You've just joined the boating set. Perhaps you're renting a beauty to try out life on the high seas. (See also: Leasing a Yacht: A Step-by-Step Guide.

Or perhaps you're ready to buy. Whatever your reason, it's made you curious about other amenities and aspects of the nautical world—in particular, yacht clubs. (See also: How to Buy Your First Super Yacht.)

How Yacht Clubs Work

A yacht club (also called a sailing club) isn’t like a boat club where you pay a monthly fee to use one of the club’s boats during the month (although some do have boats for rent). Most yacht clubs exist for people who own a yacht, have owned one in the past or plan to do so in the near future. Yacht clubs take on all kinds of forms. Some cater to high-net-worth individuals while others serve a broader range of boat owners. Some are largely for people who race, while others have more of a country club feel.

“The term 'yacht club' is probably outdated," confides Sandy Curtiss, a board member of the Chicago Yacht Club, to which he's belonged for 31 years. "Boating club or sailing club is probably more appropriate. The members have to have enough disposable income to support the hobby, but many members are upper- to middle-class working people, and not ultra-wealthy.”

Kim Stuart, a longtime yachtsman who has served on the boards of directors of major yacht clubs, notes that “some clubs, like the New York Yacht Club or St. Francis Yacht Club, are very upscale and might require a jacket for dining in the formal dining room, refuse to allow men to wear hats inside the building, and so on. Most of these clubs have informal areas as well, usually the locker room, which might have a sauna, weight room, swimming pool, tennis courts, etc. available, depending on how well funded they are. Other clubs, such as Berkeley Yacht Club, Kona Sailing Club or South Coast Corinthian Yacht Club are located in smaller, older facilities. They're basically member-run, volunteer organizations that depend on their member base to do nearly everything.”

Size can vary too. “Some clubs are lucky to have 100 members; these are usually small clubs in an area with a lot of clubs to choose from," Stuart explains. "Other clubs have huge numbers. The Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto has nearly 5,000 members and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in Auckland has 3,000.” 

Why Join?

Stuart gives five reasons people may join yacht clubs.

  • The ability to get a boat slip on the premises or dry storage
  • The ability to race under a U.S. Sailing-sanctioned burgee (a flag denoting membership in a club). Membership in a qualifying club is required for national or international competition in higher-level races (see below).
  • Access to facilities such as a dining room, exercise room, meeting rooms, etc. 
  • Access to junior programs for kids. Programs sometimes come at a free or reduced price not available to non-members.
  • Access to organized cruises and other planned activities.

Then there's the social component. As Dimitri Semenikhin, founder of yachtharbour.com, notes, “Often, yacht clubs throw exclusive parties and gatherings for their members, which are either networking cocktails or events related to yachting.”

The Racing Factor

Many clubs are built around racing. “Most clubs sponsor a weeknight race (often called a beer can race) during the summer, and many have small- to mid-sized regattas over the weekends in the summer time," explains Stuart. There are categories of racing, based on boat type, and a myriad of regattas to support racing at a variety of levels. Sailing is also an Olympic sport, so there are a lot of folks who aspire to Olympic campaigns, and there are a lot of junior racing programs.”

Says Curtiss: “The Chicago Yacht Club, for example, sponsors dozens of events around the calendar such as the classic Chicago-to-Mackinac race ... On a regular year CYC will sponsor several local and national championship sailing regattas as well as North American championships.

You don't have to race boats to participate, he adds. "The club is not only about racing sail boats. Many members are power boat owners or members who want to pleasure-sail their boats, and there are activities for them such as outings. [We] cruise to other ports for the night and have parties, etc.”

Club Costs

The million-dollar question, right? Some clubs, called paper clubs, don’t have their own physical buildings. Instead they use space owned by another club or private organization. Dues for these could be as low as $50 per year and may include dinner gatherings somewhere each month or other small amenities.

“On the upper end of the range–clubs like the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco or New York Yacht Club in New York City, two of the most  exclusive in the U.S.–charge a five-figure initiation fee and hundreds of dollars in monthly dues, along with a minimum [sum that] members have to spend in the restaurant,” says Stuart.

Not all memberships are created equal. Much of what you pay rests on who you are and who you know. According to Stuart, “If you’re a good racer [and] have an Olympic or other respectable class championship shot, you’re almost always going to be offered a special membership that might not even have dues. But you’d be required to use that club as your home club/burgee when you’re racing somewhere fancy.”

Signing Up

If you’re looking to join a paper club, it won’t be hard at all. Simply apply, pay your dues, and you’re a proud member of a yacht club.

But for brick-and-mortar clubs, it’s not so automatic. “Usually the board of directors will decide whether a club should limit the size of the membership, depending on the facilities," says Curtiss. "Generally, yacht clubs are seeking new [people] who have boat interests and who will be good members.” Some, however, are more exclusive and, according to Semenikhin, you may often encounter waiting lists of prospective members and elaborate application procedures. For example, “to join the Monaco Yacht Club you need to not only pay the membership fee but also have two members from the club endorse you. The process can take up to two years after the membership request.”

The Bottom Line

If you live in a coastal city or on the banks of a major river or lake, there's probably at least one yacht club. Talk to local sailing shops, look online and go to races sponsored by the club, if you can. Try to get a feel for the ambiance. The face of yacht clubs is changing, according to Curtiss. Most are getting to be "homey and clubby, but not extravagant. There is a trend to make the clubs less formal as younger members are demanding a more casual environment.”

Casual or not, a measure of exclusivity can prevail among older, prestigious places. Remember that membership often comes down to whom you know and that, depending on the club, it might take a while to gain membership.

You don’t have to join a club to go sailing, of course. But it can be fun to find others who share your passion.

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