Watch Hill Yacht Club

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History of the WHYC

During the early years of this century, small boat sailing became a popular sport at Watch Hill.  A letter from Mr. William E. Battey, a life member of the Club and the son of the Club's first Commodore, well describes the activities of those who enjoyed the pleasures of the sea:

"Fifty years ago the young crowd at Watch Hill had a wonderful time; we spent our days swimming, playing tennis or golf, crabbing in Foster's Cove or in the prolific inlet west of Osbrook Point, clamming on Sandy Point, canoeing, getting up big parties for afternoon or all-day sails, cruising, sanding, painting, and tuning up our boats in the spring and racing them when the season opened, dancing Saturday nights at the Ocean House, the Watch Hill House, and the Atlantic House.  Then, all too soon, fall would be upon us with school and the long winter to be faced before we could all get together again at Watch Hill in the spring.

For the purpose of conducting races and having a meeting place for kindred souls, a Watch Hill Yacht Club became desirable.  On July 19, 1913, a Constitution and By-Laws were adopted and the Club organized with the following officers:

Commodore, W. J. Battey

Vice Commodore, F. J. Kingsbury, Jr.

Rear Commodore, Francis Dunham

Fleet Surgeon, Dr. W. R. Lewis

Secretary, F. S. Turnbull

Treasurer, C. Robinson

The racing fleet of 1913 consisted of a one design class of 12 slooprigged Swampscott Dories, 21 feet long, also a handicap class of five sloops of various lengths.

During the summer season, Commodore Battey was instrumental in raising a fund among the Watch Hill residents which was used to remove 250 tons of rocks from Watch Hill Cove - a job for which all sailors may be most thankful.

In July 1912, Commodore John watts received permission from the Watch Hill Fire District to remove from the Watch Hill dock the building formerly used as a ticket and express office.  The steamer Watch Hill, which for many years had run between Stonington and Watch Hill, had discontinued service and the Adams Express Company had moved to a location on Bay Street.

In August of 1921 the House Committee, of which Daniel F. Larkin was a member, was directed to recommend a suitable site for a dock on which the structure to be used as a Club House could be located.  Daniel F. Larkin and Albert C. Larkin, owners of the shore front, gave the Yacht Club the right of way.  The T. A. Scott Co. of New London built the dock and moved the old building by floating crane and lighter in September, 1922, and installed it on the dock in the same position as the present Club House.  The building was remodeled to plans drawn by the Architect Norman Hall, (Mrs. C. Bai Lihme donating the cost of this service) and was opened as a Club House on June 10, 1923.  The first club meeting was held in the new quarters on July 16, 1923.

In the early twenties the Yacht Club added to its racing fleet.  The Alden sloops replaced the Swampscott Dories.

In 1923, the Club added eleven jib-headed mainsail Herreshoff sloops to its racing fleet.  These were a modification of the Buzzards Bay 15-footer called the Watch Hill Class.

In 1934, the Club purchased a 40-foot cabin power cruiser to conduct the races as a general purpose club launch.  It was well maintained and had a skipper and mate in uniform.  In order to reduce the club cost of operation it was offered for charter to club members.  However, it proved too expensive and was sold (fortunately before the hurricane).

In the 1930s our junior sailors racked up particularly fine records, led by the Larkin family.  Dan represented the WHYC as skipper in the Sears Bowl Junior National Championship three times, finishing as runner-up in 1936 with S. Higgenbotham as crew.  Incidentally, Dan was RI Junior Sailing Champion during the same three years (representing Westerly Yacht Club).  In 1937, we were represented in the finals of the Sears National with Roger Conant as skipper, and in 1938 by Emma Dean Larkin (Dan's sister) as skipper.  The Club was also represented in the finals for the Mrs. Charles Francis Adams Cup (Woman's National Championship) in 1937 and 1938 by Emma Dean as skipper.

On September 21, 1938, Watch Hill was hit by the Great Hurricane.  One of the many casualties was the Club House, which was washed off the dock into the Bay.  The docks and the flagpole remained.  Early in 1939, the officers approached the membership for donations for the erection of a new building.

February 1, 1939

One of the most serious losses to the community in the September hurricane was the destruction of the Yacht Club.  This unit has filled an increasingly important part in the late years in providing an outlet for the juniors in clean, healthy, competitive sport.

The Yacht Club should be rebuilt, to be more usable and more attractive, not only for the younger people,  - but through careful planning, provide better facilities for you and your guests who come by water.

Naturally, we must ask for funds.  The estimated cost of dock repairs, construction of a clubhouse (shown by the enclosed architect's sketch) and furnishings is $15,000.00.  One hundred pledges of contributions of $150 each will replace our loss.  Larger or smaller amounts, according to your interest will be welcome.

We enclose a pledge card with a stamped return envelope.  There is no time to spare if we are going to have our club in readiness for the coming season.  The committee is ready to go to work as soon as you give your answers of support.  We should not let our young people down!!

By order of the
Board Of Directors


The response was prompt and generous and the present Club House was completed and ready for the summer season of 1939.  The architect for the new Club House was Rockwell, King, and Dumolin. Plans were drawn by a member, Eden Knowlton.  W.C. Hiscox Co. of Westerly was the builder.  Precautions were taken to securely bolt the sill plates to the dock piles and stringers.  The effectiveness of this procedure was proved by the Club House weathering the hurricane of 1954 in spite of five feet of water surging through the first floor.

The new Club House was opened on July 15, 1939, with appropriate celebration, including races of all classes and ending with a parade of yachts.  The Seaside Topics of July 21, 1939 reports,

"Flags were flying, the loud speaker announcing, boys and girls were busily milling around, all on one of Watch Hill's prize beauty days.  There was the spirit of comradeship which mutual interest in sports bring to all people, young and old.  The Yacht Club is back in its place and everyone was happy."

After the sailing races the program was completed with a parade of fifteen yachts.  John F. Sullivan was in charge of this pageant; again quoting from Seaside Topics,

"The afternoon program featured the parade of yachts.  Commodore Geoffrey Moore's handsome craft, Mageanca II, led the column.  The trim white ketch Nacyna owned by Captain Nelson Pickering of Avondale was outstanding in the parade line.  Her lines of gaily colored flags stretched from the bow and stern to the mast heads made a colorful picture and the judges made no hesitation in awarding first prize to the ketch.  Rated only second to Nacyna in attractiveness was Dan Larkin's Blue Sea.  Geff Moore's fifty foot whaler was given third honors."

In 1945, at the end of World Was II, the membership of the Club had dropped to approximately sixty.  Activities had been curtailed by was restrictions,  and it was natural that interest was lost.  However, races were resumed and gradually activities increased and membership grew.  As a means of making the Club attractive as a meeting place, and increasing income to cover the promotion of yachting, a bar was opened in 1950 on the second floor and the first floor given over to the juniors.  The bar operation with Happy Hour Wednesdays, Club buffet dinners, and enlargement of the second floor porch, etc., resulted in an increase in applications, causing the Board of Directors twice to raise the membership limit.  now there are over 400 senior and junior members.

Josephine, circa 1922
Josephine, the first WH-15, circa 1922

In 1954 Hurricane Carol did severe damage in Watch Hill, but the Yacht Club remained in place and required only moderate repairs.  However, the floats were carried well into the woods on Osbrook Point and were retrieved with great difficulty.  They were repaired and are still doing duty in back of the Club.  The dock was about thirty years old and some strengthening was needed.  A campaign for members to "buy a pile" at $50 was successful and all the outer row of piles were replaced.

In 1955 the Yacht Club acted on behalf of a group of its members to lease from the Watch Hill Fire District a strip of beach about 400 feet long, on which would be built Cabanas.  The cost of building, land rental, and all other expenses would be met by members of the Cabana Group.  Originally 20 members were interested in building in spite  of the possible loss from future hurricanes.  Now 56 Cabana, all owned by Yacht Club members, have been built and all beach options taken up.

In 1967, extensive Club renovations doubling the effective area on the upper level were done.  An addition of shower facilities for visiting yachtsmen and an enlarged galley proved to be quite necessary.

To the present members, 1973 marked the revelation of another serious problem.  After a thorough investigation of the substructure by Elliot and Watrous Marine Contractors, it was found that over seventy percent of the supporting piles were either unserviceable or non-existent.  A committee was formed with Clarence Horton as Chairman to investigate re-supporting the Club House prior to opening in the spring.  This job proved quite a task as the existing piles were in place prior to the erection of the Club House and were located directly under the building.  It was decided that special high-nickel-content marine steel beams could be used to span the width of the dock and building, with perimeter piles carrying the load.

Financing of the construction was alleviated by the Yacht Club capital improvement fund which has been established with great forethought some years back for an emergency of this magnitude.  The remaining funds were borrowed over a 5-year period.

The work on the Club House started in late April of the year and was completed on May 24th.  The Club opening had to be delayed two weeks, but was opened officially on May 26, 1973 with a dinner -dance attended by 130 people, who gave the new steel beams and piles a true test.

About the same time we were concerned about the substructure we became interested in cleaning up the matter of sanitary waste disposal.  A committee was also formed to rectify the problem.  At this point, we had engaged the services of a professional engineer and had arrived at a preliminary design that satisfied the Department of sanitation and Pollution Control of the State of Rhode Island.  Final plans and specifications were drafted for bidding and we saw this project completed before the end of the summer.

In 1976, it was decided by the Board of Directors that a new Committee Boat was needed, and on July 4th, 1977, Watch Dog II was christened by Mrs. Clarence A. Horton before an overwhelming turnout of members.

Also in 1977, our Juniors won the Atlantic Coast Midget Championship in a Blue Jay skippered by Daren Chew, with Tim Hotchkiss and Andrew Livingston as crew.  That summer our Blue Jay fleet, skippered by Juniors, won eighty-five-percent of all races they entered. 

In 1978, we saw the election of our first woman Flag Officer, Rita Ahearn, who has subsequently served as Commodore.

1984 saw the passing of Clarence A. Horton.  Horty served for many years as Race Committee Chairman and was made an Honorary Commodore by acclamation of the membership in 1980.  He spent many hours working for club and will be greatly missed.

In 1984 renovations were made on the second floor of the Club House.  The bar was moved to the street side and the windows facing the harbor were altered to provide a spectacular view.  Also in 1984, a new 22' launch was purchased from F. L. Tripp in Westport, MA.

Our Watch Hill 15 fleet continues to grow, and now includes sixteen molded and three wooden hulls.

1990 and 1991 were especially active years around the Club.  Plenty of sailing, socials, and ceremonies kept the place lively, with a few storms and high tides thrown in to get our attention.  The changes and improvements which were made to the physical plant, although extensive, were minimally inconvenient thanks to the efforts of the committees involved.  Scheduling around the normal club activities by these wizards was very well-realized and appreciated.

Hurricane Bob of August, 1991, could have been worse - a lot worse; again, thanks to a lot of hustle from staff and members, the storm's damage was lessened.  Even so, the Club sustained the worst damage since the season of 1954.  When the eye passed the Club, practically no damage was evident; the norwester that followed was a knockout punch, though, and it raised havoc with the galley and the fleet in the mooring.  Some vessels were totaled, while some were rebuilt; the three Watch Hill 15s which sank that day (one in the harbor, 2 up the river) were all raised shortly after the storm and put back in action.

By Labor Day Weekend, the Club House was back up and running so well that a ceremony could be held there which honored our two Honorary Commodores, Avard Fuller and Hubbard Phelps.  Through decades of service to the Club, these men have been selfless and inspiring in promoting the best which the Club can offer.  The tribute to the men, their legacies of leadership, and to their contributions to the Club's robust good health was unforgettable.  Incidentally, Avard's nurturing of the Watch Hill 15 Class throughout the years (he owned six of them!) continues to bear fruit as the fleet continues to grow.

The next two years were typically energetic ones at the Club; renovations and upgrading were visible throughout the facility, while the programs (particularly the Junior Sailing program) were revitalized and strengthened.  Regrettably, the Club mourned the loss of many people who contributed so much to its well-being through the decades; most notably, Avard Fuller, Herman Muenchinger, and Dan Larkin, Jr.

Club improvements included new rest rooms and shower facilities upstairs and down, new porch and office upgrades, a new boardwalk entrance, new galley, and a new alarm system.  On the waterfront, dredging made our lives much easier.

In the fleet, the Junior Program was revitalized in 1992 with very reassuring portents for the Club's future representations.  The JY-15 design was chosen, and a hull secured for the Program;  now there are six boats, the other five being bought in 1995 through donations made in memory of the late Daren Chew, who was lost at sea that year.  The Watch Hill 15 fleet now stands at 25 hulls with the addition of one boat which was found in the Boston area by a member and returned to the harbor.  Another Herreshoff hull, Firefly, was donated by the late Herman Muenchinger's family to the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol, RI.

The first annual Club-wide cruise was held in 1994; thanks to the efforts of committee chair Claus Rossin and his tireless assistant Almedia Livingston, the event is sure to be endorsed annually by our membership (which is currently at full strength).

photo of the clubhouse in 2004
The club house as it was
in April 2004