Whether in it for camaraderie or a challenge, Melbourne Yacht Club sailors say it’s about the trip, not the destination
Crossing the Crane Creek bridge in Melbourne, silver and white sticks extending beyond the height of a concrete guardrail are the first hint of what is hidden from view. Tucked into protected dock spaces, 40 boats are concealed despite their slips being a mere 65 feet from six lanes of busy traffic on U.S. 1. If leaving Melbourne’s historic downtown district, any southbound driver might wonder what lies below the height of mast spreaders.
Following World War II, Melbourne Yacht Club re-formed in 1947 as a club for those interested in both power and sail boats. Its four membership categories are designed to attract young members, beginning sailors and people who either own or crew on boats, providing them an affordable venue for social activities on land and water.
Competitive sailing has long been an important component in the club’s history. Following its revival, Motor Boating magazine mentioned its importance in a regional news update.
“The organization hopes to revive interest in boating in Melbourne. Old residents of the area recall more than 100 sailboats of all types which took part in the three-day racing program sponsored by the Melbourne Yacht Club in 1936,” the magazine stated.
PLENTY OF STORIES
Though the club might be considered small in membership, its sailing history and recognitions are remarkable. On a Friday night sitting at the clubhouse bar after a Rum Race you are likely to find any one or more of a cast of characters with stories to make you roar with laughter, cringe in terror or simply reply with, “Wow, you did that?”
A significant number have crossed The Pond under sail while performing deliveries, cruising or competing in the Trans-Atlantic Race. Among them is Phil Spletter, a 16-year member, who crossed twice aboard a 249-foot, three-mast, square-rigged ship as a crew member. He said those trips were his most memorable sailing experiences, with the second trip made in spring 2020.
While sailing is the most common interest among members, not to be overlooked are social benefits. Activities bring sailors together on land or at anchor. An example is the rafting party, when boating families agree on a rendezvous location and tie side to side in a long line, sometimes for a weekend of dining and conversation. Barbecue grills clamped to stern pulpit rails turn out all manner of feasts much of each day and evening.
Because racing is a significant interest, sailors were fortunate to count Dick Tillman as a member for decades until his passing in October 2020. His career included the Olympics, World and North American championships, a Rolex Sailor of the Year honor and authorship of several books. He told of his experience as executive director of the International J/24 Class Association in the 1980s, remembering a time when the Bermuda fleet invited the MYC J/24 fleet to Bermuda to compete in a weeklong event.
“In return, we invited them to come to Melbourne and visit the area and the Space Coast,” he once recalled. “The invitation was well-received with many Bermudians accepting to compete in a weeklong event hosted by MYC and the Eau Gallie Yacht Club.”
KEEPS THEM RUNNING
While boats provide fun, they are well-known for having sporadic appetites for maintenance and repair. Many MYC owners are willing and able to handle such needs themselves. But on occasions when special tools and expertise seem expedient, fellow member Grant Ball is likely to hear his phone ring.
Six miles south of the club, overlooking the Indian River, Ball’s fully equipped machine shop is adjacent to his boyhood home. His relationship with sailing began when his father was offered a 12-foot Optimist Pram that needed complete restoration. It seemed a good project for a father and young son.
“We finished the boat, but then came to realize teaching ourselves to sail just wasn’t going to work out,” Ball explained.
His father heard Melbourne Yacht Club offered lessons to youth sailors in boats just the same as the one they restored. Ball was 14 and soon became confident enough to take his high school girlfriend sailing. Grant and Debra Ball celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in July.
From blissfully sailing their tiny pram emerged future careers. Grant Ball eventually earned a 1,600-ton captain’s license while Debra Ball followed with her own 100-ton credentials. Between 1988 and 1999, the couple had positions together as captain and chief stew aboard four charter yachts of both sail and motor, ranging from 100 to 137 feet. Voyages extended from Vancouver Island, Canada, to Turkey and the Mediterranean with several trans-Atlantic crossings completed.
The couple no longer has such transient adventures, having exchanged them for a land-based life operating an all-service marine repair business. He often calls his wife to come from their home next door to assist with projects needing an extra pair of hands.
Like any sport, sailing depends on attracting new people and proper introduction is the first step to creating permanent interest. Fortunately, at most yacht clubs including MYC, there is a desire shared by young and old sailors to give back to the sport they love.
Learning to sail for recreational cruising or to race is difficult without guidance, and teaching is an important club function. MYC maintains a fleet of seven 420-class double-handed dinghies and eight Optimist Prams for instructing children and adults. In addition to these club-owned boats for lessons, novice sailors have opportunities to crew on member boats for bi-weekly Rum Races. By arriving around 5 p.m. every other Friday in summer and by noon on Sundays in winter, people can often find an opportunity to join a crew and learn.
Subliminal aspects of learning to sail have subtle benefits that become apparent with progression of ability. Sailing is an athletic skill sport without the usual need for great physical prowess. One can be successful without running or even normal walking ability as proved by the significant role sailing is playing in the Wounded Warrior Project’s recovery program for military veterans.
The challenge of encountering a new environment governed by nature on a platform powered by wind is always faced with some level of intimidation. A person would not be normal if not wondering how it is possible to harness wind to power a sail. Why put oneself at the mercy of uncontrollable forces to employ one of man’s least efficient means of getting from Point A to Point B?
As President John Kennedy once said, “We do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” Therein lies a fundamental purpose in sailing, for to meet difficulty head on and succeed is to feel exhilaration.
Eventually novice proficiency evolves to bring self-gratification for having overcome what had been feared. Sailing builds confidence and with each new success comes further inspiration to add more to the challenge — desiring more wind, learning new control lines to adjust, yearning to go faster. It becomes more than moving a boat through water from place to place.
The mind welcomes a passion to use wind, the simplest element in nature’s toolbox, to power craft nearly as old as mankind with greatest efficiency. Sailors at the Melbourne club, or any venue where sailors gather, describe similar attraction to a combination of factors leading them to water in sailboats.
Making it all possible is the club’s board of directors. For Corey Small, teaching new sailors as director of Sailing Education is his prime focus. The thrill first began for Small when he joined the sailing team at the University of South Alabama in 2005.
“Sailing is about being present,” he said. “It forces you to slow down and be aware of your surroundings. It’s as much about the trip as the destination.”
After college, Small taught sailing on Albemarle Sound in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. He bought a Hobie Cat 14 and would sometimes sail his boat the 22-mile round trip to and from work. Now he is employed as a systems engineer, leads a team of certified instructors and is the main sheet trimmer on a member’s Rum Race crew.
Recently minted youth sailors are a welcome asset in assisting more seasoned volunteers by helping with rigging and sailing the 420 dinghies used for instruction. Thomas Schuerger and Jackson Bjorklund are among those and belong to the Space Coast Sailing Team where they participate in regattas on Florida’s east coast. The club also supports winter youth programs of the Space Coast Sailing Foundation in its efforts to begin sailors at young ages.
MYC education volunteers and employed instructors represent the heart and core of national and worldwide interest in sharing the sailing experience with its dramatically evolving developments of the past few decades. The diversity in sailing has become more evident than ever with development of foiling catamarans and now new, large monohull foiling race boats to be used in America’s Cup competition.
Yet, even with the technology of exotic materials and designs, there remains strong interest and respect for traditional designs. The heritage of wood schooners and sloops continues. Whether hulls be of wood or fiberglass, boat large or small, water fresh or salt, the passion of Melbourne Yacht Club sailors to hoist a sail and see how the wind blows goes on.
Photographer and writer Rob Downey has been working with the Indian River Media Group since 2006. He began his career in Connecticut in 1974 doing photo illustrations for textbooks. When he moved to Florida in 1981, he added advertising agencies, magazines and a variety of corporations to his client list. He is a former mayor of Melbourne Village.