A Manly Sport

The Effects of Sailing on the Social Development of the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club

A Manly Sport

The Effects of Sailing on the Social Development of the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club

Gracie Kohinski

Hamilton - 2022

Hamilton Harbour, also known as Burlington Bay and the site of the current Royal Hamilton Yacht Club (RHYC), had experienced an abundance of sailing activity before the founding of a formal club in 1888.1 As a successful site for yacht-building, Hamilton was a well-known city across Lake Ontario, especially for the production of large, fast yachts.2 Sailing in Hamilton inspired the creation of the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club which continues to support the city’s social development today. The sport of sailing has also led to the social development of the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club through a three-phase transition period: gaining male interest in sailing, social networking internally and throughout Ontario, and eliminating boundaries for membership in the club. Change and transition did not compromise the heritage of sailing in the RHYC but has continued to promote the art of sailing to all. The development of the RHYC in defined stages was critical for its success as it created a pathway that facilitated the growth and diversification of membership. With such a rich history, the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club will never abandon its roots in sailing and the success that stemmed from it.

Since pre-colonial times, the sport of sailing has embarked on an expansive transformation on the Great Lakes. The term Turtle Island is used by many Indigenous peoples to refer to the territory of North America. The first ties to sailing on Turtle Island were in the mid-eighteenth century when Indigenous canoers developed mast and sail technology to aid their treks across long spans of water,3 although similar technologies may have been used prior to the eighteenth century. Fur trader Alexander Henry recognized such technology in 1760 while observing the Ojibwe peoples.4 Canoe-sailing gained traction with European colonists in the late eighteenth-century and made a stunning comeback in the form of keelboat and dinghy sailing. Indigenous groups continued to use their sail and canoe crafts for methods of transportation, but this soon became difficult as traditional waterways became key locations for global commerce. While sailing was once an inclusive activity created by Indigenous peoples and adopted by Europeans for trade and commerce, its purpose made a dramatic change by an exclusive demographic. In the case of Hamilton Harbour, the exclusive nature of sailing existed because private enterprise took on precedence over traditional Indigenous distribution of goods.5 Furthermore, since larger vessels were increasingly displacing smaller ones for commercial purposes, it was now possible to repurpose these unused vessels for leisure. In the early years of sailing in Hamilton Harbour, sailors piqued an interest in sailing large keelboats, rather than smaller less-established dinghies. In the mid-nineteenth century, keelboat sailing could also be referred to as yachting. Today, keelboat sailing is typically divided into the categories of cruising and racing.6

In its formative years, the motives for sailing in Hamilton Harbour were understood by its surroundings as a port city.7 Although the history of the first regatta in Lake Ontario is undetermined, the RHYC hosted its first regatta in 1880.8 This informal regatta interested Hamilton’s small community of sailors and also caught the attention of members of Toronto yacht clubs, including the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.9 Participants at this regatta included future commodore R.A. Lucas, the Mayor of Hamilton, John M. Gibson, and George T. Tuckett, who would later become the first active members of the RHYC.10 Securing participants for the Round the Bay Regatta in 1880 proved to be difficult, but this was not due to a lack of networking between the sailing communities. In their adventures on Lake Ontario, many sailors experienced accidents, leading to their boats capsizing. The loss of private sailing vessels, such as the Sphinx had significant financial impacts, and led to the drowning of crew members. For this reason, the 1880 regatta had less participants than it was expecting.11 Small unregulated regattas were common amongst the small sailing community but gained more attention in the second phase of the social development of the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club due to the influx of social networking throughout Lake Ontario.

The presentation of diverse gender in the early days of private clubs was typically avoided, but the introduction of women into the private club industry was a result of the creation of a social network, free of social limitations for members. Upon the founding of the RHYC in 1888, criteria for participation in sailing was remarkably restricted to maintain exclusivity which caused women to face barriers regarding their participation in sailing. The sport was restricted to only include men due to its expense and the physical ability required for yachting.12 Women were ultimately excluded from sailing since they were largely seen as being restricted to the home, the weaker sex, and lacking an independent income. Contextualizing young Canada, at a time when women were not considered human, as per the British North America Act, the physical abilities of women were neither considered. The belief that men were superior to women was no different in the United States, as women were prevented from seagoing careers and some activities until the early 1900s.13 The Victorian images of womanhood in leisure also discouraged women from participating in an activity as physically demanding as sailing. Bojsen-Møller argues that increased physical exertion is coupled with the intention of faster sailing speeds. A method known as hiking, where the crew advance to one side of the boat and lean their weight over the side to right the boat, requires “significant maximal muscle strength especially in knee extensors, hip flexors and abdominal and lower back muscles.”14 Hiking became essential in high-stakes regattas, and although women did have the capacity to hike, they continued to be stereotyped as weak and incapable. These physical demands of sailing did not reject women from the sport of sailing alone, but women were excluded when these demands were intertwined with the broader perceptions of women at the time.

These common stereotypes put upon women ensured that the RHYC would be represented as an exclusive male club, although women often challenged for the right to participate. Although it is not explicitly described by the RHYC, entering the world of sailing was extremely difficult for women prior to the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s. This movement intended to secure gender equality on multiple fronts, including sport and leisure activities.15 In 1961, Timothea Schneider Larr was recognized as an exceptional female sailor, accepting the world honour of Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year.16 From the 1960s forward, women experienced the sport of sailing through typical yacht clubs and formal school institutes. However, having the opportunity to experience sailing and being accepted by other sailors did not go hand-in-hand. In 1964, the Lady-Associate Membership by-law was amended and under this law women who were registered owners of sailboats or power boats were admitted into individual membership by the title of “Lady-associate member.”17 These members were not given voting power within the club but could be considered members without the presence of a male partner. The formal elimination of gender discrimination in the RHYC did not occur until the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms18 but women continued advocating for themselves in the meantime.

In addition to gender often serving as a barrier to membership and the sport of sailing, it is no surprise that the clientele for sailing were often people of wealth. Considered one of the first regattas in Burlington Bay, the 1880 “Round-the Bay” race had boats ranging in weight from just under six tonnes to over a whopping ten tonnes.19 Some crafts, such as the Oriole weighed approximately 4/5 tonne per foot overall.20 Although written receipts for the cost of these watercrafts are not readily available, judging by the size of these boats, they would have required a substantial income to own and properly maintain.21 The cost of these boats also provoked participation in competitive sports and the interest in high-stakes events in order to win some of this money back. The hunger for increased racing in the Burlington Bay was reflected by the creation of the Lake Yacht Racing Association (LYRA).22 Sailing became a progressive addiction to many, bartering large sums in regattas, sailing hard and seeking out larger, faster rigs.

One of the most popular and efficient was keelboats sailing, centerboard model. A modern-day comparison to this vessel would be the Niagara-on-the-Lake made C&C Centerboard, equipped with an adjustable keel.23 Having an adjustable centerboard allowed the skipper to trek into shallow water, even maneuvering through unestablished canal channels. Many larger boats, like Commodore A. R. Boswell’s ninety-five-tonne schooner Oriole,24 built by Louis Shickluna,25 did not have the luxury of lifting their keel to reduce their draft and were prevented from entering the surrounding lakes and basins.26 However, in 1824, the Burlington Canal project was started, which allowed these large keelboats with a bean up to thirty-feet to navigate through to Lake Ontario and, also to the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959.27 The creation of the Burlington Canal was essential for social networking at the RHYC. Its construction was constantly amended based on the growing needs faced by larger commercial vessels. Nevertheless, sailors monopolized the canal’s objective to construct a “navigable canal between Burlington Bay and Lake Ontario.”28

Once able to navigate through the Great Lakes more efficiently, sailors were granted the opportunity to attend races at their home clubs and reciprocal clubs. Reciprocal clubs supported the needs of sailors across southern Ontario in a non-competitive fashion. The clubs also hosted regattas and boarded travelling sailors.29 In 1926, a by-law capped the RHYC’s membership limit at 600 members, requiring steep initiation fees to secure membership. However, by 1960, the RHYC had experienced an influx in non-residential membership and women could now claim membership in the club. A Senior Sailing School was also inaugurated in 1965 to provide sailing instruction for its members.30 By the end of 1965, membership totaled 1091, including “complimentary, life, resident, non-resident, lady associate, intermediate, and junior members.”31 Connections with fellow sailors and institutions allowed for social networking opportunities, and influenced one’s ability to gain membership at the RHYC. Within the RHYC, individuals such as “Samuel Beatty, a commission merchant, Kenneth Bethune, a car factory owner, and Harold Greening, the son of a prominent industrialist” all held membership.32 These high-profile members demonstrated the exclusivity of membership at this time. Following the Great Depression, the RHYC still maintained half of their membership,33 but high-class people were able to become involved with the club and connect with other sailors easier than those who were not, despite some of the membership restrictions being lifted.

Aside from the thrill of racing in out of town in high stakes regattas, members found themselves interacting with like-minded individuals. As a business, the RHYC also adopted policies from their reciprocal clubs to represent a sense of community and unity within the private club sector.34 Membership fees were lowered for junior members to allow their acceptance into the club and retain their membership as they grew older.35 Policies for inclusion and concussion awareness have also been recently implemented.36 The theme of sailing heritage is ever-present in private sailing clubs today. Upon the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club’s inception, a unique nautical flag was created, which became the club’s burgee flag and represents the RHYC in its sailing endeavors. During regattas and more intimate social events, the RHYC was represented by its burgee flag. Reciprocal clubs all still continue to fly their specific flags regardless of their current status in the sailing world.37 Past Commodore, Michael Cox, noted that “visual symbols help create a shared sense of identity and at the same time build the RHYC profile and potential for ongoing growth.”38 The implementation of the burgee flag is a constant reflection of sailing’s effects on the development of a social club.

Sailing remains at the forefront of the RHYC’s heritage and represents its culture and values, respectively. Continuing to include sailing as the main sport within the club has been made a priority. Efforts towards inclusion, regardless of gender, physical ability, and learning exceptionalities have not compromised the club, but has strengthened it by bringing in a new demographic of sailors.39 By opening the Burlington Canal, RHYC sailors were given the opportunity to navigate outside of Hamilton Harbour, network with reciprocal clubs, and participate in additional racing events. These events affected the socialization of the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club by allowing its sailors to interact with members of other clubs for their individual benefit and the possibility of increased membership and tourism at the RHYC itself. By the RHYC hosting its own regattas and the ability for sailors to navigate their way through the Burlington Canal, there was an increase in commerce in the already industrialized area of Hamilton Harbour.

In its third phase, the RHYC continued to eliminate boundaries for membership and encouraged sailing for all. Towards the end of the 1950s, only 1/5 of RHYC members owned their own boat.”40 The club drew in members primarily from its social events and restaurants. Their initial goal was to have a club with exclusive membership and social networking opportunities, but largely ignored conventional ideas on what made one an ideal sailor. Nevertheless, given the increase in membership, with respect to the rising interest in sailing and the opening of the Great Lakes, the RHYC enrolled 18841 yachts in 1988 compared to just 20 yachts in 1888.42 The steady increase in membership proved that sailing will never be eliminated from the RHYC and is more endorsed than ever through the Learn to Sail Program projections.43

Inclusion in sailing has been made possible through multiple efforts, including the way that sailors and sailing coaches are being trained. Sail Canada is a professional sailing association that was established in 1931 as a “national governing body for the sport of sailing.”44 To date, Sail Canada remains a prevalent association in the Canadian sailing industry, providing certifications in watersports education, navigation, first aid, and dinghy and keelboat sailing.45 Like all sailing clubs, Sail Canada places emphasis on heritage and passion for sailing as they train the next generation of elite sailors and coaches. The RHYC uses syllabi from Sail Canada in their Learn to Sail youth programs as an outreach for the inclusion of sailors, and well-versed coaches. The Learn to Sail program is open to all ages and physical limitations. The RHYC is known for its Able Sail program, developing a specialized curriculum for people with physical or developmental exceptionalities.46 While historically, only wealthy men were able to participate in sailing, the RHYC has made it possible for everyone to sail, even customizing dinghies to meet exceptional needs.

Training the next generation of sailors and members of the RHYC is a direct correlation between sailing and further social development. Continuing to host sailboat and power boat racing maintains the history of the RHYC as it evolves through time. The club event hosts the McMaster University sailing team, providing an enriched experience for new and skilled sailors.47 The continuing board of directors, officers, and historical committee hold the club accountable in maintaining its roots while also adapting their programs over time.48 The history of the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club remains a close memory to all its members as the sport of sailing continues to thrive.

To conclude, in its preliminary stages, sailing was exclusively reserved for upper-class men. The sport of sailing was not intended to discriminate against others but held a specific criterion that only certain men could fulfill. Sailing was also crafted as a networking experience for upper-class professionals. The exclusivity of sailing created an ideal opportunity for socialization and networking.49 The paradigm shift from sailing being an exclusively male activity to a more social experience added a competitive edge to the sport. Since then, women have been able to enter the sport, encouraging the club to establish social outreach programs and bringing in more diverse membership. The opening of the Burlington Canal and its connection to the St Lawrence Seaway brought sailing and networking opportunities to members of the RHYC and newly created reciprocal clubs.50 The RHYC was a sailing group before becoming a social club which is represented in its intention to preserve sailing and offer the sport to all. From restricting membership to sharing the joy of sailing to all through its social platform, the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club has come a long way. To date, the RHYC is in good standing with 119 reciprocal clubs, three of which are located outside of North America.51 Sailing has consequently had major effects on the social development of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club and has fostered opportunities for its members and guests.

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  2. Harry L. Penny, One Hundred Years and Still Sailing!: A History of Hamilton Yachts, Yachtsmen and Yachting, 1888 to 1988 (Hamilton, ON, 1988), 1. 

  3. T. Kurt Knoerl, “Canoes in Context: An Ojibwa Maritime Cultural Landscape,” International Journal of Maritime History 32, no. 2 (2020): 273, https://doi.org/10.1177/0843871420920955

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  18. Government of Canada, “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom,” April 13, 2021, https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/rfc-dlc/ccrf-ccdl/

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  37. Peter Edwards, “The Flags of Recreational Boating: A Preliminary Survey,” Raven: A Journal of Vexillology 2 (1995): 81, https://doi.org/10.5840/raven199525

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