed to a “brick and mortar” club with facilities such as a bar and clubhouse, has kept it both low-key and affordable. Fees are currently $125 for a new membership, $75 annually for voting members and $45 for non-voting members. Most races are free for members, who now number about 150.
But Bennett said low cost isn’t the only reason people are attracted to the STYC, whose members range from tech executives to boatyard workers. The club is sanctioned by the Pacific International Yacht Association (PIYA), a racing standards organization.
“We’re kind of the anti-establishment yacht club,” Bennett said. “There really is no demographic that describes Sloop members. The common thread is the passion for sailing.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Schmidt joined founding STYC members Patty and Pete Martinson at a table in the Sloop, which Schmidt sold in 1981. All are now landlubbers who have hung up their sailing gloves. Schmidt still gets together with his old boating buddies once in a while, but said instead of talk about boats, “we talk about our glaucoma or our sciatica.”
The trio reminisced about the early days of the club, which Patty said managed to maintain a high level of competition but never take itself too seriously.
“In this club, there was so much camaraderie and honesty and respect for everybody,” she said. “There was always a respect, a real deep respect.”
The Sloop is much the same today, said board member Creitz.
“Sailboat racing can be kind of cutthroat. People get very competitive and wound up about it,” he said.
“The Sloop is about having a good time and enjoying yourself.”
*Editor’s note: despite the Sloop Tavern Yacht Club’s obvious high standards, the author of this article is a member.