The Houston Yacht Club (HYC) is a recreational boating organization located on the upper western shore of Galveston Bay in the small community of Shoreacres near the town of La Porte. The club traces its origins to the summer of 1897 and is the oldest yacht club in the state of Texas. At a formal meeting on February 2, 1898, in the Binz Building, Houston’s first skyscraper, the name of the organization, the Houston Yacht Club, was affirmed, and officers and directors were elected. Dan E. Kennedy was elected the first presiding officer and, following yachting tradition, given the title of commodore. Kennedy, a prominent Houston businessman and a former Texas Ranger, owned a newly-constructed, architecturally-significant, extant summer home in Morgan’s Point as well as a residence in Houston on Clay Street. He was the son of Houston pioneer settler John Kennedy, who built the Kennedy Bakery Building on Market Square in 1861. Additional members of the first board were W. B. Griffin, Arthur F. Sharpe, A. J. Schureman, Charles Guilliot, Frank Marsh, W. P. Gribble, James Black, Captain Moss, W. E. Humphreyville, S. W. Sydnor, Ernest Necco, Louis Penes, and Brook Hamilton. During the early years, the activities were characterized by the hosting of regattas on Galveston Bay. These events featured races for all types of boats, from racing sloops to working class sailboats, motor yachts, and canoes. They were often accompanied by games and aquatic activities and drew throngs of people from Houston and bay communities.
Significant changes occurred in the development of the organization during the early part of the twentieth century. In 1905 the club expanded on its name and received a charter from the state of Texas as the Houston Yacht & Power Boat Club (HY&PBC). Directors were H. E. Gray, George Wharton, Mayor Horace Baldwin Rice, B. J. Still, Charles Erickson, Bryan Heard, Harris County tax collector George Glass, E. L. Fox, and M. T. Meagher.
The purpose as stated in the charter included not only promoting the sport of boating but also a focus on developing Buffalo Bayou as a waterway. Lumberman John Henry Kirby donated his steamboat Lawrence to the organization to be used for the “pleasure and amusement for those who were members” of the club. The steamboat was docked at the foot of Main Street and also intended to be a means for the members to promote Houston’s deep-water interests. After two seasons of dealing with increasing financial liabilities associated with maintaining and operating the steamboat, the group severed ties with the Lawrence and immediately reorganized as the Houston Launch Club (HLC) with George Glass, erstwhile director of the HY&PBC, serving as commodore. The name change reflected the growing fleet of motor yachts, described as “unsurpassed in Southern waters, owned by club members.” The focus of promoting Buffalo Bayou continued as the private luxury yachts were often put into service to provide tours and outings along the waterway for dignitaries and visiting politicians in order to influence legislation necessary to develop the Houston Ship Channel and the industry that would develop along its banks. A spacious clubhouse was constructed on the south bank of the bayou in Harrisburg.
After World War I major developments occurred. In 1920 the Launch Club became a founding charter member of the Gulf Yachting Association (GYA) which consisted of yacht clubs along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida. A major sailing competition to determine the association champion was held annually. Each club was required to own a fleet of one design sailboats and provide sailing instruction to members and their families, and HYC’s mission expanded to include an emphasis on providing affordable, fair, competitive, and recreational sailing for all, a significant purpose of the organization today. In 1927, retaining the Launch Club burgee, the organization once again took the name Houston Yacht Club and constructed a spacious stucco building (still in use in 2017) on the shore of Galveston Bay.
Membership is by invitation and open to persons of “good moral character.” During the early years a predominance of members were Houston businessmen and financiers who owned large luxury yachts, both power and sail, and shared a strong interest in promoting the development of the ship channel and the city of Houston. In the 2010s membership was characterized by families and individuals who were interested in all aspects of recreational boating, both power and sail, including competitive amateur racing. They were typified by a willingness to volunteer: members governed the organization and developed and provided the manpower for all activities. Membership classes were available from young students to retirees and all ages and groups in between.
During the past 119 years, from 1897 to 2016, more than eighty men and three women have served as commodore. Many of them have been individuals commonly associated with the history of Houston, such as John Henry Kirby, George L. Glass, John S. Bonner, Houston mayor Horace Baldwin Rice, and C. G. Pillot. Included among the prominent members were future congressman Joe Eagle, future mayor Ben Campbell, Texaco founder Joseph Cullinan, Reverend Henry Aves, Sam Streetman, E. L. Crain, M. D. Anderson, George Rufus Brown, George Strake, Hugh Roy Cullen, W. S. Farish, and Governor Ross Sterling. Members include world-class sailors who are national and international sailing adult and junior champions, Olympic medalists, and competitors in the world’s premier yachting event, the America’s Cup, including the winning team of America3 in 1992.
The by-laws mandate that the organization supports and encourages the sport of yachting; provides good fellowship; encourages sportsmanship and boating safety; introduces youth to boating; and provides a home for members and their families as well as facilities for their yachts. In fulfillment of this mission, volunteer committees and organizations within the membership produce a year-round calendar of on and off-the-water activities.
Located directly on Galveston Bay, the club provides easy access to open water for boaters year-round, and as a sailboat racing venue HYC hosts numerous regattas a year. A large number of member volunteers provide the manpower necessary to host these events. They participate as organizers and workers for the on-shore activities as well as in all phases of race management, from towing inflatable buoy marks behind a small motor boat to becoming certified at the highest levels, such as US Sailing National Race Officer and World Sailing International Race Officials, who are qualified to run national and world competitions.
The historic three-story stucco 27,000 square-foot clubhouse and four acres of grounds provide a home for fellowship and on-shore activities with fine and casual dining, bar, banquet, and hotel facilities; safety and boating education seminars; learn-to-sail events including but not limited to summer overnight camps for women and youth; and space for social events.
Rebuilt after Hurricane Ike in 2008, the harbor functions as a large marina with facilities that include space to accommodate 350 large and small power and sail boats in wet and dry storage. Fuel docks, a marine pump out station, crane hoists, and trailer ramps are available as well as beach and lawn launching for dinghies. Marine radio is monitored by the staff for the benefit of safety, vessel communication, and race management.
The youth sailing program, the Ragnots, was organized in 1957. From learning fundamental boating skills to competitive racing and fun on the water, the goal of the program is to develop knowledgeable young sailors while instilling in them a love of the sport. The program consists of daily activities on the water and an overnight camp during summer and continues during the school year with weekend practices and specialized clinics. Dinghy racing is at the heart of the program, and the Ragnots have opportunities to compete in local, state, regional, national, and international competition.
As part of its charter the nonprofit private club also provides charitable support to certain civic, government, and amateur athletic organizations and has a long tradition of public service. In 1898 Commodore Dan Kennedy offered the services of the fleet to then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish American War. Members turned their yachts over to the military in World War I as well as World War II when the clubhouse and grounds were occupied by the Coast Guard. The club’s headquarters has served as a command center during oil spills, pipeline ruptures, and hurricanes. Numerous times HYC has rallied the community and gone to court to protect the bay from drilling, dredging, and environmental threats. The emergency preparedness plan developed after Hurricane Alicia in 1983 gained national acclaim. HYC has provided long-term support for Sea Scouts, the Blind Sailing Association, and Special Olympics.
Windjammer, a monthly printed magazine, is the official publication of the club. The Texas Historical Commission awarded the organization a state historical marker in 1997. In 1998 the definitive club history, From Buffalo Bayou to Galveston Bay, was published, with a second edition released in 2008. In 2010–11, in cooperation with the Houston Metropolitan Research Center and the Woodson Research Center, the club’s historic archives, including rare early photographs, were digitized for the ongoing online exhibit Business & Pleasure on Houston’s Waterways, 1897–1927, hosted by Rice University.
For the year 2016–17 the club was led by Commodore Steve Gillett and included other flag officers, line officers, and a board of trustees. This governing board oversees an active schedule for the 400 members, which includes forty or more organized boating events ranging from the challenging annual offshore race in the Gulf of Mexico to day sails, raft-ups, overnight cruises, and family boating opportunities. There are two annual fundraising regattas: the Leukemia Cup Regatta, benefiting the Gulf Coast Leukemia/Lymphoma Society, and the HYC regatta in support of the tall ship Elissa (a National Historic Landmark) berthed in Galveston. Women’s events include an overnight learn to sail camp, the Mermaid Regatta, and races for the Catherine Spiller and Fairfax Moody trophies. The club has hosted the Optimist Dinghy National Championship, an eight-day event which attracts 300 boats and young junior sailors from more than twenty-five states and six or more countries, three times. The club hosts a variety of scheduled social events that are highlighted by the formal Commodore’s Ball and the ever popular Ladies Association Cocktail Party. This variety of racing, cruising, educational, and social events continues the club’s 120-year long tradition of promoting recreational boating on Galveston Bay.