The Founding of Severn Sailing Association

The unedited story by Dr. Stuart Walker, one of the founding members of Severn Sailing Association (SSA). An amazingly serendipitous concurrence of people and events, each of whose presence was required at a precise time and in a precise sequence, was required to create SSA. The Association was incorporated in 1954 by a group of about thirty people who lived on Round Bay and who wished to establish a sailing club on its shore. But their hopes and plans were dashed when they discovered that local zoning laws prohibited such an establishment and, two years after the incorporation, the leaders of the group decided to dissolve it. However, two members of the Board of Governors felt that one more try to find a site was justified and asked me, the leader of one of the club's constituent fleets, to stand for Commodore at the 1956 Annual Meeting and to make that try. I agreed on the proviso that we would not limit our search to Round Bay, but would look everywhere on the Severn, including Annapolis.

Fran Wright standing next to the unfinished bulkhead


My search of the shorelines of Round Bay and the upper river for a site the zoning of which would permit the establishment of a sailing club also proved fruitless. However, I discovered that a piece of property owned by the Redemptorist Fathers at Priest's Point on Weem's Creek (managed by the parents of one of my patients) could be used for ou junior sailing program during the summer of 1957 although it could not be zoned for our permanent use.

Early that fall my friend, Sherb Walker, the "Mayor of Eastport" (one of many of my friends who had been coerced into becoming a member of SSA that year) called me to report that three small cottages on the water at the end of First Street in Eastport were for sale! Sherb owned (and lived on) several properties around the corner on Severn Avenue and he was anxious to see that Sycamore Point did not fall into commercial use. I immediately contacted the owner of the properties and made preliminary arrangements to buy two of the houses subject to the approval of the members of SSA (70% of whom would have to agree) and of the Annapolis City Port Wardens.

A week after a hearing on the subject I was notified by the Port Wardens that, because the land was zoned "commercial", we could not use it for a sailing club. I immediately called Claney Welch, who was then Vice-Commodore of the Annapolis Yacht Club and who knew the "power-brokers" of the city and invited him to join me at the Sycamore Point site. I knew Claney, the Captain of the local Coast Guard Auxiliary, because he had often patrolled the waters surrounding our International 14 regattas.

As we strolled along the oyster-shell-covered beach, he told me that the Port Wardens' initial refusal was to be expected and implied that they wanted something in return for their approval. He brought out his "little black book" and explained that it contained "significant information" that could be used to influence people in the city government. He recommended that I allow him to take care of the problem - and two days later phoned to tell me that our application had been approved.

During the following summer (1958) we constructed a dock at Sycamore Point and launched the boats of our five centerboard fleets (Penguins, Comets, National One-Designs, Severn One-Designs and Internaitonal 14's) and the Cadets of our Junior Club off its beaches. In the fall of 1958 Charlie Lamb, one of our small group of International 14 sailors (who would later design our clubhouse with its many innovative features), called to tell me that his architectural firm had been notified that Harbor Lines - indicating the limits on bulkheading and docking - had just been established by the Corps of Engineers for Annapolis Harbor, that, if we wished, our property could be expanded three to four times by filling behind bulkheads and that he could locate the limits of bulkheading and docking for us. I decided immediately to prepare for the expansion by bulkheading (and called a Special Meeting to gain approval).

During the meeting I "waxed poetic" about the desirability of promoting small boat racing and training juniors to sail. Gerry Wiener rose to say that he didn't think the club had much to offer him as he "didn’t like racing and hated kids." Others pointed out that on our annual income of $400 - 40 members at $10 dues each - we could not expect to buy the property, let alone expand it! I assured them that we would find the money and the motions to buy the property and to expand it were passed "unaminously."

In 1957 and 1958 across the narrow channel from Sycamore Point the U.S. Naval Academy was undertaking a major expansion. Huge dredges were sucking up sand (and mud) from the bottom of Annapolis Harbor to create playing fields and sites for new buildings behind long stone breakwaters. When I took drawings made by Charlie Lamb to the dredge company, they assured me that for but a few thousand dollars, a giant hose from one of their dredges could be deviated so as to fill our entire bulkheaded site in a matter of hours.

And, yes, they would still be here in April, 1959, but that in May, they would be gone - and thereafter fill would cost ten (or more) times as much! We realized that we would have to complete the bulkheads by April - and started immediately to work.

Claney was the chief executive officer of the Meredith-Roane Lumber Company and had now been elected Vice-Commodore of SSA. He had a pile driver and two men to man it. He worked out what lumber we needed and ordered it. I never knew how much of a discount he gave us - on the lumber, the bolts, the pile driver, or the pay of the men who did the pile driving - but it was substantial - and having the correct supplies delivered by a Meredith-Roane truck before we had the cash to pay for it was a Godsend.

At each of our monthly Board of Governors's meetings, I emphasized our need for money.- to pay for the land and the houses we had already bought, the lumber, the two men who would work on Claney's pile driver, the fill - and for the third house (a mere $15,000 at that time, a price which would skyrocket as soon as the possibility of expansion to the Harbor Lines became generally known). I always emphasized that our membership had the money and that to achieve our goals would, if properly approached, be willing to part with it. John Donald, our treasurer, proposed that we raise money through the sale to members of "Beneficial Share Certificates" and worked out a plan to create and promote them. 

These certificates would constitute shares in the value of the Association and its property and would be redeemable if the Association dissolved (but not otherwise!). We sold nearly $20,000 worth at $50 a certificate. (A BSC later became an initiation fee for new members. They have never been redeemed.) At another Special Meeting I asked the membership for their approval of this scheme to raise money thru the sale of B.S.C's, for their approval of an increase in dues (from $10 to $25 per year) and, as it was evident that future members would benefit from our acquisitions and hard work, for their approval of the mortgaging of our property in a substantial loan.

I went to see Pierre Bernard, the President of the Annapolis Banking and Trust Company, asked for a construction loan, offered him an honorary membership in the Association and gave him an opportunity to buy several Beneficial Share Certificates. He accepted the offer and the opportunity to buy the BSC's - and then told me that in the absence of John Donald's creation of the certificates and of our successful sale of them - which he judged to be an indication of the collective enthusiasm of the membership - he would not have granted the loan. John's creative efforts were matched by those of his wife, Marge, a winner of the Adams Cup and one of our outstanding women sailors, and by those of the other leaders of the Sand-Dollars (the Women's Auxiliary of the Association), Frances Walker and Barbara Niedringhaus.

They organized the women members so as to provide breakfasts for the Race Committee, snacks for the juniors and meals and refreshments for their husbands and the other members who worked every weekend (and some week days) setting stringers and sheathing, drilling holes and tighening bolts to ensure that the bulkheads would be  ready for the fill in April, '59.

I asked Fran Wright, one of SSA's original members, who was an engineer at Bethlehem Steel and had built a large motor yacht in his spare time, to supervise the cnstruction of the bulkheads - and thank God I did! Without his expertise we might have failed to use adequately strong stringers and sheathing and certainly would have neglected to drive "deadmen" (short piles driven at an angle into the bottom from which ¾" bronze cables could be attached to every fourth pile) nor ensured that the sheathing was jetted well into the bottom thru the ubiquitous oyster shells (Sycamore Point had been the site of an oyster-house). Had we not had Fran - at the right time and in the right place - the citizens of Eastport, who lined the shore as the semi-liquid fill was pumped in, would have had their prophecies fulfilled: the bulkheads would have collapsed (they did surge back and forth to a frightening degree!), the fill would have run out over them and we would have had an immense liability to overcome! (They did not need to be replaced for over 25 years.)

If any segment of this chain had failed to appear and to appear at the right time, the SSA we know would not have been created, nor survived. It was essential that the Association was in a position to purchase the property at Sycamore Point when Sherb Walker told me it was available, that the publication of Harbor Lines was delayed until after our purchase, that Charlie Lamb was present and notified us that bulkheads could be built to expand the property, that the Naval Academy was conducting a major landfill so that cheap fill was available, that Claney was present and willing to advance all the lumber and equipment necessary for the construction before the money became available, that Fran Wright was present and knew how to build bulkheads properly so that they did not fall down when the fill was poured in, that we members were able to complete the bulkheads in the nine months before the dredging company pulled out - and that John Donald and Pierre Bernard teamed up to make it possible for us to pay for this grand scheme!

Aren't we the luckiest sailors on earth?  

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