Storm Trysail Club

Formed in 1938 after the conclusion of the extremely rough 1936 Bermuda Race, the Storm Trysail Club is dedicated to blue water sailing. Membership is only open to expert offshore sailors who have experienced storm conditions and are capable of commanding a sailing vessel in such conditions. Headquartered in Larchmont, New York, the club operates through local stations across the U.S. which individually host a variety of racing, social and junior events for members and other sailors, both on the water and ashore. The club has been in the vanguard of development of new events, handicap rating systems, yacht design, safety procedures, and new rum drinks.

Stories from Storm Trysail Club

The first two generations of American ocean racers – the one of the ‘twenties that founded the CCA and the one of the ‘thirties and ‘forties that founded The Storm Trysail Club found the best test of a boat was whether she could blast her way across the Gulf Stream to Bermuda in safety and reasonable ease and then house her crew once she got there. The ultimate challenge under that standard was a two-or three-week Trans-Atlantic race from New England of Bermuda across the North Atlantic to Scandinavia.

Many of the crew aboard the early Bermuda races were dinghy sailors, some of the best young sailors in the world. In the extremely rough 1936 Bermuda Race that led to the formation of The Storm Trysail Club, one of several sailors who was injured was 53-year-old John Parkinson. He flew stark naked out of windward bunk across the main cabin and smashed, face-first, into the leeward side. “He unhooked his lower lip from his lower teeth,” a witness remembered, “spat out a bloody handful of his smashed upper dentures, paid no attention to his son’s down-the-hatch exclamation, ‘Jesus, the old man’s had a tumble’ put on his gear (including a knitted blue worsted cap), went on deck (it was 4 am), and took his trick at the helm. He was kept alive for the next few days on a diet of soup and raw eggs, and recovered completely in Hamilton with the aid of other liquid refreshment.”

Iron men in wooden ships. There were great and serious limitations in those early days; everything about those boats was natural and none-too-reliable unless carefully nursed by a watchful crew. “Boats were very unsophisticated compared to what they are now,” remembers Dick Goennel (a Storm Trysail founder while still a teenager) who later, at the age of 40, crewed on Constellation in the 1964 America’s Cup match.

While they enjoy talking about the technological primitivism of the creaky, hairy boat of the early days of ocean racing, the older generation is most pleased to describe the human factor. First of all, like any community on a frontier, it was cheerfully intimate. Recalls Goennel, “We all knew each other in the beginning. I remember going on races and every time we passed another boat I’d recognize somebody on board.” STC member Sean O’Connell says that before the 1950 Bermuda Race, the first of the fourteen he sailed, he thumbed through the crew roster and realized that he knew just about everybody sailing on the 54 entrants.

It was the courtesy of that community that is best remembered by Jakob Isbrandtsen. While he is amazed at the way modern boats perform (“At some point they’ll be able to sail almost right up into the wind!”), he is not at all impressed with their sociology. Trans-Atlantic and other long-distance races were to him an extension of shoreside relationships. “Now it’s all business. The boats are treated like impersonal things. You get aboard and you don’t know half the people; you haven’t even seen them before. You reach the finish and everybody goes ashore to a hotel and restaurant. I’d much rather cook up something on board and have a good show. Of course, you can only do that with people you know. We were all good friends who enjoyed working and living together on the boat. Everybody lent a hand. We paid a lot of attention to good living and had one of the best galleys afloat. The camaraderie has gone out of it. It’s altogether a different show today. It’s passed me by.”

The winter of 1936 saw various members of Salee’s crew and other deep-water racing sailors assembled from time to time at the New York apartment of Geoffrey Smith. The founders were a mixed crew: Henry Devereux, a future commodore, was a naval architect; Robert DeCatro, a journalist; Geoff Smith worked for Texaco Oil; James Thornburn came from Wall Street; Henry Sears, a boat builder; Ed Raymond, a sailmaker; Dick Goennel, was in advertising sails. From those gatherings grew the Club. The name was arrived at easily, a burgee was designed and dues were set at a bottle of Myers’ rum.

No efforts were made to recruit new members but one or two drifted in occasionally and a half-dozen informal dinners were held a the City Island Club and at a small french restaurant on 48th Street.

The first annual meeting, with 22 attending, was held on February 8, 1938 and a constitution ratified. The membership reached 33 in February, 1939 and dues of $3.00 per year were voted.

Because of war in Europe, ocean racing prospects in 1941 were dim and the Club decided to do something about it. The first race committee was formed and in due course a race was scheduled from new London to Hampton, Virginia, in cooperation with the Hampton Yacht Club. Twenty yachts, including three from the U.S. Naval Academy, went over the starting line on June 21, 1941. Blitzen won the big prize given by the City of Hampton and the race was a success from all angles. The Storm Trysail Club was established as a race sponsoring club and membership began to grow.

There were 67 members in the Club when war broke out and, within six months, all but a half-dozen were in the services. For the duration of the war, the Club was dormant, but the burgee flew on many beaches in the Pacific and Europe. The war records of the members rate high but have never been recorded or publicized.

With the end of World War II, a great many letters were written to round up the scattered membership and the Club was slowly reassembled. The first of the post-war races, which was to start off the series of Memorial Day races, was held in 1946 and each year since, The Storm Trysail Club’s Block Island Race has been an early season fixture. The Club celebrated the Fiftieth Block Island Race in 1995 with the rededication of The Harvey Conover Memorial Trophy to the Overall Winner.

In 1964, Past Commodore Jakob Isbrandtsen, together with Everett B. Morris, feeling that Cowes Week was too good for the Old World, were jointly instrumental in urging The Storm Trysail Club to establish Block Island Race Week, which is patterned after Cowes Week. The dominant theme is hard racing with fine competition and time for daily camaraderie in complete informality. The first Race Week in 1965 was a complete success (the inaugural event attracted more than 175 boats and 1200 sailors). It is now the largest big boat regatta in the Northeast, and the most prestigious inshore event in the United States. Today, Race Week continues to attract some of the best sailors in the world, competing in the latest “offshore” one-designs, grand prix and cruiser-racer IMS designs and a highly competitive PHRF fleet. In 1969, the first Everett B. Morris Trophy was awarded for the Best Performance Overall for the Week and, in 1975, the first Isbrandtsen Overall Trophy was awarded.

The Club, which was born in the middle of an Atlantic gale, and grew into adolescence through the desire of a few shipmates to have a drink or two together, has grown into an outstanding organization of ocean racing sailors. The Club’s membership stands today at more than 600 members, every one of whom knows how to handle himself when the barometer drops and the wind and sea whip up. The Storm Trysail Club, in conjunction with its Southern, Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, New England and Gulf Coast Station run many major yachting events through out the year.

Membership in The Storm Trysail Club is by invitation and, to quote from the Club’s By-Laws, “Candidates must have set a storm trysail under storm conditions, offshore, or have weathered a storm at sea under greatly reduced canvas. They also must be experienced bluewater sailors, capable of taking command of a sailing vessel offshore under any or all conditions”.

Storm Trysail has grown through the years, and in 1970 broke out of its New England trance to form its first Southern Station. A few years later, STC founded the Ft. Lauderdale-Key West Race, now an annual fixture during the northern winter. Then, in 1984, under the prodding of Skip Mansfield, the Club took over management of the Miami-Montego Bay Race, an incredible sleigh ride through the Bahamas, the Caribbean Sea, and the Windward Passage then downwind to Jamaica.

The Club broke out of its New England area focus a second time, in 1981, when a Great Lakes Station was founded on Lake Erie, under the leadership of Milton Knight. The biggest long-distance race on the Great Lakes – the Mills Trophy Race – is now under Storm Trysail’s management. Yes, more yachts sail in the Mills event than in the Mackinac races.

And now there is the Chesapeake Bay Station, which was established under the command of Jim Scott and Past Commodore Jack King. Already active in race management on the Bay, the Chesapeake Station has recently become a co-sponsor of the Annapolis to Bermuda Ocean Race, held in odd-number years.

1997 saw the opening of the Gulf Coast Station in New Orleans, LA. Some of the Club’s far-flung members on the West Coast are making serious noises about starting at least one new station on the Pacific.

All this suggests that The Storm Trysail Club’s growth has become more national and activities in “big boat” racing are continuing. The Club’s influence in ocean racing is expanding further in this country. After all, the Club did break out of its floating Greenwich Village bar headquarters (though if still has no clubhouse to call its own), and it has raised its membership limit over the years. If more and more offshore sailors are hoisting more and more storm trysails on our coasts, the Club will undoubtedly grow and continue to attract seriously competitive blue water sailors. The Club sets its racing calendar based purely on the interest and initiative of its members. From start-up events such as Block Island Race Week to revitalizing classics such as The Montego Bay Race, The Club continually works to support events in which its members would want to compete. Past Commodore Jakob Isbrandtsen articulated this philosophy, stating: “We’re not hidebound. The idea is to try it and, if it fails, we’ll try something else. It will be a sad thing if we get an organization that loses its flexibility.”

Many old timers today huffily argue that ocean racing has gone to hell in a handbasket-namely the tippy, fragile, high-tech handbaskets that have developed under the IOR and IMS, some say, are only fit for racing around buoys in clear daylight. Too many professional sailors drive themselves and their boats much harder than is conscionable to gain fame and profit. As Ted Turner once put it, while some people sail professionally, the real problem is that many others sail in a professional way, subverting the pleasures of sailing in company to their need to win at any cost.

Until the introduction of the International Offshore Rule (IOR) in 1970, most Storm Trysail events were handicapped under the Club’s own rule, which for a while competed head-to-head with the more complicated Cruising Club of America system. Many noisy controversies over the IOR have led more than one member to regret the changeover which, in a matter of a few months in the early 1970’s, outdated the whole group of racing-cruising yachts that Americans had been sailing since World War II. But it would have been politically difficult, if not impossible, for The Storm Trysail Club to resist the move toward the new rule, for over the years STC had irresistibly gravitated from the bleachers to the box seats of American yachting. Several past officers have held leadership positions in the United Stated Yacht Racing Union (now U.S. Sailing Association), America’s Cup syndicates and leading yacht clubs. Since the STC stresses racing the way the Cruising Club of America emphasizes cruising, there has not been significant overlap in leadership in the two clubs; but the sailing community is a small one, and many volunteers serve on technical and race committees in both organizations.

Long races and relative comfort have not been a major concern in racing-boat design since the mid 1980’s. The typical distance racer has become a glorified day-sailer with accommodations so skimpy that even 40 footers require a mother ship to house the crew at night. But these boats fit the ambitions of the majority of the latest generation of sailors, who are no longer interested in the old standard of trans-oceanic sailing. In 1985, past Commodore Russell Hoyt made an eerily accurate prediction: “The tendency today is for shorter courses and more races,” he says. “Everybody hates 100-200 miles. They don’t mind a 400-miler for a long weekend, but those overnight races are unpopular. What I predict will happen is that we’ll be sailing like one-designs, with two or three 12-mile races a day with more people living on mother ships or spending the night in a hotel.”

Echoing Hoyt’s predictions, the 1990’s have seen a decided shift to one-design racing, although IMS racing and PHRF fleets abound. Still, this hasn’t dampened the number of yachts willing to joint ocean racing’s most popular events. The Newport-Bermuda Race attracts over 150 boats; the Marblehead-Halifax Race continues to put 100+ boats on the starting line; the Miami-Montego Bay Race is seeing a resurgence, with over 25 boats racing 811 miles to win the “Pineapple Cup”. The West Coast crowd posts impressive fleet sizes for the Transpac, the race to Cabo San Lucas and the Ensenada Race, to name a few. And, in a return to ocean racing’s roots, the 1997 Trans-Atlantic Challenge, sponsored by the New York Yacht Club is igniting interest in racing across the Atlantic, with several other ocean racing clubs planning this exciting event into the new Millennium.

The Storm Trysail Club is alive and well. Our roots are firm, our mission clear, and our leadership strong. If you meet our rigorous requirements for membership, we welcome you into our ranks.