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Key Biscayne Yacht Club

By Frank Caplan, Steven Stollman, Robin Macklin and Nora Camejo

Key Biscayne Yacht Club

Sixty-Six Watches Over Sixty-Six Years: A Brief History of the Key Biscayne Yacht Club

This coming June the Village of Key Biscayne will mark the thirtieth anniversary of incorporation as our own municipality. For incorporation-era veterans especially and the community as a whole, the anniversary will no doubt spawn thoughtful reflection about our Island Paradise. As has been noted many times before, one of our significant historical truths is that Key Biscayne was home to community-binding institutions long before incorporation. Important among them is the Key Biscayne Yacht Club, founded in 1955, a treasured institution for generations of Key Biscayners.

The formative efforts culminating in what became the Key Biscayne Yacht Club start on January 14, 1955, with a gathering of aspirants at the Key Biscayne Community Church. Their initial purpose was to install a hoisting crane in Hurricane Cove for fisherman use. Twenty-five founders each paid $5 to finance the crane. In getting their feet wet with that first step, the collective ambition turned quickly toward establishing a local yacht club. In the course of five weekly meetings that followed, an inaugural roster of 214 charter members was set, club membership dues was levied at $5, and, on February 3, 1955, the Club Charter was filed with the State, thereby formally establishing the Key Biscayne Yacht Club. In short order,
the members adopted the Lighthouse and Key Burgee and appointed a slate of officers. Buddy Austin, who some 35 years later contributed importantly to pre-incorporation planning efforts, was elected as the first Commodore.
The Club’s first social gathering was at Hacienda Canal. That might have been an auspicious coincidence considering that the Club’s permanent location, adjacent to Hacienda Canal, had not then been determined. The property that became the Yacht Club was owned by the Mackle Company. The Club founders recognized the potential and negotiated a cash deal to purchase the 5-acre site for $55,000. 182 of the original 214 members purchased a “regular membership” for $100 each, to help finance the purchase. It’s interesting to note as a feature of local tradition that as of last year, there were still 182 regular memberships in the Yacht Club.

Key Biscayne Yacht Club
Key Biscayne Yacht Club
Key Biscayne Yacht Club
Key Biscayne Yacht Club
Key Biscayne Yacht Club

The ensuing five years through 1960 was a fruitful period of development, growth and maturation. The basin and canal were dredged, the first docks were constructed, and, in 1957, the first clubhouse was completed and opened. The physical developments and success of the Club overall attracted more members and increased demand for services. In 1957, Norman Riddle, Dockmaster, became the Club’s first staff member. A former navy petty officer and war veteran, Norman remained with the Club until his passing in 1976. Apart from memories of and appreciation for his good nature and long service, his lasting contributions include the Compass Rose at the foot of the flagpole.
Major improvements in 1959 included the original swimming pool and establishment of the youth summer camp featuring swimming, sailing, life lessons and great companionship. That same year construction began on the breakwater, incorporating materials from the demolished old McArthur Causeway. Traditions were developing as well. Past commodores were to be recognized by three silver stars on their uniforms, and numbered chronologically, beginning with Commodore Austin as #1. And, in March 1960, coinciding with Vice President Richard Nixon contending with Senator John F. Kennedy to become the 35th president of the United States, KBYC and Coral Reef Yacht Club entered into a “sister club” relationship that continues today.

The early ‘60s were a rough time financially. Around 1963, the Club’s first manager, Jose Rosado, determined that the Club membership was too small to support the desired level of operations. Then Commodore C G Rebozo and the board of directors led negotiations to sell the Club assets and merge with the Coral Gables Golf Course. Once the sale and merger was fully negotiated, the board presented the deal to the members. The members rejected it. Reacting to that decision, Commodore Rebozo pointed out that survival would require a full commitment from the members. The members heard the call, and in the ensuing years of the 1960s, dedicated themselves to building the membership, creating a family-oriented culture and building the Club infrastructure. Financial strength was built on the flag lowering ceremony, formal and informal social gathers, youth activities, and a sustained focus on water-oriented activities, included competitive racing, youth sailing, and club rendezvous events at various destinations.

In 1965, the waterfront parcel adjacent to the Club to the north (now Villa Harbor) was put up for sale. With that appetizing opportunity looming, the Club established a land purchase committee to work on purchasing the adjacent parcel, but that effort was beyond the Club’s reach at the time. Still, the Club needed to improve the kitchen facility, the dining and various clubhouse and property amenities. Happily, improving finances enabled the Club to procure a second mortgage and complete the needed improvements. And in 1968, the Club had the wherewithal to purchase the land bordering the Hacienda Canal to the south, the Weaver Property.

Prior to his presidency beginning in 1968 and during his tenure as Commander in Chief, Key Biscayne’s President Richard Nixon, a close friend of Bebe Rebozo, often visited KBYC and ultimately became an Honorary Member. During his presidency, the Secret Service established a security zone along the bay, with security boats deployed to protect the Winter White House on Bay Lane, a bit south of KBYC. Security considerations notwithstanding, then Commodore John V. Handwerker had occasion to communicate with the Secret Service on behalf of KBYC, pointing out that the security arrangements were impinging the Club’s sailing program. With echos of Nixon’s outreach to China, an agreement ensued allowing the sailing program within the Secret Service protection zone, supporting the premises that “politics is local.” Old-timers will remember the February 1969 Life Magazine feature story about President Nixon and Key Biscayne, the cover photo of which depicts the President at the Yacht Club.

Membership and culture stayed in prime focus throughout the ensuing years. Key Biscayne’s population was growing, as was the Yacht Club’s popularity. By 1973, there were 737 members in 5 membership classifications. In 1982, KBYC sponsored a collegiate sailor for the first time. Jack Freeland, son of Mr. and Mrs. George Freeland and sponsored by the Yacht Club, competed in the National Laser Championships for the University of Michigan. The Club reached another milestone on December 28, 1984 when KBYC was accepted into the Florida Council of Yacht Clubs. A few years later, the Club positioned itself favorably for future growth when its first and second mortgages were satisfied.

With all the growth and progress, by the mid-80s Club facilities were showing wear and tear. As is often the case, repair versus replacement decisions ensued, causing marked differences of opinion. The debate led to a controversial gambit around 1990, to seek permitting to fill-in Hacienda Canal so as to enlarge the Club’s land footprint. The permit application was denied.

KBYC’s reach extended broader than locally in the ‘90s. In 1991, for example, a new U.S. Coast Guard Cutter was commissioned “Key Biscayne,” supported by advocacy and a $1,000 commissioning donation from the Yacht Club. Today the name board “USCG Key Biscayne” is displayed in the KBYC permanent collection, along with a photo of the Cutter – gifts from the Coast Guard following the Key Biscayne’s decommissioning.

Key Biscayne Yacht Club
Key Biscayne Yacht Club

During the 60’s, the emphasis on yachting grew ever more important. In 1967, the Club held its first “Round the Island Race.” Named after Commodore Ed Willman, that event, combining fun and competition, has been held every year since. Water-borne events continued to develop. In 1969, KBYC and the City of Miami co-sponsored the first National Pram Championship Regatta at Marine Stadium. The event continues still as the Southeast Dinghy Championship, now organized and managed by KBYC. The overall winning sailor each year is awarded the “Stickney Trophy” which is held in the Club’s permanent collection.

In 1992, KBYC sponsored two 470 Class sailors, Kevin Burnham and Morgan Reeser, for the U.S. Olympic sailing team competing in Atlanta. In introducing the two Olympic hopefuls, KBYC board member Ray Sullivan explained that they had qualified for the U.S. Team for the ’92 Barcelona games, and were looking for a yacht club sponsorship to enable them to join the national team. The Yacht Club board of governors voted Kevin and Morgan Honorary Members and agreed to fund their Olympic efforts with a sum up to $10,000, under an agreement prepared by Club member Joe Downs. Hailing from the KBYC and sailing for Team USA, Kevin and Morgan won a silver medal in Barcelona and returned in 2004 to win a gold medal at the Athens Olympic games.

Also in 1992 KBYC was chosen to organize and run one of five racing circles in the Miami Olympic Classes Regatta (later called the Rolex and World Cup Regattas). This continued through 2012, in preparation for the London games, when the U.S. Sailing Center in Coconut Grove assumed management of all of the sailing circles. In 2000 the Club began hosting the U.S. Olympic trials for both the 49er and Yingliing classes, whose winners (including Kevin Burnham and Morgan Reeser in 2004) represented the U.S. in the Athens Olympics.

KBYC hosted and ran the U.S. Olympic team semi-final trials for women’s match racing in 2011, which selected two finalists who’d compete in London for the single U.S. team slot. Then, in 2012, the Club hosted and ran the international finals for womens’ match racing, whose top three finishers each earned a slot representing their countries at the London games. A number of Key Biscayne families became “home parents” for U.S. and international sailors during the stays on the Key. Some of these relationships continued, offering home stays on the Key for women Round-the-World sailors during their preparations in Miami.

Less internationally impactful than Olympic trials but no less intensely engaging or competitive for participants, in 2018 the Club introduced the now-annual Cardboard Boat Regatta, a chance for members and friends to demonstrate boat-building and sailing skills.

Key Biscayne Yacht Club
Key Biscayne Yacht Club
Key Biscayne Yacht Club

In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew struck Key Biscayne with category 5 winds causing significant flooding and damage. Club damage was limited – outside systems, landscaping, roof damage. The Clubhouse interior did not flood, which caused some theological speculation as most of the Harbor Drive waterside did flood. Against all odds, the Club was operational, with fuel, five days after the storm. The first post-hurricane agenda item for the Club board was to open the Club for meals to serve the Key Biscayne community – an important and much appreciated gesture of goodwill and neighborliness. The Club’s embrace of the larger community is historical and ongoing, as the Club makes its meeting rooms and facilities available for a host of community gatherings and special events on all sorts of occasions.

Key Biscayne Yacht Club

By the early 2000s, the need to work redevelopment plans for the clubhouse and facilities became an ongoing priority. With input from Long-Range Planning Chair and longtime member Jose Ortega, the Board developed plans to modernize the clubhouse at a projected cost of $1.8 million.

At the same, necessary repairs to the north dock and planning to replace the center dock were underway. Center dock demolition was scheduled in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma hit and did the deed, destroying the center dock altogether, which, fortunately, had been fully insured. A new center dock opened in 2006, featuring for every slip a side loader and electric meter, causing some members dismay in confronting the amount of power they were using.

At last age and wear on the facilities began to reveal obsolescence by mid-decade. On November14, 2014, the membership voted to rebuild the north dock and fuel dock, repair the breakwater, dredge the Hacienda Canal, and, importantly, to levy assessments to redevelop the clubhouse. The dock, breakwater and dredging work proceeded apace, floating docks were installed in the canal for sailors, kayakers, and paddle boarders, and at last, in March 2018, after years of debate, the members approved plans for a brand new clubhouse.

Key Biscayne Yacht Club

This beautifully designed new edifice opened officially on July 1, 2020, construction and outfitting slowed but undeterred by the COVID-crisis. The flood-tide of members attending the July opening, socially-distanced and observing COVID-safety protocols, marked a new and exciting jumping-off point, followed by a new milestone on February 5, 2021 when the flag-lowering ceremony marked the sixty-sixth anniversary of the founding of the venerable and valued Key Biscayne Yacht Club.


Watch Commodore

1 Charles B Austin
2 Hubert B Dates Sr
3 W Arthur Fielden
4 C L Nelson
5 R E Hodges
6 Ross Roberts
7 C G Rebozo
8 Edwin H Underwood
9 Jack Russell
10 Louis P Slater
11 C Lee Bass
12 Sam T Millard
13 Mortimer Fried
14 Arnold Heisten
15 John V Handwerker
16 Robert S Weisenbaker
17 Richard O Wilson

18 Fawdry A S Molt
19 Auby L Tuggle
20 J Alvin Carey
21 Robert Macklin
22 Edward J Reilly
23 Paul A Crick
24 John A Turk
25 Thomas J Stickney
26 Errol S Cornell
27 William E Dee
28 J Gordon McDonald
29 Rafael Conte
30 Roger Shotwell
31 George O’Brian
32 Clifford K Brody
33 Rudi Braun
34 Frank Garisto

35 Edward M Willman
36 William G Earle
37 Thomas P Hanzas
38 J J Dohoghue
39 Joseph S Curcio
40 A J Larrea
41 James S Taintor III
42 Joseph G Young
43 Ivan A Jones
44 Stuart D Ames
45 Thomas E Flynn
46 Juan C Sala
47 Christian B Sager
48 Hubert B Dates
49 John E Pearson
50 Timothy P Stickney

51 Lee Schmachtenberg
52 Ronald W Drucker
53 Paul R Achter
54 Edward I London
55 John F Arnholt
56 Michael Rice
57 Mark E Fried
58 Hortensia S Hacker
59 Dwight C Hewett
60 Robin M Macklin
61 Michael F Bracken
62 York M Flick
63 Rosemary Sala Rifkin
64 Scott Sharp
65 Gary R Gross
66 Steven M Stollman