Santa Monica Windjammers Yacht Club celebrates its unique history as members look to the future
By Paul M.J. Suchecki
Santa Monica Windjammers Yacht Club, the oldest yacht club in Marina del Rey, celebrated its 75th anniversary on Oct. 16 in grand style, with a Concours d’Elegance-style car show, a chili cook-off and an unexpected history lesson about the club’s first commodore, Dr. Jack Taylor — the nation’s first unofficial Navy SEAL officer.
The club honored Taylor’s service with a naval flag presenting ceremony capped off by all-female vocal group the Satin Dollz performing songs from the 1940s. As daylight started to fade, boaters retreated to the clubhouse bar, where more live music got members dancing after a few drinks.
“Jack Taylor and a gentleman named Glenn Thorpe decided to form a yacht club. Dr. Taylor was a very prominent dentist in Santa Monica and he was also a naval reserve officer,” SMWYC and Office of Strategic Services historian Erick Simmel said.
The two met in a Santa Monica restaurant and decided to call themselves the End of the World Yacht Club. After Boyd “Bud” Verplank and Stratford Enright Jr. joined, the group decided to form a real yacht club and call it the Santa Monica Yacht Club. The club held its first official meeting on April 22, 1941.
Windjammers Yacht Club, founded by Sabot racer Cameron “Mac” Jones and several of his fellow racers, began 20 years later. The Windjammers maintained their independence for 38 years, but after membership started to dwindle the club merged with the Santa Monica Yacht Club in April 1999, creating the Santa Monica Windjammers Yacht Club.
SMWYC has risen to meet several challenges in recent years — one of which is that throughout the marina, yacht club members are graying and dying without younger members stepping up to replace them.
“Our interest is in the future of sailing. My children’s generation isn’t sailing. They are 27 to 30 years old and had too many other things to do. The future of sailing and the sport, to me, is in kids,” SMWYC Commodore Ron Orr said.
That’s a major reason why four years ago the club began a highly regarded youth sailing program, with discounted memberships available to participating families and instruction for parents so that families can sail together.
“We are trying to re-energize yacht clubs, so we make membership available to as many people as possible. At this time we don’t have any initiation fees, and our dues are nominal because we want to be as inclusive as possible. We’ve instituted a new membership category for first responders, active-duty servicemen, police, firemen, lifeguards and paramedics, where we offer an incredibly low-priced membership,” Orr said. “We’re the blue-collar yacht club in the marina because our dues are lower. We are 100% volunteer, with no full-time employees.”
SMWYC recently purchased stand-up paddleboards and kayaks, making them available to members at a reduced rate. The club has expanded its offerings to include full-service breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Regatta Room, bar and patio seven days a week. It’s also hosting other boating groups — the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Fairwind Yacht Club and the Women’s Sailing Association included — sponsoring regattas, participating in Wednesday night sailing and holding Sunday night barbecue races during the summer.
The strategy is working — SMWYC had double-digit membership growth in the months leading up to its anniversary party.
And what an anniversary party it was.
The car show included 24 gorgeous vehicles, three of them taking home top prizes.
David Bergin won first place in the Classic Cars division for his burgundy Rolls Royce. Sandy Bettleman took Best in Show for his 1932 Packard roadster, which he makes a point of driving every week.
Commodore Orr took first place in the Cars of Interest category for his Mercedes Benz Gullwing, a bullet on wheels.
“I had the privilege of buying the 2011 SLS AMG. They made 300 a year for the continental U.S. for five years, and then they stopped,” Orr said. “My first road trip was 4,000 miles. I averaged 69 mph.”
Vice Commodore Chris Cross’s dragster was the unofficial crowd favorite. Both young and old folded themselves into the cockpit for photos.
What was his top speed?
“I hit 204 mph after a quarter mile,” Cross said.
Event organizer Karen Cross, who handled everything from the food to the cars, emphasized the importance of honoring Taylor’s contribution to club and country.
“He was with the OSS in World War II and was a war hero, so we have a military honor guard and several people from different organizations to recognize him,” she said.
A bagpiper and flag presentation by USC ROTC midshipmen with the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” kicked off the rest of the program, during which nobody took a knee.
Orr and Simmel began their tribute to Taylor, who reported for active duty after the attack at Pearl Harbor the same year SMYC began. Rather than accept an assured posting to the naval medical corps, Taylor became an OSS marine instructor. A former Santa Monica lifeguard, he helped pioneer the development of SCUBA. He taught boat handling, seamanship and underwater demolition. The Navy posted him to Turkey, where he conducted more than 14 sorties onto the shores of Corfu, Yugoslavia and Albania.
Friday the 13th of October 1944 proved to be unlucky for Taylor. He and three partisans who parachuted into Austria that day were captured, tried, convicted and eventually sent to prison camps. According to Simmel, Taylor was taken to the Mauthausen extermination camp and would have been executed if it hadn’t been for a friendly Czech clerk who destroyed his paperwork. Instead, Taylor would go on to testify against German officers at the Nuremberg trials.
Although the elite commando group did not officially begin until 1962, Simmel credits Taylor as being the first Navy SEAL officer, noting that “SEAL is an acronym for sea air and land” and Taylor filled the bill.
During the ceremony, former Royal Army Capt. Stuart Bird-Wilson spoke about how Taylor’s legacy remained important today in the fight against ISIS, and Lt. Tyler Babkiewich spoke about the U.S. Coast Guard’s work defending our shores.
The club plans to honor Taylor with a statue and unveiled a sketch during the ceremony.
Visit smwyc.org for more information about the Santa Monica Windjammers Yacht Club.