A tradition on the water
Members of the Corinthian Yacht Club still set sail to follow their passion.
On a recent sun-spangled evening on the Delaware River, a small fleet of J-22 sailboats finished their race, dropped their billowing spinnakers, and headed back to the Corinthian Yacht Club for drinks all round, followed by dinner on the enclosed porch.
An idyllic tableau - except for the jet traffic screaming overhead from nearby Philadelphia International Airport, the vast freighters chugging by, and the riverside industrial stacks belching smoke that some sailors use like flags to help gauge the wind.
One of the Philadelphia region's oldest social clubs, and once an exclusive enclave for local gentry, Corinthian is not the country escape it was a century ago, when members sipped apple toddies at a house surrounded by green meadows. Today, the club sits behind hedges, surrounded by the modest homes, marinas and stores of the Delaware County river town of Essington.
Despite changing times and social attitudes, the club prospers. A $3 million renovation project to the rambling and creaky clubhouse is nearly complete, and Wednesday-night racing grows ever more popular.
Many of its members still come from the Main Line and Chestnut Hill, but the club's once-high social barriers are lower today. The club seeks new members and is offering courses this summer to teach adults and children to sail.
"It's an oasis and no one knows about it," said the club's commodore, A. John "Jack" Gregg. "We're really trying to energize people to come sailing as an activity. We're trying to attract young people and families that want to sail."
The Corinthian Yacht Club was formed officially in 1892 when a group of about 30 members decided to split off from the larger Quaker City Yacht Club because some of Quaker City's members were displaying a love for "wine, women and song" that was "too boisterous for the comfort of some other members and . . . not at all compatible with the dignity that the then-leading club should have," wrote Robert Barrie in his book
Early Days of the Corinthian Yacht Club of Philadelphia
The Corinthians also wanted to form their own club because many were more affluent leaders of banking and industry and owned bigger boats. The name Corinthian, which refers to the area of Corinth in ancient Greece, has also come to mean a person who enjoys luxury. But in the sailing world, Corinthian refers to amateur yachtsmen, and the original members of Philadelphia's Corinthian Yacht Club preferred that members sail their own vessels as opposed to paying others to do it for them.
The Corinthians bought a house once used by a fishing company in Essington, about 12 miles outside the city, where there was little car or horse traffic. Many members reached the club by a two-coach train, he wrote. But the drive from the city was also pleasant; one would cross the Schuylkill at the Grays Ferry Bridge, heading through green meadows. Sailboats filled the water and the horizon, Barrie wrote.
"It was like a miniature Holland, with the brimming ditches looking like little canals and the sails of the shipping on the river showing above the dikes," Barrie wrote.
Well-known Philadelphia families such the Drexels and the Lippincotts belonged to the Corinthian Yacht Club. In the club's heyday, members raced for the prize of a bottle of wine - deciding against a cash prize, which they found crass. The club had a six-piece band and held summer parties and fireworks displays on the Fourth of July. Members drank mint juleps in the spring and apple toddies in the fall, and enjoyed lunches of duck and stewed snapper.
The club reached its membership peak in 1931, with 288 members, before beginning a slow decline that mirrored the decline in influence of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant upper class. The Depression and World War II brought some decline in numbers, and with less social buzz at the club, fewer members came out to sail and the property went into disrepair, acquiring a rough look that current members jokingly characterized as "shabby-chic."
Just after the club celebrated its centennial in 1992, then-Commodore Bob Engle suggested introducing one-design racing at the club, which club officials credit with helping to re-energize members, in part because the racing was more competitive.
The club, which has 200 local members and about 100 more who live more than 75 miles away, is seeking new members.
The club's WASP origins are still visible. Many of the members come from the Main Line, and new members must be sponsored by current ones. Other clubs regard the Corinthian as a bit aloof.
The club does not belong to the Delaware River Yachtsmen's League, a group of 39 clubs along the Delaware, including clubs that do not use power boats, such Liberty Sailing Club and the Riverton Yacht Club in New Jersey.
"I don't know the last time they were approached," said Paul Jusino, president of the Delaware River Yachtsmen's League. "I was always given the impression that they were untouchable."
The Riverside Yacht Club, a power-boat club in Essington, is about three marinas north of Corinthian, but it has a distinctly different flavor, said John McCann, past commodore and member of the board of directors at Riverside.
"They're pretty much the only ones that are like the upper-crust," McCann said. "We're more like a blue-collar club, a working man's club. You know, we don't have anybody who's worth big money in here, and if we did, I'd be snuggling up to him."
Corinthian's members are still in the upper middle class, but membership is not the kind of status symbol that it once was.
"I think that snobbery went out of style," said Charles "Chip" Seltzer Jr., a fourth-generation member and past commodore. "The place is absolutely less exclusive than it used to be."
On a recent Wednesday night, real estate agents, lawyers, financial advisers and accountants took to the water for a race. Wes McMichael, 29, a patent lawyer in the process of remodeling his Ardmore home, arrived in smudged khaki shorts with white paint splattered on his hands and legs.
McMichael named his J-22 sailboat Fancy Pants based on a joke among friends that the fanciest, and sometimes most hideous, pants tend to be worn to yacht club parties. He painted the hull a bright robin's-egg blue with an equally loud yellow stripe.
But McMichael's easy-going attitude disappears when he's racing, and he has no trouble issuing curt commands to his crew, made up of his father, Archibald, and his older brother William.
During a race last month, McMichael yelled at another skipper, accusing him of hitting the mark on a turn.
"Did anyone else see it?" he asked his crew.
"No," they said in unison, teasing him as they prepared for the second race.
During the second race, skipper McMichael put a guest onboard Fancy Pants to work. "Sailing is a sport, not a ride," he said, instructing the visitor to pull a red line each time the boom swung over.
Later, sailors gathered at the club's bar, their cheeks pink from the sun and wind. McMichael described the thrill of a race.
"It's the most exciting 4 miles an hour you'll ever experience," he said.