Burning Boats

the Edgewood Yacht Club recovers from fire

by by Anna Maine

illustration by by Robert Sandler

From the windswept parking lot, it is impossible to ignore the charred skeleton of a landmark that blots out a school of Sunfish. Blackened beams rest in a pile of debris like pickup sticks, mixing with impossibly twisted metal. A once-grand doorway leans outwards at a precarious angle, ready to topple with the slightest breath of wind. The ocean has frozen right up to the pilings, which are also charred black. These are the ruins of the Edgewood Yacht Club in Cranston.

A great loss
The building was devastated by fire on January 13, as firefighters on land and sea were unable to contain the blaze. Acting fire marshal Capt. Kevin Morris of the Cranston Fire Department says the fire “could have possibly been caused by lightning,” but adds that there may also have been faulty wiring. Several neighborhood witnesses saw flashes of light and a brightening orange blaze as the building was consumed by flames, according to Capt. Morris; the electrical fire was probably caused by the lightning strike.

The building, once a familiar landmark on the water and off, now seems to have collapsed in on itself like a supernova. But Commodore Jeff Lanphear thinks there’s reason for hope.

“The building’s gone, but the club is still here,” he says, gesturing to his fellow Frozen Few as he takes a moment away from the race preparations. In fact, three days after the fire, Edgewood Yacht Club had what sailor Gene Whalen calls a “moral victory.” Ten skippers were out sailing on their beloved Sunfish with borrowed gear and with sails lent by friends, exemplifying the indomitable spirit that seems so pervasive at EYC. They are still able to enjoy a good day of friendly competition.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in the blaze, and no boats were damaged. In years past, many members stored their boats in the parking lot, but by some lucky coincidence, no one did this year. Had they been in that parking lot, the direction of the wind that stormy night would have blown flames, smoke, and cinders into the fleet. Still, members did lose their gear: wetsuits, sails, masts, and more. Brown University’s sailing team lost its equipment as well. Gone, too, are items of historical significance and emotional value: racing trophies and the plaques that marked where hurricane flood waters reached (well above head-level) in 1938 and 1954.

The building itself was iconic, constructed in 1908 after a fire destroyed its predecessor. It stood serenely over Narragansett Bay, supported by a delicate criss-cross of wooden pilings. A red-shingled roof, capped by a cupola, made it visible from the water. It had a wrap-around porch and weathered wooden walls. Hidden from the main road, the yacht club seemed from another era, according to Tom Drew, the club’s steward: “You came into a whole different world when you came down here,” he says.

One month after the fire, the former clubhouse and grounds truly feel like a different world. But even though the building has been reduced to ash and rubble, Edgewood Yacht Club is not going anywhere. The sailors out on the water prove that.

“This club is filled with energy and with tremendous members who want to do something special down here,” says Lanphear. As commodore, he is the most senior officer at EYC and its tireless leader. When asked if Edgewood is the typical “country-club-like” group of doctors and lawyers, Lanphear laughs. He lists members who are everything from doctors to teachers to truck drivers and plumbers. “When we’re here, nobody calls anybody by a title or anything like that.”

Lanphear is excited to lead this motivated group and undaunted by the task of rebuilding that lies ahead. He confesses a personal stake in this project: “The club has always been there for me,” he explains. Lanphear’s family joined EYC in the early 1960s and he considers the club a “second home.” He took sailing lessons in his teens, even living in the clubhouse for a few college years as caretaker. He has been an officer “off-and-on” for the past 15 years. Two of his three brothers met their wives at the club. Although he says his wife prefers gardening to sailing, Lanphear’s two daughters were both students at the sailing school.

“He’s a great person to have right now with what we’re going through because he’s been involved with this club for so many years,” says Drew of the commodore.

On a winter afternoon, Drew can be found in the small residential house located on the EYC property. Undamaged by the fire, it looks gutted and insubstantial as it has undergone hours of refurbishment by Drew and other members. It will someday house the offices of the yacht club. From the small seaside window on the first floor, a dozen or so boats—upwind of the fire—are visible, carefully covered and resting on cradles. They’re waiting to be launched around Memorial Day, when the club starts having regular Tuesday and Wednesday night races and other events.

Drew explains that the old clubhouse must be demolished. The wharf will then extend from the shore to the 55 docks where regular members of the club can keep their boats. Drew will play an integral role in the rebuilding process, putting in many of the countless man-hours it will require for the yacht club to be fully functional once again.

Commodore Lanphear’s plan is simple: make it through the summer. He hopes the rebuilding of the dock will be complete by April or early May. Brown University’s sailing team (which is based at Edgewood) plans to move a modular home to the site. It will be used as a classroom for the sailing team and the sailing school in the summer. The house currently under construction will become the club’s office space. They hope to erect a tent for members, too. Before anything happens, however, EYC needs the permission of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), an agency that regulates construction on the coast of Rhode Island.

For the long-term, Lanphear imagines another clubhouse towering majestically over the water. According to the CRMC, the new building will need to be taller than its predecessor, but they hope to bring back some of the elements of the old building, like the beloved wrap-around porch. Lanphear hopes for a room for member meetings and a “junior” room for families and kids, maybe with ping pong and air hockey tables. The yacht club is still in settlement discussions with its insurance company, and Lanphear says members will do some fundraising. At less than two months after the fire, those plans are still at the drawing board.

“People have a lot of ideas for what to do,” says Drew.

The place to be
The presence of the yacht club in the community can still be felt as boats glide across Narragansett Bay on gear lent from fellow sailors across New England. Over the course of an afternoon, cars pull into the ash-strewn parking lot. Some only stay for a few minutes as their occupants gawk at the sailors or to get a first-hand look at the remains of the fire. Others take the time to relive old memories.

At 49, carpenter Mark Whirty can remember his childhood in the Edgewood neighborhood like it was yesterday. He parks his truck facing the sea and takes in the charred ruins, the snow-covered docks and the fleet of Sunfish skittering gaily across the waves.

Whirty refers to the club like an old friend, with whom he has shared many memories. He remembers walking along the beach at age 10 or 11, seeing the docks being built, and being inspired to become a carpenter.

Whirty’s dad kept a boat here, “which sank about once a year,” he says with a laugh. He worked at the club, painting the cupola (which bore his and many other workers’ initials) and running the launch or “crash boat” to ferry boat owners to and from their moorings.
He proudly recalls buying his first rowboat at age 11. Whirty paid five dollars for the old wooden rowboat and fiberglassed it himself. He used it for paddling around, learning seamanship and going fishing.

“It was the place to be.” He and his friends went on “junior outings,” paying five or six dollars apiece for “all the hot dogs and hamburgers you could eat.” They would go sailing in their parents’ 30- and 40-foot yachts, leaving Saturday and not returning until late the next day. They would sail to the Bay Islands, and have campfires on the beaches of Prudence Island.

“It was very family-oriented. It was our home away from home,” he recalls. There were penny socials, where the second floor of the clubhouse was filled with “yard sale stuff” and scuffles ensued over coveted items. He even remembers wanting to live in the small house (Drew’s renovation project) and sledding down the hill behind it on cardboard boxes.

There are thousands of memories like Mark Whirty’s. The club has received messages of support from the neighborhood, from around New England and as far away as Hawaii. The connection appears to be not only a love for sailing but also a love for this particular yacht club. Every donated sail and every curious neighbor who stops to watch those nuts out there sailing in February seems to share the same feelings about Edgewood. They are the feelings echoed by Mark Whirty, decades after his last sail and years after he left the neighborhood.

“It was a part of me. It’s still a part of me.”

ANNA MAINE B’14 is not going anywhere.