Home from the Sea

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Sailing is the most romantic of sports, and Sarasota may have the most romantic of this country’s sailing centers-the Sarasota Sailing Squadron. It’s romantic not just for the beauty of its bayfront location on City Island, which is astounding both night and day, but also for its ideals. Joining the Sarasota Sailing Squadron is much […]


Sailing is the most romantic of sports, and Sarasota may have the most romantic of this country’s sailing centers-the Sarasota Sailing Squadron.

It’s romantic not just for the beauty of its bayfront location on City Island, which is astounding both night and day, but also for its ideals. Joining the Sarasota Sailing Squadron is much more than writing a (small) check. It’s agreeing to do your part in the volunteer ethic that keeps this organization the envy of sailors from around the world.

From its cozy clubhouse to an open-air pavilion perfect for dancing, this is a place where pantyhose and rep ties are never required-or expected. Instead, the squadron offers an easygoing, encouraging atmosphere where eight-year-olds can become seasoned sailors and 80-year-olds can teach, tell tales or go sailing the world.

Whoever they are or wherever they go, they’ll come home to a sailor’s sanctuary. Cold winter days will find the stone fireplace roaring; hot summer evenings draw members to the huge screened porch overlooking Sarasota Bay. Or they may go sit on the shaded docks, where after gazing at the water long enough, they may just decide it’s time to go sailing.

This uniquely friendly and successful sailing club has provided lessons, comfort and camaraderie to thousands of Sarasotans, and its facilities and location have made it a popular spot for major races, including international competitions. But the real secret of its success is its members, the volunteers-the sailors. They’ve been carrying on-and advancing-the time-honored tradition of sailing for more than half a century here in Sarasota.

INITIAL CAP

Imagine this. A group of 20-somethings go to a Sarasota City Commission meeting and say, "We want to hold a great big party, and invite people from all over the state. And by the way, we want to dig a barbecue pit right here in front of City Hall. Whaddya think, commissioners?"

That happened back in 1949, when City Hall was on the City Pier-and the Commission said, "Go for it!" The young petitioners had just returned from World War II and were eager to resume their civilian lives, which included racing their homemade boats on the bay in the Sarasota Sailing Squadron’s annual Labor Day Regatta.

Within a few years, the City Pier was demolished to make room for U.S. 41 and what eventually became Island Park and Marina Jack along the bayfront. In another bit of largesse by the City Commission, the squadron was offered a desolate patch of land on City Island in 1958. With its own patch of waterfront land and a safe harbor for its members, the Sailing Squadron flourished, becoming one of the jewels of Sarasota.

The squadron actually began in the grips of the Great Depression. "We started in the late ’30s," recalled founding member Stan Lowe in an oral history recorded in 2000. "It was Walter Foxss idea. We called ourselves the Sarasota Sailing Squadron, because it didn’t sound like a bunch of kids." Dues were 10 cents a week, and every Sunday, the "kids" would sail their boats, many of them homemade, down to the City Pier and race. "If you saw six boats on the bay, you’d say, ‘Everybody’s out today,’" recalled Lowe.

Fox designed the red-white-and-blue triangular club flag, which sailors call a burgee. The original burgee is still on display in a frame at the City Island clubhouse. The youngsters did everything for themselves, setting a course the squadron continues to this day as an all-volunteer organization. But those Sarasota sailors were about to undergo the greatest test of their young lives. A voracious war demanded sailors, and volunteers from the squadron stepped up.

Lowe, for one, joined the Coast Guard and-using the skills acquired on Sarasota Bay-trained on a Higgins boat, the boxy landing craft used in the Atlantic and Pacific for amphibious assaults. Eventually he found himself on a troop ship crossing the North Atlantic in January. "Some of the waves were 100 feet tall," he recalled. "We were actually safer from the Nazi U-boats in the storms." It was a far cry from placid Sarasota Bay. First in Europe and then in Okinawa and Iwo Jima, Lowe spent the next few years commanding assault transports, ferrying troops ashore and returning with the wounded and the dead. At the end of the war, he and the other volunteers came home to pick up their lives, and their sailing squadron.

In 1946, they held the first Labor Day Regatta for local sailors. But the founders had a larger dream. In 1949, Lowe and another member went to Miami and started calling on yacht clubs. "We told ‘em we were going to have a big regatta, with a barbecue and trophies and everything," said Lowe. "Folks started coming in with boats we’d never heard of-the Suicide class, Snipes, Crickets. All were wood boats, some so nice you’d put ‘em in your living room." City leaders got into the spirit, encouraging the sailors to build a barbecue pit in the park next to the pier housing City Hall. "They loved it," Lowe said of the out-of-town sailors. "Sarasota was a nice little town, and we put on a good show."

Today Sarasota isn’t quite so little, but the Labor Day Regatta remains "a good show." One of the largest sailboat regattas in the Southeast, in 2002, it drew 311 sailboats from all over the Southeast to race on Sarasota Bay. The sailors range in age from eight to 80. There’s still a big barbecue, and on Saturday night, the squadron throws a big party.

INITIAL CAP

From the original six boats, the facility now-in racks, on trailers, at docks and in the mooring-is home to more than 750 vessels from eight-foot Optimist Prams to 40-foot world cruisers. Membership has grown to more than 800. And all along the way, the Sarasota City Commission has supported the sailors. First came the site on the northeastern corner of City Island. "The city at that time had no use for that land. But maybe they appreciated what it could become," Lowe related in his oral history. And so, in the late 1950s, work began.

To house the boats and shelter the sailors, volunteers built a variety of structures on the northeast corner of what’s now called Ken Thompson Park (down the road from Sarasota’s most popular tourist destination, Mote Marine Laboratory). The original clubhouse was constructed with light poles donated by Florida Power and Light, and the original dock pilings were wiggled in by hand. Even today, the volunteers remain responsible for maintenance, landscaping, upkeep and minor construction. Big projects, such as the recent clubhouse expansion, use a general contractor working with the volunteers.

The squadron also provides a roof under which many other volunteer organizations find shelter, including the Red Cross Sailing Program, the Sea Scouts, the Youth Sailing Program, a women’s sailing group called the Luffing Lassies and a handicapped sailor’s program called SALT. One theme unites them-they are sailors. And if you want to visit, even if you aren’t a sailor, you are surely welcome. On the gate is a sign, "Welcome to the world’s finest sailing club."

INITIAL CAP

Sarasota’s most important resource may be the bay. Of all the communities along the west coast of Florida, few enjoy an encapsulated bay. Bound by land on all four sides, Sarasota Bay is both wide and long but unaffected by a swell from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a bathtub of flat water swept by ever-changing breezes, perfect for small sailboats.

It’s easy, driving across the Ringling Bridge, to spot sails on the bay. And knowledgeable drivers can spot a sailboat race, with all the sails clustered together. It’s impossible to tell from afar, however, how big the trophy will be. For on Sarasota Bay, the trophy is sometimes global. At various times during the year, the squadron’s grounds sprout tents housing sailors-sometimes from all over the world-eager to compete. The number of local, regional and national championships contested on Sarasota Bay and sponsored by the sailing squadron over the decades is beyond count.

For example, last August, the squadron was host to the Optimist Pram National Championship, when 259 young sailors, ages eight to 15, descended on the grounds with their parents for a week of intense competition to decide who would be the national champion. It took the efforts of more than 200 squadron volunteers to keep the crowd fed, organized and race ready. A local lad, Price Hartenstine, took second place in the Green (beginners’) Fleet.

But true recognition is global, and the squadron has hosted eight world championships over the years. In 1992, the USA Olympic Women’s sailing trials were held at the squadron, and in April 2003 the Pan-American trials will arrive. By anyone’s tally, the squadron enjoys an extraordinary reputation for hosting keen competition

But there have been low points in the squadron’s history, too, and probably the lowest involved both local and national politics. In 1993, squadron member Bob Winters came up with the idea of reinstituting the historic St. Petersburg-to-Havana sailing race that had been suspended in 1960 after the Cuban revolution. To everyone’s astonishment, Winters’ idea of a sailing race from Sarasota to Havana was welcomed by the Cuban government and Sarasota City Commissioners. Eventually, some 85 boats took part in the 1994 event. All returned safely.

But there was hell to pay back home. Both the federal government and anti-Castro organizations leaned heavily on the City Commission. When the sailors returned, the squadron was pressured to expel Winters-the only time such a thing had ever happened-and was warned by the commission that should the race ever occur again, the squadron’s lease for its city-owned site would be terminated. But for 85 boatloads of sailors, the experience was their piece of the Berlin Wall.

In all its history, the squadron has had exactly one manager-and he’s still on the job. Spend 15 minutes in the squadron’s clubhouse and you’ll surely hear someone shout, "Where’s Murphy?" Whether it’s the guy on the beer truck, a visiting historian or a volunteer looking for a hammer, the cry’s the same: "Where’s Murphy?" They mean Pat Murphy, an irascible diplomat and retired McIntosh and Pine View School science teacher who’ been the club’s manager since 1981. He began hanging around the squadron as a kid, and over the decades, it’s become his lot to guide new leaders whose seasoning in both the squadron and Sarasota is but a fraction of his own.

Many of us remember what John Kennedy said on the bitterly cold day when he took the oath of office: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

There’s a tip jar on the bar at the Sarasota Sailing Squadron exemplifying that spirit. The proceeds go to the Corinthian Fund, which helps young local sailors and their families attend regional, national and international competitions. There is no prize money in sailing. You do it because you love it. And if the next level of competition is in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and you are qualified, the squadron volunteers want to see you go there and do your best. "Ask not…."

We in Sarasota like to think we are a world-class city, but many believe that’s a fairy tale. Once upon a time, perhaps, when we hosted a world-class painter, a world-class sculptor and at least one world-class writer. Today we have painters, sculptors and writers galore, but none that are known around the world. And only a few institutions can now claim world-class status in Sarasota-and one of them is the Sarasota Sailing Squadron. Not bad for an organization started by "a bunch of kids."

Bob Ardren and Stan Zimmerman are longtime Sarasota sailors and writers who have logged more than a thousand miles together under sail, exploring the southwest Florida coast.

The fraternity of sailing

On a cold February evening in Portsmouth, England, more than a half-century after Sarasota Sailing Squadron founder Stan Lowe embarked for Utah beach, I spied a group of men and women hauling their small boats up a shingle beach. They’d obviously just finished a race, and I offered to help, for what they were doing was hard work. They later invited me to their small clubhouse in a second-story walk-up and there, as they pulled off their oilskins around a coal fire while quaffing very dark beer, we began exchanging stories.

They were the Portsmouth Sailing Club.

-by Bob Ardren and Stan Zimmerman

The club has been active for nearly a century, and members are proud they have canceled only two races in all that time. Despite fog, pounding seas, racing tides in the English Channel, and two world wars, they were determined to sail…as were their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. I felt I’d stepped from H.G. Wells’ time machine.

As a stranger, I drew a crowd with my stories of hurricanes and remote anchorages among the mangroves of the Ten Thousand Islands. I’m a sailor, but not a racer. I take my craft to quiet places. These hardy racers knew that ethic, too. "Aye, we’ve got four members of the club going ’round the world now. We keep in touch," one said.

In my travels, I’ve sought out other volunteer sailing clubs- counterparts to the Sarasota Sailing Squadron. I’ve stood around a winter beach fire in Leningrad, drunk Australian lager in a swank club around a small lake in Canberra, looked upon a defiled burgee stitched with an awkward swastika in a small clubhouse on the German Bodensee. We are a small but universal fraternity, we sailors. For 10,000 years, we’ve sailed. Caring naught for politics, caring fondly for our boats, thinking ever of the sea.

It’s well to remember that the sea is not the enemy of the sailor. It is the shore that will smash your boat. Yet home from the sea we must come. The huge majority of these volunteer clubs are built around a fire, the most forbidden of nautical pleasures. A sailor knows fire at sea is the worst possible disaster, but a fire ashore is a friend. As the Portsmouth sailors stripped their February frozen oilskins before the fire, they knew they were home. And I, so far away from mine, was home, too. Among sailors-just as sailors from around the world have come home to the Sarasota Sailing Squadron.

-Stan Zimmerman

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