When a group of sailing enthusiasts got together in 1934 and conceived the idea of establishing a yacht club on Lake Springfield, it might have seemed a bit premature, considering there was no Lake Springfield at the time.
But while the group didn't have a lake yet, it did have a vision. By the time the 4,200-acre manmade reservoir became a reality in May 1935, the site of the future Island Bay Yacht Club had been selected. The wooded hillside on a point of land with a natural bay turned out to be an ideal lakeside location.
"They didn't know this was the main body of the lake yet," says Bob Tregoning, general manager since 1985. "They did a great job."
The charter members, who "were mostly engineers who worked for the state of Illinois and stayed at the YMCA," erected a modest clubhouse on the site, according to Tregoning. Although that building suited some members just fine, others had their sights set on a more upscale one, which was ultimately built in 1966 after years of planning and raising the necessary funds, he says. The original structure - part of which still exists - was known as the "gear house" because of its primary function as a storage area for sailing gear.
Lois Burton of Springfield has vivid and fond memories of what the club was like from the mid-1950s, when she was introduced to it after marrying Jim, who "grew up out there" and became vice commodore in 1962, until the current clubhouse opened.
"It was very unsophisticated," she says. "It was wonderful."
Because the gear house, a portion of which served as the living quarters of the club's caretakers, was so small, it basically was a "place to play some cards and socialize out of the rain," Tregoning says. Social events involving large numbers of people, like dances, were held outdoors.
"Where the cars park now, there was a huge cement dance floor," Burton recalls. "They would have picnic tables just covering the place, and they would get a bunch of fellas to take the piano up there, and somebody would play the piano. And then the fellas that were in charge of the piano would drink a little too much and couldn't even think about getting it back down until the next day."
Whenever there was a dance, "You never called anybody to say, 'Are you going?' Everybody went," Burton continues. "I mean, it was just an intimate group. Everybody sat with anybody. It was just one big, happy family."
The fact that the gear house offered few amenities wasn't a major concern to the members at that time, whose focus was on sailing and, in some cases, building their own boats, Tregoning says. Back then, club activities were largely centered on sailing, with spectators gathering outdoors to watch regattas, or sailing races.
"The sailing was so predominant then," Burton says. "We used to always sit on that hill and watch all the regattas. It was just covered with people."
At some point around the mid-1970s, Burton and her friend, Mary Lois Cole, decided to do more than sit and watch the regattas. They started sailing competitively after purchasing the first of three yellow Star sailboats named "Daisy" that they would own over the years. Stars are one of several types of boats, or fleets, represented at the yacht club.
"There were no girls that sailed Stars," Burton says. "Mary Lois and myself were the only two girls that owned our own boat and raced with the boys. We never won, but one time, which I think is so funny, we were having a big regatta, and there were all kinds of boats, not only Stars, and we beat a fella from Peoria. He got off the water with his boat and put a 'for sale' sign on it."
While the pair might not have made a name for themselves by sailing, they gained a reputation for their skill at hauling Star boats, which are difficult to transport because of the keel, a large metal projection, Burton says.
"We hauled boats all over the United States," she says. "That was just kind of our thing."
The Burtons are among eight "admiralty" yacht club members, a special designation for individuals who are at least 75 years old and have been members for 50 consecutive years, Tregoning says.
Admiralty members no longer are assessed dues. "That's kind of the way the club says 'thank you' for your long-term dedication," he says.
More than sailing
Times have changed since the days when sailing was the yacht club's raison d'etre. Now, only about 15 percent of the club's 543 members are sailors, according to Tregoning. He attributes that to busier schedules that don't accommodate the time-consuming pursuit of sailing.
"You could describe us as a social club with a strong sailing influence," says the general manager, known to members as "Big Bob."
However, Island Bay Yacht Club is doing its part to generate new sailors by offering sailing lessons to children and adults, says Dr. Pat McKenna, who is the 2011 commodore leading the 12-member board of directors.
"There's a lot of emphasis on trying to keep sailing alive and growing," he says. "The community is welcome to be involved in our sailing instruction. You don't have to be a member to participate in the sailing courses."
Through its sailing foundation, the yacht club is offering 20 scholarships to its junior sailing program, which trains between 60 and 75 young sailors each year.
McKenna, chairman of the urology division at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, joined the yacht club when he moved here from Connecticut 10 years ago with his wife, Linda, and their three daughters.
"I spent a long time in the Navy and had access to sailing during most of my naval career. I actually started sailing as a child, but I never sailed competitively until we came here to Springfield," he says, adding that his daughters have followed in his footsteps by learning to sail.
Despite its location on a manmade lake in a part of the country not renowned for sailing, Island Bay Yacht Club has produced "a lot of top-notch sailors who have sailed in national and world events," Tregoning says. The club has further distinguished itself by being home to "seven lifetime Star-class sailors, which makes it the biggest group of any Star fleet in the entire world," he says.
As further indication of its success in the sailing arena, Island Bay became the first inland freshwater yacht club to receive the St. Petersburg Trophy for having the best regatta of the year. Presented by US SAILING, the award was for the 1979 Sunfish North American Championship.
The club's reputation for sailing excellence played a role in its selection as the site for the 65th Western Hemisphere Star Regatta, which was held June 6-11. This marked the first time in the regatta's history that the International Star Class Yacht Racing Association elected to have the event on an inland lake instead of an ocean, Tregoning says. "To get it was quite a feather in our cap."
Emphasis on family
The yacht club is something of a study in contrasts. Silly String fights and vanilla-pudding relay races successfully co-exist with regattas and wine tastings.
The eclectic mix of the ridiculous and the refined enables the private club to appeal to people of all ages and interests, says Tregoning, who added that the average age of Island Bay members is "around 47, which is very young. Whereas, a lot of clubs' average age is five years younger than God."
The club is open year-round, except for two weeks in February, offering indoor dining throughout the year, along with outdoor dining and swimming in season. The club also hosts between 60 and 70 special events annually, he says.
The sense of camaraderie that existed back in the earlier years of the yacht club for families like the Burtons continues in its current incarnation for today's younger members, like Tom Londrigan, 43, a member of the Island Bay board of directors and a lobbyist with McGuireWoods, and his wife, Betsy, 39, a fundraiser for the Presidential Library Foundation, and their three children. Through their membership, they are carrying on a 40-year Londrigan family tradition, says Betsy, who added that her brother-in-law, Joe, the 2010 commodore, is a world champion Star-class sailor.
"I don't know that there is anyplace else that treats the members like they are all one big family," says Betsy, who added that she and her husband got engaged at the yacht club and held their rehearsal dinner there. "It's hard to put into words, but they (staff) care about us and we care about them and about other members of the yacht club."
The family atmosphere became very apparent and meaningful to the Londrigans in the summer of 2009.
"Our oldest son, Jack, got gravely ill and was in the hospital for a long time," Betsy says.
"The whole time he was in the hospital, Big Bob and the yacht club were sending food, and people were calling each other and trying to figure out what was going on and how they could help and praying for Jack.
"When he finally got out of the hospital, he was in a wheelchair, and the first place we ventured outside of our home was over to the yacht club. It was so sweet, because the staff there was in tears because they were just so happy to see that he was OK. That was the only place that I could go where he was watched even more closely than by me. They did not take their eyes off him. It felt like coming home to us. It's a very special place with very special people."
Island Bay Yacht Club
No recession here
The economic downturn of recent years hasn't taken much wind out of the sails of the 76-year-old Island Bay Yacht Club.
According to general manager Bob Tregoning, the club has lost few members to economic hardship. Maximum membership is 550, which represents units or households, he said, estimating that there are some 2,000 adults and children who have access to the club through those memberships. Current club membership stands at 543.
"I've heard of some clubs being down 35, 40 percent," Tregoning said.Island Bay has an additional 142 members whose use of the club is more limited, he says. This includes members in the non-resident category, who live at least 50 miles from Springfield, and in the admiralty category, which is for individuals who are at least 75 years old and have been members 50 or more consecutive years.
For most members, monthly dues range from $20 to $125, after paying an initiation fee ranging from $500 to $2,500. Some members also pay up to $25 per month in a capital assessment fee, which covers improvements to the club, such as the outdoor bar area that opened this spring, and a monthly building fee of $23.75 that goes toward the mortgage, according to Tregoning.
Commodore Pat McKenna attributes the retention of members to "longstanding strong leadership of the elected board that has really worked to maintain low costs but has improved the club every year."
In addition, he says that "tremendous membership camaraderie" plays a major role in the club's continued success.
Story published Friday, July 1, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 4 )