Floating Boats

A clement breeze sails off the Quinnipiac River, lifting Natalie Coe’s pink hair. On the back porch of the Waucoma Yacht Club, New Haven’s oldest Quinnipiac River establishment, a few of the club’s longtime members are enjoying the summer afternoon. Several others are hunkered down inside at the air-conditioned bar. Coe is the only woman present for now, about to start her volunteer shift at the bar. She’s also the club’s treasurer, though she’s only been a member for a few years. And she doesn’t even own a boat.

“I joined for camaraderie,” Coe says. “I lived across the street, and I would see them having parties, I’d see the bar, and I thought, ‘This looks great!’ And I finally became a member.” Anyone can, as long as they’re willing to pay a one-time $300 application fee—though the club sometimes runs special offers; annual membership dues and a social fee, together costing $245; plus $5 per foot of boat length.

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Owning a boat does seem almost beside the point here at Waucoma. There’s the bar and the breeze and the view of Fair Haven Heights, where old oystermen’s houses line the bank and a church steeple rises like a beacon. Inside the clubhouse, the furniture is mismatched and the galley kitchen is a tight squeeze, but that’s beside the point, too. What seems to matter most is just being together. A dozen people are milling around late in the afternoon, catching up with one another. The TV is on, and at a table off to the side, Coe’s son is playing on his computer. Member Scott Carr is busy opening the mail and passing bills to Coe. “We’re a crazy, dysfunctional family,” Coe jokes.

It’s a family that knows how to have fun. The club hosts celebrations for St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, Christmas and the June opening and October closing of the boating season. There’s an annual fishing tournament for members’ kids and their guests. (Every kid goes home with a new fishing rod.) A tri-club bluefish tournament brings together members of Waucoma and two other local yacht clubs: Pequonnock and City Point. And as many as 60 people take a cruise together every two years.

“One of the really cool things about this place,” says Joe Piccerillo, who came to the club by way of his grandfather, a member in the 1960s, is that you can call up a fellow Waucoman and they “will be there in a heartbeat” to help. Piccerillo describes Waucoma as a “working man’s yacht club.” Members pitch in according to their abilities: “dock maintenance, yard maintenance, building maintenance. I’m a licensed plumber,” he says. “There’s a carpenter, there’s an electrician, licensed guys, so we all work together to maintain the building together, and that’s what keeps the cost down.”

That culture of working together was even more important years ago, member Pat Thomas says, in the days when they’d have to literally pull up stakes at the end of every season and haul in the docks in order to give oystermen access to their beds. “It took everybody going out there,” Thomas recalls. “Sometimes we’d have to send people out to somebody’s property and cut down stakes. That was tough work.”

There’s a lot of talk about the past around this table overlooking the river. Thomas has been a member since the 1970s, when he rubbed elbows with old-timers whose memberships dated back to the 1930s. But the Waucoma Yacht Club harkens back farther still, to 1907, when it joined its since-shuttered neighbors: the Quinnipiac Canoe Club on North Front Street and the Pequot Canoe Club on North Quinnipiac Street (now Quinnipiac Avenue), according to a history compiled by Waucoma member Anthony Griego.

Waucoma’s clubhouse has been modified and expanded over the years, stretching closer to the river bank, but the original building still stands on Front Street, where it’s currently undergoing a major renovation to shore up the old barn-framed structure. Despite the new construction, preserving the club’s history is obviously important to Waucoma’s boaters. Every “commodore,” or club president, is commemorated with a life ring bearing his name. (So far, there have been no female commodores). Fading photographs hang on the wall in a rec room behind the bar that houses a pool table, vending machine, ice chest, cold drinks. One of the club’s most prized possessions—of no practical worth but valued for its story—is a gold pocket watch that belonged to one of its earliest members, who immigrated to New Haven from Scotland around the turn of the 20th century and served in World War I. The watch turned up a few years ago, while Scott Carr was tending bar at the club.

He got a call from a woman who at first seemed like a “crackpot.” She said she was from Nova Scotia, and she had an antique pocket watch inscribed to someone named James F. Crum, presented to him by “members of the Waucoma Yacht Club, Dec. 28, 1914.” The watch, she told Carr, belonged to her grandfather. “He had it since 1945, and he was on his deathbed,” Carr says. “She said she’d send it to us, and she did.” No one is quite sure how the watch made its way to the woman’s grandfather, but his story included a German POW who at one point was in possession of it and traded it for some cigarettes.

This and other stories are known and passed from teller to teller, each filling in the parts he or she knows. It’s another example of working together, of that camaraderie that first drew Coe across the street.

Waucoma Yacht Club
279 Front St, New Haven (map)
(203) 789-9530
www.waucomayachtclub.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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