The Recession Takes Down a Yacht Club

February 12, 2009 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment

It’s safe to say that before this economic collapse runs its course, there will be many sadder stories than the demise of the Knickerbocker Yacht Club.

Founded in 1874 on the Harlem River in Manhattan, it survived several moves, two World Wars, the Great Depression, Hurricane Carol and various internal crises, living on as the second-oldest yacht club on the Long Island Sound.

But unless something totally unexpected happens, it won’t see another summer. Shortly after becoming the club’s commodore in January, Dr. Brian Raskin, a Long Island dentist, reluctantly brought to board members a proposal to shut down in the face of rising costs and falling membership.

The decision to close was confirmed at a meeting on Sunday, and the property on Manhasset Bay, near Gatsby Country on the North Shore, is going up for sale.

“Pulling teeth is easy,” Dr. Raskin said. “This is hard.”

On Tuesday evening, Dr. Raskin spoke at the empty club, where tiny, brightly-colored models of members’ vessels line the wall. “It’s nobody’s fault,” he said. “In a time when Lehman Brothers, Circuit City, Merrill Lynch and Citibank are all having major issues, it’s very difficult to complain about a yacht club. It’s a luxury item. We all know that. But, still, we’re crying over the history and what this place has meant to us.”

The term “yacht club” does not exactly evoke populist sentiments or mainstream economic concerns. Still, in its own ways, this small, high-end casualty of the bust has relevant lessons.

Originally incorporated to encourage “Yachting and the cultivation of Naval Science and Seamanship,” the Knickerbocker Yacht Club has for more than a century catered both to serious sailors and to members who bought into its sense of seaside amity.

In 1907, the club moved to Port Washington, essentially the one Jewish yacht club in a non-Jewish world. Members transported their old frame headquarters to Long Island, hoisted it atop the new one and began anew. There was iceboating and frostbiting (dinghy racing) in the winter, serious racing and leisurely cruising all summer. Members’ crafts ranged from 200-foot yachts to 10-foot dinghies, but most were moderate, with owners functioning as one-person crews. The club’s Knickerbocker Cup race, started in 1982, became internationally recognized.

At its peak in the early 1980s, the club had about 290 families with 165 boats. And then, slowly, the world changed. Boating declined in popularity. Families started carting their kids to soccer games, ballet lessons and SAT classes instead of having them hang out by the water learning to sail. Living on Long Island got so expensive that older members moved away.

And even the old sort-of rich, the doctors and dentists and successful business owners who could afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on sailboats and their accouterments, found themselves feeling the pinch in the way they hadn’t in previous generations.

This was not the world of the zillionaires across the Sound in Greenwich and Darien. It was mostly people who made a good living but paid high taxes and struggled with college tuitions. Even at the yacht club, or this one anyway, making ends meet wasn’t always so easy even before the roof fell in, a reminder of just how small a slice of American life got the big rewards during the Wall Street boom years.

Membership fell to about 120 over the years and, with disaster looming, fell further this year. An attempt to merge with the Manhasset Bay Yacht Club next door fell through. Finally, the financial collapse put a noose around everyone. “That was the death knell,” said Jeanne Rosenthal, an ophthalmologist and the vice commodore, whose father taught her to sail at the club as a young girl. “This place was like ‘Cheers.’ I don’t know how I’ll survive without it.”

Knickerbocker isn’t the only club for the well-to-do that will struggle to survive. And every collapse and divorce brings its unhappy stories. This one could, too. Members ratified the decision to close, but some still feel it was a mistake, that officials panicked or refused to consider alternatives, putting irreplaceable real estate on the market with whatever intrigue that produces.

Geography aside, it’s not quite Gatsby’s world. But were he around to survey the pumped-up universe of fraud and collapse, the titanic hangover now playing out, from that big house across Manhasset Bay, he might look out to the water and give a wry smile.

New York Times


Entry filed under: Get Wet, Maritime, Public Waterfront, Region.

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