Founded in 1877, the New Bedford Yacht Club was incorporated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
On January 25, 1878 “for the purpose of encouraging athletic exercises, yachting and especially by maintaining a Club house”. The first Clubhouse was on Fish Island, but in 1879 the Club moved to larger quarters on Pope’s Island. The second house was a two and a half story Victorian structure built over the water on pilings.
Then, as now, the Club represented diverse boating interests. Charter members were from New Bedford and Fairhaven and were either enthusiastic oarsmen who had participated in rowing races on the Acushnet River and elsewhere, or yachtsmen, pleasure sailors who had enjoyed the lively competition and ideal sailing conditions in New Bedford Harbor and Buzzards Bay. Both cruising and racing were important to early New Bedford yachtsmen.
The Club grew quickly; by 1881 membership had increased to 311 and the fleet to 57 boats. Research has not yet revealed what athletic exercises engaged the 254 yachtless members. Possibly some owned shells or wherries; the yearbook offers no clue.
A typical season in the 1880’s and 1890’s opened with a Memorial Day full dress review and regatta; the Club then scheduled one or two more regattas and almost weekly cruises through the season. In 1895, the bylaws were amended to permit a Junior Membership category for boys under 18.
By the end of the 19th Century, the New Bedford Yacht Club members were beginning to keep their boats in non-industrial Padanaram Harbor. In 1901, the yacht club built a second station in Padanaram. The building stood substantially as it is today except the porches were not enclosed and there was no Junior Room. Two tennis courts occupied the parking lot by the Elm Street entrance and a croquet court was planned, but never materialized. Just north of the yacht club gates stood a bandstand where concerts were given on Sunday nights during the summer season.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, the Club continued to schedule frequent cruises and to participate in regattas with other clubs, but the number of power launches in the yacht club increased dramatically. Power boat races became the most important events in the New Bedford Yacht Club Memorial Day Regatta. Of six classes racing from the New Bedford station on May 28, 1912, three were power classes; two were sail, and one a single scull class.
The social pace sped up, too, with “hops” or “smokers” occurring weekly during the season, a band concert, and fireworks on the 4th of July, and tennis tournaments scheduled at the Padanaram Station.
In 1919 a Power Squadron was formed within the New Bedford Yacht Club. In that year power and sailboats were in equal ratio, but by 1920 the ratio had tipped in favor of sail again and the New Bedford Power Squadron has gone out of existence. Thereafter, while the Club has continued to include a large powerboat fleet, sail has predominated.
During World War I, the Club curtailed its activities and many of the boat owners enrolled in the Coast Guard to patrol local waters.
In the aftermath of the war, the Club’s focus seems to have shifted from cruising activities to racing. The first one design class, Toppan 21 1/2′ Cabin Racing Dories appeared in 1920. By the end of the decade, Alden O’s, Hereshoff 12’s, Herreshoff “S” knockabouts, Herreshoff and Alden 12’s, Wee Scotts (Buzzards Bay Submarines) and Beetle Cats were included in the fleet.
The New Bedford Yacht Club Race week was inaugurated in 1922, It was an elaborate affair with races for twelve different types of classes for boats ranging from Herreshoff 40’s to Alden and Herreshoff 12’s and powerboats. One day of the week was devoted to water sports – swimming, diving, tub and canoe races, and canoe tilting. Chowders, clambakes and three “hops” in the course of the six-day celebration sustained the racers.
When the Bermuda Race was renewed in 1923 by Yachting magazine, six of the participating yachts were from the New Bedford Yacht Club. In 1928 Russell Grinnell in Rugosa II won Class A of the Bermuda Race.
Saturday afternoon races were organized at the Club by Rear Commodore Gardiner Akin. No series racing had existed before Mr. Akin organized the six classes in 1926; the program was expanded to Wednesday afternoons in 1929.
The Club opened the depression decade by extensively redecorating both stations in time for the 1930 Club Commissioning. Race week was reduced to three days because “coming in the middle of a season peppered with regattas, a week is too long a time to demand of an average skipper”. One design racing continued to develop, particularly the Beetle class, and the Whaler’s Race originally the Whalers’ 100 Mile Race,” to be open to any boat of a wholesome cruising type” was inaugurated as an annual event in 1932.
The fleet continued to grow in 1940 and 1941, but with the advent of World War II, the Club activities were cut back. During the war, members of the yacht club again served as auxiliary Coast Guard members, patrolling the familiar local coastline.
By 1947, the Club had returned to a full schedule of yachting activities. The Beetle Cat fleet numbered forty-two, down from 1941’s high of fifty-three, but still large enough to be divided into two divisions in each of the Wednesday and Saturday series. There were three intra-club regattas for all classes; two Commodore’s Cup Races for Beetle Cats, a weekend cruise, an annual Regatta for seven classes and the Russ Smith Memorial Race in addition to the Casey Cup and Whalers’ Race.
The Pope’s Island station was sold in 1941, concentrating the Club’s activities at the Padanaram Station. In 1953 the Junior Sailing Group was organized with the guidance and generous support of Walter N. Rothschild. After Mr. Rothschild’s death in 1960, his friends and family contributed funds to build the Rothschild Memorial Room, an addition to the clubhouse for the use of Junior Members.
By the early 60′ facilities for both cars and boats became overcrowded. The parking problem was solved by a complicated arrangement of land purchase and swapping that resulted in Club ownership of the “South Lot”. During this process the South Dock was constructed providing additional boat slips.
The Club continued to develop a varied boating program to accommodate the wide range of nautical interests represented in the Club. Frostbite racing, a predicted log race, and a fishing derby were added to the Club program with intermittent success, and five new perpetual trophies were added for cruising class races.
Beginning in the 50’s the Club responded to the trend toward one-design invitational events: “The North American Men’s Sailing Championships – The Mallory Cup. With dedicated and skilled committees both ashore and afloat, the series ran in 1971 without a flaw.
Although, (or perhaps because) sailing racing competitions proliferated in this period, participation in racing events began to decline. To counteract the diminution of interest, the Beverly Yacht Club and the New Bedford Yacht Club joined forces in 1972 to sponsor the Buzzards Bay Regatta. The three day event has proved most successful attracting over 200 participants each year. A Wednesday evening cruising class and Rhodes 19 race series and the Clark’s Cove Challenge Cup, a competition between the New Bedford Yacht Club and the Low Tide yacht Club, are also recent popular events.
The social side continued to flourish with varied activities during the summer season: formal dinner dances on Saturday nights for Seniors, high-decibel mid-week Junior and Intermediate dances, and informal family gatherings on Sunday evenings.
Currently the New Bedford Yacht Club squadron includes sail, motor boats, and once again, a racing shell. A full schedule of racing, cruising, and social events is maintained. As the second oldest yacht club in continuous operation on Buzzards Bay and the tenth oldest New England, the Club continues to fulfill its original statement of purpose.