New London - Industry may dominate its banks, with ferries, barges and submarines plowing through its waters with purpose. But on Wednesday evenings in the summer, the Thames River shows its fun side.
White sails, stretched tight against the wind, cut through the water near the mouth of the river, angling toward their mark. Some glide casually. Others tilt expertly, the crew swinging their legs over the side of the boat not dipping into the water.
A dozen or so sailboats come out for the Thames Yacht Club's race night, abandoning their moorings and following a course from the club's raft, nicknamed the Queen Merry, leading out toward Ledge Light and back.
When they cross the finish line, a gun sounds, but the winner isn't determined until the race committee has accounted for the boats' various handicaps. The same group of boats competes in each series, divided into classes of boats that use the often-colorful spinnaker sails, those that don't, and boats that are of a standard size and don't need to be handicapped.
Ferries headed to Block Island and Long Island send out a deep wake and can be a "nuisance" for racers, says Bevan Crighton, the club's commodore, but the sailors learn to coexist with them. The biggest challenge in the Thames is the currents, somewhat foreign to Crighton, who is from Canada and learned to sail on Lake Ontario.
Crighton was in his 30s, just learning in a dinghy. In time, he built his own boat and sailed to Bermuda.
"It's so quiet and peaceful, no engines," Crighton said. "You just go where the wind (goes)."
Club opts for less pretentious
The yacht club, incorporated in 1933, was first quartered in a loft over a gas station on Pequot Avenue. It moved into a house on Plant Street before the club purchased waterfront property on Pequot Avenue opposite Granada Terrace in 1935. Members built a clubhouse with a platform extending from the porch as a dock.
The yachting program was interrupted during World War II, from 1942 to 1945, when the river was closed to pleasure craft.
The founders of the club apparently clashed over the direction the club should take, according to Jim Reyburn, a member who has chronicled the club's history. One envisioned a high-end venue peopled with blazer-clad clientele, while the other favored a less pretentious "everyman's club."
The "everyman," Lewis Moody, a carpenter foreman at Electric Boat, was elected the first commodore, starting a tradition that has continued in the social club, members say.
"It was very unfancy, comfortable," recalled Zita Smith of New London. She and her husband, Bob, joined the club in the 1960s. They lived on Montauk, just one of many New London families who would walk to the club for races, beach time and social life.
"All of us had families," Zita said. "There were always children down there. ... In 1969 I had my seventh child. I was unique at the yacht club. I would take a big carriage and park it on the porch. ... At that point nobody had any (children) that young."
The mothers would watch the races upstairs, and keep an eye on one another's kids when one needed to be shuttled to Little League or to deliver the afternoon paper.
Five of the Smith kids sailed, some more competitively than others. Steve was one of the ones who "just wanted to sail with the wind. ... He wanted to see how far they could tip the Wee Nip before it tipped over," Bob said. He even wanted a power boat.
He was the last of the kids the Smiths expected would buy a sailboat of his own and join the club.
Steve Smith, now a member of the yacht club's executive committee, says racing "was huge" while he was growing up, but today he prefers to cruise in his sailboat.
Kids enjoy sailing, beach
Smith's interest in sailing was renewed on a trip to the Caribbean with friends. He then rented a 35-foot sailboat with his family for a crash course in sailing before buying his own Catalina 25. He and his family visit Fishers Island, Montauk and Greenport, or go to Block Island for short sleepovers.
"One of the great things about the Thames River is that you're five minutes out at the mouth of the river," he said.
Kids at the club still play the same games Smith remembers playing on the Queen Merry, diving underwater with a Popsicle stick and letting go, leaving the others to dive in and search for the stick.
His own kids, ages 9 and 13, have taken sailing lessons offered at the club, but they mostly like to relax on the boat. The family makes use of the beach, which has grown larger over the years simply from the river carrying in more and more sand.
"In the summer we're down here all the time, grab grinders and come down when it's too hot to be home," he said.
The club, with about 200 sailing members and 20 beach members, offers a launch service and a galley in the summer. Full membership dues are about $600 a year and beach membership is about $400. Most people, however, choose the club over a marina for the social atmosphere.
The racing season kicks off Memorial Day weekend and runs Wednesday nights through the summer until the fall, when it moves to Sundays, with other races and regattas in between. But there are also cookouts on Thursday nights, group cruises to places like Watch Hill and even events in the off-season.
"We have parties during the summer," Crighton said. "We have parties in the wintertime, and that's why a lot of people join."