The Unwavering Importance of Gay Sailing Clubs

M. Sharkey.

Photography by M. Sharkey.

It’s a rainy Thanksgiving night in Brooklyn, and a friend has invited me into the home of strangers for supper. Laid out on the kitchen table is a spread of bacon-wrapped squash, honey-baked ham, turkey, green beans, brussels sprouts, and all the fixings. In the living room a dozen men are seated in a circle on sofas and folding chairs, plates neatly placed squarely on their laps. Curiosity strikes their faces when one of them rises to his feet. 

“I think he’s choking,” says one guest, a doctor, who looks across the room at his boyfriend, also a doctor, who returns the look with a shrug. 

The choking victim is our host, and he’s stumbled into the middle of the circle with his face switching patriotically from red to blue to white. 

“Are you choking?” asks another guest. The men look around the room at each other. “Is he choking?”

“Yeah, he’s definitely choking,” says another guest.

All the men here have two things in common: their homosexuality and their deep love for sailing. They’ve crossed land and sea, traveling from their houseboats — anchored in New Jersey or Long Island — or their Manhattan apartments, to be together for the holiday.  

One person is missing. A great cannonball of a man, who was carving the bird in the kitchen with one hand and holding his lap dog with the other, has picked up on the bother in the adjoining room. He crooks his neck around the corner, tosses the dog and the carving knife, and barrels through the hallway.

“Step aside! I’m a flight attendant!” he shouts. “I save lives!” 

He thrusts the host’s head toward the ground, and, with a great, flat-palmed whack between the shoulder blades, a brussels sprout launches from the host’s mouth onto the floor, where our hero’s lap dog scuttles over and devours it.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Dingy,” says the host to the dog through gasps and coughs, the dog still licking up the gooey spot on the carpet. 

Uncomfortable laughter and a golf clap cut the tension. The host will live, and he takes his seat. 

“Why didn’t you use the Heimlich?” asks one guest.

“No one uses the Heimlich anymore,” says the flight attendant. “It’s outdated.” The doctors nod. 

This is my unofficial introduction to a handful of the roughly 150 members of the Knickerbocker Sailing Association, a gay sailing club serving the New York metropolitan area. Gay sailing clubs proliferate around the globe, and there are two other clubs, Boston’s Yankee Cruising Club and the Open Seas Yacht Club in Annapolis, Md., on the Eastern seaboard. What makes Knickerbocker different, members say, is the club’s openness and egalitarian approach to membership. The club consists mostly of crew, rather than being mostly or exclusively made up of boat owners. It welcomes different types of sailors, too: those who go out for leisure and those who race. Its members also span ages, economic backgrounds, sexual identities, and race — sort of.

“Let’s face it, sailing is generally pretty white,” says Steve Kelley, a Knickerbocker member. “But we really want that to change.” 

One effort to diversify sailing in New York City involves a nonprofit called Hudson River Community Sailing, which teaches underprivileged children how to sail, focusing on the mathematics and physics of the sport. Knickerbocker’s annual Pride weekend regatta, in which members race J/24s up the Hudson, is a fundraiser for Hudson River Community Sailing. Last year, 50 Knickerbocker members competed on 10 boats, their most to date. 

Slideshow: All Aboard! Meet the Gay Boaters

Gay Sailors
It’s Memorial Day weekend, months after the choking incident, and I’m zooming through midtown Manhattan in a Fiat with James Weichert. We make a pit stop in Queens to pick up his friend Martin and his dog Luca, who only understands Spanish, and then we’re bound for City Island, in the Bronx, where Weichert anchors his 35-foot-long J/25 racing boat named Runaway.  

Runaway sleeps six, though to say comfortably would be a stretch. But, Weichert says, “You need a crew of six to race it.” 

According to Weichert, competitive sailing is experiencing a surge in popularity, thanks mostly to advances in broadcast technology. 

“Sailing is less known than some of the other sports because up until very recently it was impossible to get good footage of sailing, because it happens out on the water,” says Weichert. “But now, with drones and the Internet, that’s really changing,”  

Earlier in the month, New York’s Hudson River hosted a race in the prestigious America’s Cup series, which has been around since the 1850s. But, Weichert says, “that’s a billionaires’ club.” Those who participate in America’s Cup events have their boats disassembled and shipped around the world to compete. “They were probably just in Dubai,” he says. (As with most sailing clubs, when Knickerbocker competes, boats are provided on site or rented.) 

At the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland, Knickerbocker placed sixth out of 13 entrants.

Sailing requires strength — particularly for the grinders, the crew members who use the pulleys to hoist the sails — the ability to make split-second decisions, a knowledge of physics, and an instinct for the water, the wind, and the handling of one’s boat. What might seem like a gentleman’s pursuit often turns deadly. Weichert once had a crew member get knocked overboard during a strong wind. He wasn't injured, but as Weichert recalls, “The scary thing about that is in the night, trying to retrieve someone in the ocean — forget about it.” 

He says this most often happens when men are urinating off the back of their boat. “There is a noted thing in the sailing community. After a man pees, his blood pressure drops, and some people become dizzy and fall off the back of the boat with their wanger hanging out. And if they’re alone and it’s nighttime, the boat keeps sailing away from them.” 

Weichert’s most frightening moment at sea occurred several years ago. He was anchored in Rhode Island when a hurricane came through. As he pulled up the anchor, the windlass broke and his hand went through the chain. The wind was blowing 60 or 70 miles an hour. 

“It’s howling around you. And we can’t get the anchor up, and we’re going into the rocks, and the shit’s hitting the fan. And that makes many people more scared and more timid and makes them shy away from boating. It made me a stronger sailor and a better sailor,” he says. “A powerboater thinks he's in control of the weather. He’s not. A sailboater knows he’s not in control of the weather.” 

Slideshow: All Aboard! Meet the Gay Boaters

Gay Sailors
There’s no such excitement or competition for the Knickerbockers on this leisurely weekend. With Céline Dion cranked up on the speakers in the crisp, spring light, we take Runaway across Long Island Sound cruising at a comfortable six knots. With the Throgs Neck Bridge in the distance, we sail past a naval academy and then the largest potter’s field in the U.S., Hart Island, where unclaimed corpses are laid to rest. At Manhasset Bay, an inlet on the north shore of Long Island that was fictionalized as East Egg and West Egg in The Great Gatsby, the flotilla awaits; an enormous rainbow flag is hoisted high and billows in the breeze. This particular flag was donated to the group by Gilbert Baker, a former Knickerbocker member and the designer of the original rainbow flag.

On shore, the cold facades of some of the nation’s most expensive homes glower back at us suspiciously. I climb onto Bill Helmers and Steve Kelley’s boat. The couple lives here year-round aboard the vessel they named the Michael Leslie, after Kelley’s brother who died in a boating accident at age 19. 

“Here we are in the backyard of gazillionaires, and we’re like, ‘Eh, who cares,’ ” says Helmers. 

Knickerbocker was founded in 1994 by Braden Toan. From an ad in the back of a sailing magazine, he learned of a gay club in London, and he wrote to them for advice on forming a club in New York. The 60-year-old Broadway and opera conductor recalls: “They sent me a couple of their newsletters. They sent me their burgie, which is their little flag; and they were just like, ‘Go do it.’ ” 

While anchored in Fire Island he began knocking on doors to see if anyone had interest in joining a gay sailing club. The first year he found 12 members. 

For many, it seems, life on the sea is hereditary. Toan grew up sailing on the Hudson. His mother, since childhood, would sail around Lake George. His father, in adulthood, had a boat. 

“My father was a very technical sailor and was always trying to teach me about the physics and teaching me about navigation. And my mother was a very visceral sailor who was always talking about how it felt,” Toan says. “You get people who are very technical and others who are more visceral. And that is very important in sailing. If you’re too much of either, you’re unaware of what’s happening around you. Either you’re unaware of what’s happening physically or you’re unaware of what’s happening emotionally.”

Many in Knickerbocker, like Toan, live on their boats year-round or at least for several months of the year. 

“It’s just like a Manhattan apartment, in terms of space,” says Helmers. Perhaps a Tokyo apartment, or a Foxconn dormitory, might be a more accurate comparison. But, like Manhattanites, you really have to accept being crowded and on top of people all the time (one of the nice things about the gay sailing life). Each boat’s captain is responsible for the entire crew’s well-being and making sure everyone is fed and comfortable. 

The sailors settle down with cocktails and finger foods, but terror on the low seas encroaches. A yacht several yards away has become unanchored and is drifting slowly and ominously toward us. 

Helmers is the first to take notice. “I got a stinkpotter over there with no one on board that’s dragging!” he shouts. The sailors run to the bows of their crafts and begin to yell at the yacht as it ceaselessly glides their way. 

Kelley and another sailor hop into a dinghy and speed over to the yacht. They jump aboard — but not before the craft lurches into a Knickerbocker boat and smashes a light. An attractive young woman and a much older man come running out. 

“Don’t start the engines!” yells Helmers to the yacht occupants. “It will take our chains. You’d be surprised how often that happens.” 

It takes several minutes for the sailors to assist the yacht owner in maneuvering his boat away from the flotilla; then, once the yacht is a safe distance away, they take the dinghy back to the flotilla. 

“They were having sex,” Kelley says. “They were throwing their clothes on when we got aboard. Condoms are a huge problem at Liberty Landing,” he adds, referring to a marina in Jersey City. “They get sucked in and clog the pump.” 

Stinkpotter is a derogatory slang term for a powerboat. Knickerbocker welcomes them into the club, but not everyone approves — even though the current commodore of the club, Mark Whitman, drives a powerboat.

“Motorboating is not a sport,” says 43-year-old Matt Kapp, a writer and filmmaker. I think they should be [allowed in Knickerbocker] because it’s still navigating your boat, whether it sails or not. You still have to work a GPS, you still have to understand how the engines work, you’re still hosting a group of people on a little vessel that you’re responsible for. Motorboating is a skill, but sailing’s a sport.” 

“The guys driving the new-y plastic-y shiny douchebag motorboats are the ones that go right by you,” Kapp continues. “The guys that have the classic old trawlers or the nice powerboats, they’ll slow down when they go by, so as not to wake you. And then they wave and it’s nice.”

Kapp was meant to be joined by a friend this weekend, a fellow Knickerbocker named Robert who is in the hospital. 

“He got crushed by a fat lady who fell on him on an escalator,” he explains, “and he’s in rehabilitation for another month.” The Knickerbockers have been sending their warm wishes and get-well-soons. 

For Toan and most members of Knickerbocker, and for the sailing community at large, the sport aspect of sailing is only half the appeal. 

“I will tell you what's so amazing about sailing,” says Tom. “All my life I've taken people who have been relative strangers. When you take someone out on a boat, you get them away from shore and out on the water, and all of a sudden people you think you know a little bit, they suddenly wax philosophical and start talking to you about what they think of life, what their dreams are, or what their regrets are about life,” Toan says. “It’s really interesting how it changes people in this sort of magical way.” 

Slideshow: All Aboard! Meet the Gay Boaters

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