A brief history of the St. Augustine Yacht Club


Here’s a brief look at the history of the St. Augustine Yacht Club, courtesy of Linda Bond and Gaye Farris, 150th P.R. Committee co-chairs.

The Beginning

The 1870s were exciting times in America. The Civil War was over, and the economy was booming, leading to a prosperity that Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded Age. In 1873, a group of yachtsmen began planning a yacht club in St. Augustine. Fittingly, the oldest yacht club in Florida is in the oldest city in the United States. In the 1880s that city would become the winter resort of the Gilded Age’s rich and famous. And many had yachts.

The Juneteenth General

By 1874, the St. Augustine Yacht Club was begun in earnest, with a Civil War hero as the first commodore. Major General Gordon Granger is known for his part in the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga. He is also the general who, on June 19, 1865, informed the residents of Galveston, Texas, that the Emancipation Proclamation had ended slavery. His announcement is now celebrated as a national holiday, Juneteenth.

Memorable Events

The St. Augustine Yacht Club had its first race in 1875 on the Matanzas River and Bay with spectators lining the seawall. Under Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency (1869-77), the War Department chartered the club with defending the St. Augustine Inlet in times of war. Youth sailing instruction began in 1889 and became part of St. Augustine Days, of which the club was a main sponsor.

The Grand Bal Masque

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the club was referred to as the Winter Newport because so many prominent Northern families came here for “the season,” January through May. The club became renowned for its parties. The most famous was the “Grand Bal Masque,” held each February at a hotel and which “eclipsed anything of the season,” according to one scribe. Two hundred attendees, many of them masked, would dance to an orchestra until 2 in the morning.

Early Members

Many early club members were prominent national leaders in commerce, the arts and government; one was even a military spy.

  • Henry Morrison Flagler, founder of Standard Oil, Florida East Coast Railways and the cities of Miami and Palm Beach, built railroads and hotels in St. Augustine, making it a resort destination. His yacht, Alicia, was custom-built and was the America’s Cup Patrol boat in 1895.
  • Andrew S. Carnegie, industrialist and philanthropist, led the expansion of the U.S. steel industry in the late 19th century, becoming one of the richest Americans in history. He famously challenged fellow club member St. Augustine Mayor W. S. M. Pinkham to a race. Through clever tactics, Pinkham’s unbeaten Cheemaun beat Carnegie’s much larger yacht, Misue.
  • Louis Comfort Tiffany, artist, known for his stained-glass lamps and windows, was an avid yachtsman, too.
  • Caldwell Hart Colt, following his gunmaker father, Samuel Colt, designed the Colt double-barrel rifle in 1879, but loved sailing, not business. He acquired his first of five yachts at 18, spending, some said,10 months a year racing. The most famous, Dauntless, had two challenges for the America’s Cup, but lost both. A member of three yacht clubs (New York, Larchmont and St. Augustine), Colt died young in 1894 in Punta Gorda. He fell off his yacht under mysterious circumstances. At the time, he was the richest bachelor in America.
  • M. Taylor was a Florida state senator from 1924 to 1932. Later he was a commissioner of the Florida Inland Navigation District, helping develop the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida.
  • William Larimer Mellon Sr., co-founder of Gulf Oil, purchased in the early 1900s the Vagabondia, described by the media as a "houseboat" and a "sleek black yacht.”
  • Dagmar Chilman was the first female commodore of the St. Augustine Yacht Club. Born in London, she had been a British Intelligence Service spy during World War II. She translated French Underground information. On her third parachute into France, she was captured by the Germans but later rescued by Canadian troops.

The Present

In contrast to its Gilded Age past, the St. Augustine Yacht Club is now a community leader, sponsoring boating events, youth sailing education and member fellowship. Community events include the Holiday Regatta of Lights, Blessing of the Fleet, Sailing Races, Dragon Boating, Lunch and Learn talks and youth sailing camps for 400 participants a year. Member socials are monthly theme parties with bands and dancing, weekly Friday night dinners, family picnics and games, Mardi Gras and Halloween costume contests, game and trivia nights and much more.

The Future

A major club goal is constructing a building to house the St. Augustine Yacht Club Sailing Center. It will provide affordable access to boating for youth in and around St. Augustine by offering sailing camps and racing and on-the-water fun. Scholarships are available as the club believes no child should be denied access to its programs due to financial need. The St. Augustine Yacht Club Foundation is now raising funds for the building.

Celebrating Past and Future

A masquerade ball is being held on Feb. 13. Other events include a sailing regatta, boat parade, boat scavenger hunt, Dragon Boat races, a trolley ride to places associated with the club’s history, a plein air painting event with local artists and the burial of a time capsule containing club history. Contact manager@sayc.club for more information.