By Katherine Stone

Third Oldest in North America, Located in Both Canada and the United States

Every boat needs a port to call home and her owner benefits from a sense of camaraderie by sharing interests and his or her experiences with other boaters – hence the need for yacht clubs and marinas.

So, I thought I would start by taking a look at a unique yacht club – one that has the distinction of being the only yacht club to have locations in two countries – both Canada and the United States.

Marnie LaVigne and Paul Neureuter of the Buffalo Yacht Club were kind enough to meet with me to extol the virtues of the place that they enjoy hanging out at during the hot days of summer. The main Buffalo Yacht Club clubhouse is located in Buffalo on the eastern shore of Lake Erie, at the head of the mighty Niagara River. Most importantly, it is situated beneath the Peace Bridge that separates the United States from Canada. Then, the Buffalo Yacht Club has its summer station across the lake on the east side of Point Abino, near the town of Crystal Beach, which is between Fort Erie and Port Colborne.

Let me set the stage for you on how this little gem came to be. From information garnered from Maritime Buffalo, the tiny frontier village of Buffalo was “made an official port of entry by Act of Congress in 1805, but the law signified little to ship’s captains who cast doubtful eyes on the muddy creek entrance.” Buffalo’s maritime commerce really started to build from the ashes of the War of 1812.

However, no single event in the history of the city has had as much impact as the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, followed by the opening of the Welland Canal in 1829.

However, the “Gales of November” was not just a song for Buffalo, but a reality too. In 1837, a gale lifted ships right onto city streets. The city founder’s plea for a sea wall became a reality in 1838. These sea walls now form a protective harbour where the current Buffalo Yacht Club’s US basin lies.

Commerce was booming, abundant electric power was there for industry and water transportation attracted many people, especially sailors, to start migrating to the City of Light.

The Buffalo Yacht Club (BYC) was founded in 1860. An initiation fee of $3.00 and annual dues of $2.00 paid by a dozen members helped to launch the yacht club which now services over 600 members and retains the honour of being the third oldest yacht club in North America. Another claim to fame is that President Grover Cleveland was once a member.

A series of fires (sounds like Buffalo News to me) and storms worked their way through five clubhouses at the Buffalo location. The first summer station at Point Abino was built in 1902, but it too succumbed to fire and had to be rebuilt. The 1904 season opened with caretakers in charge and by August the facilities could not accommodate the throngs of people wanting to stay overnight. With twenty to thirty people sleeping over, many had to sleep on the floor.

The need for a means to transport non-boat-owning members to the Point was addressed in the spring of 1905 by having a 54-foot long power yacht named Vayu built at a cost $4,000.

This Canadian summer station is the place that families flock to in the summer time. The warm, clean water and sandy beaches of Lake Erie are very enticing for swimming, boating, fishing, as well as relaxing. Originally starting out with 16 slips, the “Berm” as it came to be known, now has a capacity of over 140 boats, its own dredging machine and the ability to accommodate vessels up to 55 feet long and drawing 8 feet of water. The clubhouse has a full self-help kitchen and a large meeting room.

“Life at the BYC Point Abino summer station is casual and fun,” says Marnie LaVigne, “because members live on their boats all summer at the Canadian site. People dress casually in shorts and t-shirts.”

There is a children’s wading pool, a main pool and a 12-person Jacuzzi pool, as well as tennis courts. There are lots of kids, families, great swimming and a revived Junior Sailing program that uses CYA instructors and standards.

The present day yacht club has a fleet of 23 – 420 sailboats, which they use to run a very successful boating education program in both countries. There is also a very active J/22 fleet that operates out of the dry sail area on Porter Avenue in Buffalo. The BYC is one of the founding members of LYRA (Lake Yacht Racing Association) and one of the founding clubs of the Erie-Dover Race and the Inter-club Cruise.

The famous Great Race match race was started as a bar challenge after a night of heavy drinking between navel guys and the yacht club members to see who could beat who in a match race. Many years later this evolved into a Grade 3 match race with sailors from Russia, Italy, Canada, US, Ireland, and Sweden.

This club has changed with the times to attract and keep members from the US and Canada. One of the most interesting traditions of this yacht club that has remained but changed with the times, is the “Sailors’ Table”. According to P/C Charlie Obersheimer, his first recollections of the Sailors’ Table go back to when the House Committee re-established dining room facilities in 1939. The stout 4’ x 12’ planked pine table had been discovered in the loft and was carried back down to the dining room. There had been no regular dining room service at least as far back as 1926 when P/C Obersheimer had become a member.

The original purpose for having the Sailors’ Table in the dining room was to provide a place for sailors and boatmen in sailing clothes to have dinner or luncheon without mingling with members who preferred dinner in a more formal manner. The Sailors’ Table tradition has remained essentially the same over the years, with the added function of being a place where a member or members could dine without reservations or pre-planned parties.

In a 1953, one member was reported to have said, “If you want to get insulted… and by your best friends…sit at the Sailors’ Table.” It is interesting to look at the underside of the old table where the initials of bygone members still reside.

There is now a new Point Abino Summer Station membership for Canadian citizens who are also Canadian residents. Although this is fairly inexpensive, with fees being paid in Canadian funds, members get very convenient berth space, which sure beats the drive north from Toronto up Highway 400 every weekend!

There is room for new members who want to share in the great traditions at the BYC. For more information on how you could join this wonderful club, contact Tearria Wright at the Buffalo Yacht Club.

Photo Credits:
Photo 1 - This was the Buffalo Yacht Club clubhouse in 1893. Sadly, these beautiful wooden buildings were very susceptible to catching fire.
Photo 2 - Here is how the Point Abino clubhouse looked in 1902.
Photo 3 - A lovely summer rainbow arches over the Point Abino basin.
Photo 4 - The present-day Point Abino clubhouse is totally different from the original, yet still very attractive.
Photo 5 - Fresh air, clean water and sheltered waters make a day of CYA Junior Sailing at Point Abino a day to remember.