Sunday, November 15, 2009

Farewell To The Knickerbocker

The Knickerbocker Yacht Club is now vacant. The clubhouse with its hipped roof and second story deck silently looks out over Manhasset Bay. Resembling a foreclosed home, several No Trespassing signs are now taped to the large bay windows. After hearing the news that the 135 year old club had closed, I stopped by this month for one last goodbye. A utility worker making a phone call in the parking lot was all that broke the silence.

Yacht Clubs certainly do not inspire any populist imagery, but stereotypes of Buffy and Thad sailing in white slacks while maintaining a stiff upper lip are not entirely accurate. On Long Island Sound, yacht clubs tend to fall into one of three categories:
There are the exclusive clubs that do their best to hold on to the Guilded Age. These are often easy to spot with their clubhouses resembling some gold coast mansion, and their staff dressed like butlers. At the other extreme would be the working clubs whose membership often includes a high percentage of firemen, teachers, and tradesmen. These are normally do-it-yourself places where members volunteer their time along with paying dues. When the grass needs to be cut, it is a member mowing the lawn, not an employee or a landscaping company.

 The Knickerbocker belonged to a group that is somewhere in between these two extremes. These clubs often navigate a foggy channel between controlling expenses and maintaining a certain aura of exclusiveness. Members may own an expensive boat, but they also have tuition bills and a mortgage.

For years I belonged to a working club that was about a two hour sail from Manhasset Bay. I only sailed to the Knickerbocker a handful of times, but the visits were always special to me. I would motor my old banged-up 1968 Bristol 24 into the mooring field, hail a launch, and be welcomed to the club. It did not matter that my boat cost less than a used car, while the surrounding boats were priced similar to a starter home. I may have not met the financial or social requirements to be a member of the club, but I was accepted as a guest providing I followed their rules (proper attire in the dining room, no tank tops on the premises, no spitting).I could hobnob with the doctors and architects in a mahogany trimmed bar until I turned back into a pumpkin on Monday morning. Reciprocity between clubs was the great leveling field, if only for a weekend.

When the recession hit, it was easy to question my club's chances of survival. The rundown building, the old boats, and even older membership all suggest that the best days were at least 40 years ago. The Knickerbocker did not seem to have these problems. The model ships and half hulls adorning the walls seemed to suggest an immunity to changing times. But beneath the mahogany and cherry wood paneling, the Knickerbocker was struggling with the same difficulties as every other club. Higher expenses coupled with an aging and declining membership were a disturbing trend that every club from Watch Hill to Throgs Neck faced. The prosperity of the last 25 years helped suppress the symptoms, but the current financial crisis brought them to the forefront.

At one time or another, I think we have all secretly admired yet resented people in better places. A neighbor or colleague may be someone we desperately want to be, yet we begrudge their good fortune. When bad times strike, their failure becomes some sort of "moral to the story". But I felt no sense of schadenfreude when I walked along the empty dock at the Knickerbocker this month. The club had survived two world wars, the Great Depression, and September 11, but now it was gone. I thought to myself that if it could happen to the Knickerbocker Yacht Club, then it could happen to any of us. I leaned against the peeling white handrail, looked out over the harbor, and wondered "who's next?"


This post is the first draft of a story which appeared in Newsday, 12/09  IF IT COULD HAPPEN TO THE KNICKERBOCKER


Brenda's Arizona said...

Wow, excellent post. I have a better picture of yatch clubs now - I viewed them all as the Buffy and Thad version.

I learned a good lesson today, as have many who wonder "who's next". Is this 'Knickerbocker Yatch Club any relation to the NYC Knickerbocker Club?

Anonymous said...

This makes an interesting read. For a lubber such as myself, it is an alien world.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Matt, I posted a few of our desert lighthouses on my blog today - just for you.

Unknown said...

Thanks Steve,
They are not all like the club in Caddyshack. In your area, Marblehead YC and Manchester would fit that description, but many others would not.

Thanks! No the KYC is not affiliated with the famed Knickerbocker Club in New York. I should have pointed that out.

Bill said...

Nice job, Matt. Any idea where all the stuff went? I know there was an auction a couple of weeks ago, but I wonder if there's stuff that didn't sell.

Unknown said...

Sorry, I missed your question.
I haven't heard what is being done with the items that didn't sell. Unfortunately, the KYC website is now gone.

WeSailFurther said...

Might be your best post yet.

Mark Kreider said...

Wonderful post, Matthew! Very well written conveying a mood that is usually very hard to capture.

Pat said...

There are yacht and sailing clubs for every sailor, but all are part of the sailing community and play their part in supporting our sport and pastime. The loss of the KYC is a tear in the fabric of the sailing community and ultimately a loss to all sailors.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls...

The Desert Sea

Margaret Ohrn said...

Matt, this post was very moving. I've never seen the Knickerbocker but I'm saddened by its closing. Good for you on this post getting picked up by Newsday.

Larry said...

You gave a nice background and a bit of history of your involvement with the club.I can relate to it in that a lot of birders are much more well off and of a higher social status than I but when you have a passion for the same interests,you can overlook your differences.-Personally, I don't think I could ever be a memebr of a club that doesn't allow spitting-lol! thanks for sharing the article.I very much enjoyed it-and Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

Matt, your pieces are beautifully done and do a real service on the preservation front. Love, Jeanne

Bethany said...

Wow, congrats on the Newsday. I loved this article. Sad though.
You really gave a great sense of the place. I liked hearing about the different kind of clubs too, and how you could visit as a guest as long as you didn't spit!

Bill said...

My club, the Concord Yacht Club has the cheapest slips and moorings in the city. So I applied for a membership. As we were headed out for my interview, my wife became uncharacteristically quiet.

She was clearly uncomfortable. So I asked her if her family had ever done the "country club" thing when she was a kid. She shook her head "no."

Doctors, Lawyers, Accountants, and Union Stewards like to swim and play golf, just like rich people. So the pool their money together, build a course or a pool, or both, and call it a "country club." Yachting is the same way. While there are yacht clubs out there with wood paneled walls and crystal chandeliers, you're not likely to find them in East Tennessee. Don't look for Chauncy and Cyril in ascots and blazers. Look for drywall and polished concrete.

I was right, of course, the CYC is a middle-class organization of people who like to be on the water.

She was greatly relieved.

Mark Ritter said...

Thanks for posting. Last year I bought one of the Knickerbockers old boats, a Knickerbocker One Design. Several of them have traveled south. Mine now resides on Lake Lanier, 2 others are at the Keowee Sailing club in South Carolina.
Sad story about what must have been a nice club.