In 1959, four black men who were boaters in Washington, DC, decided to take their love of water to the Chesapeake Bay. Joseph Barr, Hugh Dowling, Ellsworth Randall, and Albert C. Burwell had been part of the Seafarers Boat Club on the Anacostia River, but wanted to take advantage of the much larger Chesapeake cruising grounds. They decided that Annapolis should be the home base. But the doors of local yacht clubs were closed to them, and marina owners refused to sell fuel to black captains.
Undeterred, they started the Seafarers Yacht Club, one of the oldest black yacht clubs in the United States. At first they met at each other’s house. Later, the group rented a small storefront in downtown Annapolis. In 1967, they purchased an abandoned 1918 two-room schoolhouse – the first elementary school for black children in the Eastport area of Annapolis – and turned it into a clubhouse.
The founders organized cruises where providers welcomed them, organized barbecues when they could not dine in the restaurants and built a swimming pool in the back of the clubhouse. Over time, as SYC grew, its mission of enjoying boating grew into something bigger, with a focus on community service that included teaching at-risk youth swimming and boating, hosting dinner parties for the elderly, and establishing the city’s first Sea Scout program. — think of the scouts on the water.
Captain Ade Adebisi, a former SYC commodore, has seen the club mature since joining in 2001, both in terms of membership, which has seen an 80% turnover over the past 20 years, and in focusing on the local community.
Adebisi first discovered the club through a chance encounter. One day on a cruise, he and his family ran into Dr. William Woodward, their family dentist – who, unbeknownst to Adebisi – was then the club’s commodore. After being invited to meet the members, Adebisi never looked back. “These are accomplished people coming together and working towards a common goal and supporting each other,” he says. “We are not just members of a yacht club, we are friends.”
The club now has 76 members, who own several types of boats, from kayaks to cruisers and 60-footers. sport fishing machines. During the summer, flotillas of member boats cruise the Chesapeake or take weekend trips to destinations such as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. On darker occasions, the band wears the club’s white vestments at members’ funerals. While the founders were all working-class men, today’s group is more demographically and racially diverse, made up of business owners, professionals and military officers. Women members of the club are also active in running the organization, with many serving as board members.
Adebisi says the club has made him a better boater, as many of the more experienced members provide seamanship and boat handling advice to others. “As a new boater, you just learn to deal with all the challenges that come with the water,” he says. “Now you have other people around to gain experience and share stories.”
Current commodore Captain Benjamin McCottry says camaraderie is one of the club’s main strengths. Officially, he’s been a member for six and a half years, but he’s been around members “virtually all my life,” since the 70-year-old was a child.
McCottry is very proud of how the organization gives back to the community. For example, he hosts an annual Thanksgiving dinner for seniors and uses a donated 28-foot motorboat to teach seamanship skills to local youth.
In fact, youth programs are of particular importance to McCottry and his colleagues. Since its inception, the Seafarers Yacht Club has offered swimming lessons in the club’s pool as part of a two-week summer program which also includes boating training.
“Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in the country for children 12 and under,” McCottry says. “Children not only learn to swim and save themselves, but they also learn how to save someone else, without putting themselves in danger.” Many young people, he says, come from homes where no one knows how to swim.
Swimming lessons, as well as STEM-related programs and even chess lessons from a chess master to promote critical thinking skills, target all local children aged 8-12. They are overseen by the club’s non-profit arm, the Seafarers Foundation. . Older children are not forgotten, with the Foundation also overseeing the first and only Sea Scout unit in Annapolis. Sea Scouts is a Boy Scouts of America program for teens and teenage girls ages 14-20.
The Seafarers Yacht Club established its unit, Sea Scout Ship 1959, in 2019. Not only has it become one of the fastest growing units in the country, attracting nearly two dozen members, but it has also been awarded the prestigious National Flagship Award last summer. This award recognizes the exceptional quality of the program, the achievements of young people and the commitment of adults. One member went to the US Naval Academy.
“It’s rewarding work,” says Major General Errol Schwartz, president of the Seafarers’ Foundation. Plus, he sees opportunities to expand this rich work. He and his colleagues are exploring ways to offer year-round programs, as well as bridging the age gap between those programs and Sea Scouts.
Additionally, he wants to focus on health issues, especially in light of the pandemic. “We want to hear from young people,” says Schwartz. “They were locked in this Zoom environment for two years. What are some of the things that affect them, mentally or otherwise? »
Either way, this “close-knit family,” as Schwartz calls the Seafarers Yacht Club, will continue to honor its past. “Let’s not forget the people who brought us here,” adds Adebisi.
Some of the original members are still alive and the work they did to purchase and renovate this original two-room schoolhouse laid the foundation for today’s thriving club. “It’s important for us to keep this history,” says Adebisi. “We are proud of that.”