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Come Sail Away

The Joy of Sailing and the Fascinating History of the Houston Yacht Club

Article by Christa Eixman

Photography by Courtesy of the Houston Yacht Club Archives

Originally published in River Oaks Lifestyle

There is nothing better than being out on the water with the salty scent of the sea surrounding you. When you are fully immersed in sailing, it is easy to forget about life's troubles.

"It gives you a sense of freedom," says lifelong sailor Travis Thomas. "You can pick up and go whenever you want to."

Since he was a young child, Travis has been sailing and is a third-generation member of the Houston Yacht Club, the oldest Yacht Club in Texas. His grandfather, Tynes Sparks, joined the Yacht Club in 1961. 

The 125-year-old private Club is located 30 minutes away from downtown Houston in Shoreacres along Galveston Bay. Membership benefits include access to the Club's resort-style pool, restaurant, boat rentals, and sailing instruction. Although many members own boats and keep them at the marina, owning a boat is not required for membership. 

"Everyone is very generous and willing to take people out on their boats," says Travis' wife, Jane, a Compass realtor. "It is very family-oriented with a great sense of community."

The Early Years

That same desire for camaraderie led to the Yacht Club's origins, which can be traced back to the summer of 1897. Back then, Houston was just a tiny town on the Bayou with a population of only 44,000. The more affluent families of the time could flee the summer heat in Houston and enjoy the cool breezes of Galveston Bay. 

That summer, several townspeople gathered together to organize a few regattas. "Regatta" is an Italian word for a boat race and the other social events associated with it. Shortly after, the Yacht Club was officially established with its mission not only to enjoy recreational boating but to promote Houston's deepwater interest with the intent of bringing growth to the city. 

Shortly after reopening the Club after the Storm of 1900, famed Texas businessman, John Henry Kirby, donated his steamboat, "Lawrence" to the Yacht Club. Kirby asked the Club to use the boat to take wealthy out-of-town guests and government officials along Buffalo Bayou. He wanted to stimulate interest in Houston's new ship channel and show the potential of Galveston Bay. His plan was hugely successful and turned out to be a significant factor in Houston's early growth. 

Several years later, the Yacht Club worked with various organizations lobbying Congress to make Houston an international port. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson announced The Houston Ship Channel as an official "Port of Entry," which became imperative for the US military's ability to get oil during WWI, just three years later. 

A New Home

Before 1910, the Yacht Club had assembled in downtown Houston and stored their boats near Allen's Landing along Buffalo Bayou. In 1926, now up to 660 members, the Yacht Club decided to move their meeting place closer to Galveston Bay, in Shoreacres, just south of La Porte. 

The members built their new facility to be the talk of the town. The building was an architectural masterpiece for its time, built three stories high and made of Spanish stucco. 

Although the Great Depression of 1929 did not immediately affect the Yacht Club, it eventually took its toll, with membership dwindling to 138 members - a 79% loss. After a visit from President Roosevelt aboard one of the Club's vessels, Captiva, the tide turned, and the Club began to see some much-needed growth.

In 1941, just as the growing Yacht Club was discussing the addition of a swimming pool to attract new members, Japan invaded Pearl Harbor, beginning WWII. Shortly after that, the US Coast Guard repurposed the Yacht Club into a training center and took over any vessel the government deemed necessary for the war effort. 

Here Come the Ladies

When the war was over, the building was left in terrible conditions; however, the members' wives decided to take on the clean-up efforts. The women enjoyed the restoration project and each other's company so much that they decided to start planning weekly activities. In 1946, they established the first Ladies Association as a result. 

The Houston Yacht was no stranger to allowing women to join in their activities. In 1936, the Club caused quite a stir when they brought a woman, Miss Fairfax Moody, to join them in the Lipton Club Championship in Mobile, AL. The competing teams were not about to compete against a woman, and they sought to have her thrown out. In the end, Moody did compete and placed sixth in the Regatta. 

The Women's Sailing Association formed in 1983 after a successful women's only summer camp called "Windward Bound." The women attending the camp had developed such a strong bond they proposed a continuation of the women's activities. By 1984, over one hundred women had joined the association, and by 1999, the Yacht Club appointed its first woman Commodore, Ginny Garrett.

Today, the Yacht Club's mission has evolved to focus on offering inexpensive, fair, competitive, and enjoyable sailing to all.

To learn more about the Houston Yacht Club or schedule a tour, visit

  • Fairfax Moody Hamilton (right) and her sister, Betty Moody
  • Bay Ladies, 1947
  • Photo by  Jeff DeBevec
  • Photo by  Jeff DeBevec