Matthew Houskeeper has been sailing and fishing on Long Island Sound since his childhood in the 1970s. He writes regularly about the Sound on his blog, Soundbounder.
The Knickerbocker Yacht Club, with its hipped roof and second-story deck, still looks out silently over Manhasset Bay. But it resembles a foreclosed home now, with several "No Trespassing" signs taped to its large bay windows. Inside the clubhouse, the rooms stand vacant and dark.
After hearing that the 135-year-old club had closed earlier this year, I stopped by last month for one last goodbye. When I arrived, a utility worker making a phone call in the parking lot was all that broke the silence.
Yacht clubs have never exactly been "of the people," but stereotypes of Buffy and Chip sailing with white slacks and stiff upper lips aren't entirely accurate.
On Long Island Sound, yacht clubs tend to fall into one of three categories: There are the exclusive clubs that do their best to hold on to the Gilded Age. These are often easy to spot, with their clubhouses resembling Gold Coast mansions and staff dressed like butlers. At the other extreme are the working clubs, whose membership often includes firemen, teachers and tradesmen. These are normally do-it-yourself places, where members volunteer their time along with paying dues. When the grass needs to be cut, it's a member who does it, not an employee or landscaping company.
The Knickerbocker belonged to a group that's somewhere in between. These clubs often navigate a foggy channel between controlling expenses and maintaining a certain aura of exclusiveness. Members may own expensive boats - but they also have tuition bills and mortgages they worry about.
For years I belonged to a working club that was about a two-hour sail to Manhasset Bay. I sailed to the Knickerbocker only a handful of times, but the visits were always special. I'd motor my banged-up 1968 Bristol 24 into the mooring field, hail a launch and be welcomed to the club.
It didn't matter that my boat cost less than a used car, while those around it there were priced like small starter homes. I may not have met the financial or social requirements to be a member of the club, but I was accepted as a guest provided I followed the rules - proper attire in the dining room, no tank tops on the grounds, no spitting. I could hobnob with the dentists and architects while I relaxed in a mahogany-trimmed bar, until I turned back into a pumpkin when I returned home for work Monday morning. Reciprocity between clubs was the great leveling field, if only for a weekend.
When the recession hit, it was easy to question my club's chances of survival. The rundown building, the old boats and even older membership - all suggest that the best days were at least 30 years ago.
The Knickerbocker didn't seem to have these problems. The model ships and half hulls adorning the walls seemed to suggest an immunity to changing times. Beneath the mahogany paneling, however, the Knickerbocker was struggling with the same difficulties as every other club.
Higher expenses, coupled with a declining and aging membership, have affected clubs from Little Neck to the East End. The prosperity of the past 25 years may have suppressed the symptoms, but the current recession brought them to the forefront.
We've all secretly admired, while simultaneously resenting, certain people at one time or another in our lives. We may desperately want to be like a neighbor or a colleague, yet we begrudge them their good fortune all the same. When bad times strike, their failure becomes some sort of "moral of the story." But I felt no such schadenfreudewhen I walked along the empty dock of the Knickerbocker last month. A club that had survived two World Wars, the Great Depression and Sept. 11 was now gone. If it could happen to the Knickerbocker Yacht Club, it could happen to anyone.
I leaned against the peeling white handrail, looked out over the harbor, and wondered: Who's next?