• Bonnie Hawk Barney

Part 6: Return of the A's

In the November 1928 issue of Rudder magazine appeared an article by Lyman J. Seely of Hammondsport. It began with reminiscences of KYC’s Golden Age.

About a generation ago train riding was the popular Sunday sport. Those of fabulous wealth went buggy riding, but the masses found their sport in Sunday excursions. For $1.25 you could go to Niagara Falls and return almost any Sunday during the summer from any city within two hundred miles of that diverting spot. If that was beyond your means, you could go to Charlotte, on Lake Ontario, for $.75 to $.90; and the grubstake required for a Sunday excursion from anywhere in western New York or northern Pennsylvania to Lake Keuka was something like half a dollar.

Hundreds of thousands came to Lake Keuka. It was churned to a constant froth by the propellers of a large fleet of excursion boats, decorated with empty popcorn bags and floating pop bottles. The Keuka Yacht Club was a popular rendezvous for the idle rich, enjoying incomes of say $25 a week and up. It had a fleet of eight or ten Class A Sloops as well as many cabin cruisers, the fastest steam yacht in the world, and plenty of putt-putts.

There’s no holding the crest of a wave forever, and by 1920 the Keuka Yacht Club was again in a trough. The club building was sold to a genial couple, Frank and Maude Alley, who opened it as Alley’s Inn. The racers were welcomes there, but also sailed from the Ark and from Keuka Hotel, at the hearty invitation of Bessie Young. The A’s were being retired, and the schedule of competition was light. Continuing from Rudder:

The automobile left it (Keuka) flatter than a frozen pond, for one thing the Finger Lakes region did not have was roads. Of a sudden people began motoring on Sundays. Railroad excursions ceased to be of interest, were suspended. Where the macadam roads were, there the people were. And that was nowhere near the Finger Lakes, where the roads were mostly of clay, deeply rutted ten months of the year. The yacht club withered and died. Even so thoroughly seasoned and enthusiastic a sailor as Commodore Wagener took to high speed motor cars...Glenn H. Curtiss, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, and their aeronautical experiments combined with the champagne cellars to keep Hammondsport somewhat in the public prints for a decade, but the World War drew Curtiss away, and the Volsted Act ended the free distribution of gladsome bubbles.

All in good time, the automobile which had robbed the Finger Lakes of the one-time popularity began to bring it back again. The isolated hill country was threaded with new concrete roads because the motorists wished to explore its beauty in comfort. Keuka was the last of the lakes to be made accessible. A new federal highway had been completed along its west shore and three men in a car were driving over the new concrete. What a waste of good material, that twenty mile stretch of beautiful water seemed! Not a boat in sight! At least, not on the water. But on the beach near Gibson’s landing rested the hull of an old, nearly flat-bottomed sloop.

‘There’s a chance to have a lot of fun for very little money,’ said one of the travelers. ‘That old sailboat has been lying there for a couple of years. I hear some fellow had it all coppered up and then found it traveled so fast he couldn’t sail her.’

‘What do you mean a little money?’ demanded a fellow passenger.

‘I guess a hundred and fifty would do the trick.’

‘I’ll go fifty smackers.’

‘Count me in for a piece,’ said the third.

The prospective crew of a fast racing sloop were Robert Howell of Hammondsport, who lived so near the head of the lake that the sight of water didn’t bother him, and who in his youth had done a good deal of sailing on Seneca Lake; Dr. W. C. Woodbury of Bath, who thought water a wonderful medium for removing records of horrid dental operations; and Deyo Putnam of Avoca, a potato country where the idea of water below the line of the jawbone gives the natives the shakes.

The old scow was of the purple. In hr day she had been one of the star performers on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and had been imported a generation back to clean up the ribbons in the regattas of the old KYC.

Across the lake, Robert and Derb Young had resuscitated another veteran of bygone regattas, and when Commodore Wagener heard of the two purchases his heart stepped up fifty beats as he sped to the phone.

‘That you Howell?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Sa-a-ay, why don’t you fellows bring your boats over to Youngs’ Hotel next Sunday and let’s have a boat race?’

‘We don’t know if the old crock will hang together,’ objected Howell. ‘And if she does hang together, I’m not sure we can keep her on her feet. Give us a try-out and we’ll let you know.’

Howell and Woodbury were inexperienced but at least of normal intelligence, so they quickly determined the necessity of a Putnam and another aboard to sail her in a 25-mile wind. Two reefs were taken in the main and they headed for the Bluff when the wind died. Putnam was elected to shake out the reefs. He had little difficulty with the knots until he reached the end of the boom, when a sudden gust swept him, clutching desperately to the leach of the sail, out over a couple hundred feet of cool Lake Keuka water.

Putt lost everything but his manhood, and that he exercised in coarse and hoarse commands to be put ashore immediately. He was placed on terra firm at Bluff Point. If five hours times four miles an hour seems a long time for nonpedestrians for his return to the starting point, it is chicken feed compared to the eternity of a minute and a half Putt spent over the deep spot in the lake.

That was the beginning of the new fleet. Howell spent days and nights ‘unlearning’ what he knew about sailing sneak-boxes, catboats, skip-jacks, and other imitations of racing craft. He licked the pants off the Young bothers’ Y-Y (Two Y’s or Too Wise) in the first race. The commodore unearthed other bashful skeletons of one-time racing boats. They tied on me a barge we called Flap Doodle because she was so rotten that whenever a puff heeled us over, the bottom boards flapped out of place and let in half the lake, but it did it so quietly it took us three or four weeks to discover we were not suffering from a leak, but were merely trying to sail a boat with no bottom in her. They stuck Greyton Taylor with the Dutch Slipper, which was eventually fixed to retain the water she shipped by pasting heavy canvas all over the hull. This made her so heavy a tug was required to tow her to the starting line.

By the fall of 1926 it had caught on. The wives in the gallery were calling for winning boats, so two or three of the boys slipped out to Oshkosh to look over the new boats, and each tried to cop a champion.

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