History of Sailing on Lake Winnebago
By: Tom Grebe
While the modern-day Fond du Lac Sailing Club has been continuously active a long time, it by no means covers the full era of pleasure sailing on Winnebago. A pioneer, Gus DeNeveu, who bought the lake bearing his name to build the county's fifth home, commissioned a large yawl in year 1838. It was an easy way to get about on Winnebago, there being no roads. A near-disaster occurred when he picked up ten new settlers at Calumet Harbor on June 14 that year, and was driven ashore at the Taycheedah native village on the way back. They gladly walked from there.
Beginning in 1843, lumbering of white pine brought five decades of prosperity to Oshkosh and Fond du Lac sawmills. Until the 1870's when forests of the Fox and Wolf basins were depleted and only rail could reach pine stands, steam tugs hauled log booms to the mills. Dams were built at Neenah in 1852 to make the Doty Island rapids there navigable as part of the Fox River lock system which opened in 1855. Sailing schooners carried freight. Before the Civil War, a three masted gaff-rigged schooner over 80 feet in length hauled freight between Winnebago ports, including flour from 7 mills at the dams. A steam donkey engine provided power to hoist sail. The ship's master was Eb Stevens, of Stevens Reef fame. In later years he owned a hotel and cottages on Garlic Island, now Island Park, and was much in demand as a racing skipper. By 1899, hardly any of the working schooners were left, according to boat builder Sam Neff.
Eb Stevens raises sail. Note steam.
As of 1848, about the only way for people to get around was on the steamboat “Manchester”owned by the Peter Hotaling family of Taycheedah. Then some private sailboats were built, beginning with the “Gov. Doty”, a schooner built at Neenah. In 1851 a small schooner capsized in a storm between Fond du Lac and Long Point with all hands lost.
The first recorded race was in 1860, when ten boats including the "Falcon" and "Petrel" from Fond du Lac came from all lake ports and Green Bay for a regatta at Oshkosh. Boats of this era featured sharp bows, rounded sterns, bow sprits, thick masts, sandbag ballast, and such sails as topsails, club topsails, jibs, balloon jibs, spankers, and kites. The "Petrel" was a fast new boat that later raced for years out of Oshkosh and Neenah. One Oshkosh boat, the "D. J. Pulling", was modeled after the "America" which had won the famous race in Britain 9 years earlier. From 1861 to 1886, annual July 4th yacht races where held at Oshkosh.
The Neenah Yacht Club, organized in 1863, and Oshkosh Yacht Club formed in 1869, still exists! In those days, and up to 1920 or so, it was common to build a little club around each boat. One such organization was started by six neophyte Fond du Lac sailors to sail the 16 foot "Water Lily", rigged with sprit-sail and oars. They cruised all over the lake, and aroused a lot of local interest. Next, a Rosendale minister launched the "Rosendale" in 1868. His assistant lived on the boat in summer, visiting missions around the lake, and was the frequent subject of search parties aboard the "Water Lily" or a steam tug when overdue.
In 1870, a "Daisy Club" was formed by two of the "Water Lily" owners and four other men to acquire a twenty foot Boston-built boat with 8 foot 6 inch beam. Next the Gipsy was built locally in 1871. That prompted the formal organization of a Fond du Lac Yacht Club representing the "Daisy", "Rosendale", "Liberty", and "Gipsy". In 1871 they sponsored a regatta off the mouth of the Fond du Lac River in which fourteen boats competed for five prizes totaling $150. The "Daisy" had just won the Oshkosh Yacht Club's first regatta. Rivalry between Neenah, Oshkosh, and Fond du Lac was intense for the next decade. Newspapers of the day reported race results regularly.
Fond du Lac, Neenah, and Oshkosh clubs got together each year for a cruise and encampment on Garlic Island. The 1873 rendezvous was near-tragic when 21 Fond du Lac sailors encountered heavy seas with their two-masted supply boat, landing at 1 a.m. in the surf. It was half full of water, with the jib torn to shreds, and one mast carried away. The "Daisy" was missing, but had taken shelter overnight at Black Wolf Point.
In the same year, a highly-publicized race at Oshkosh for the lake championship and $350 attracted 10 boats, including "Liberty" of Fond du Lac skippered by a Capt. Alexander. They took second in Div. II, while the large boat division was won by "Minnie Greaves" of Neenah with Eb Stevens as skipper.
About 1878 –Niobe, Carrie, Penequa at Oshkosh
While the Fond du Lac Yacht Club continued to be the nucleus around which yachting revolved, in 1878 a new organization of the same name recognized the great number of boats and diversity of interests, including steam yachts. Fifteen sailboats were represented, notably the "Mystic", "Pinafore", "Hawk", "Aquila", "Lolita", and "Lulu". In August 1879 Fond du Lac sponsored another race as part of a series. Jim Whitton's new "Pinafore" was one participant along with six other local boats. A fast boat, it raced ten years until sold in 1889, with many matches against the "Lolita". The "Pinafore" was dismasted in a gale during the 1881 Oshkosh regatta, disabling another boat in the process. Intense rivalry and invitational regattas around the lake continued for years until it cooled off in the mid-1880's. Crowds watched the races from shore or excursion steamers.
The city directory for 1887 reports the continued existence of a Fond du Lac Yacht Club that included sailboats, as well as steam yachts. One officer was named the Measurer, an indication of racing. The Secretary was a Sam Hotaling, whose family had operated a steamboat service on the lake since 1844. The Commodore was a cloth dyer by the name of Harry Dittmar. Dittmar acquired a new yacht, "Minerva", in 1888. It sparked a revival. For two consecutive years, 1888 and 1889, "Minerva" won the Winnebago championship and the Felker Cup, which is still in use. In 1890 the boat sailed again against the former "Pinafore", over a 10 mile course off Neenah. Minerva lost its boom in a collision in the first race, and missed beating "Pinafore" for the cup by 52 seconds of corrected time. Minerva regained the cup in 1894, but ceased competing after the 1895 regatta where it lost to a sleek 30 foot skimming dish that obsoleted the heavy hulls.
That boat, “Nirvana” from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, was flat-bottomed and beamy, with an extreme overhang in the pointed bow, having a very long boom and short stout mast for the gaff rig.
In the 1960’s Pat and Karin Whealon still sailed a similar sloop of this era, the first “Spindrift”, pictured below. Such boats, the earliest inland lakes scows, were a delight to sail.
In 1897 the Fond du Lac Yacht Club met with Neenah and Oshkosh clubs to form a Winnebago Yacht Racing Association. In the same year the Inland Lakes Association, predecessor to the present Inland Lakes Yachting Association, was formed at Oshkosh to create a union of clubs in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. Some boats were being built at Oshkosh and Fond du Lac to compete in new 18-22 and 22-26 foot classes, handicapped for water line length and sail area. The Minerva yacht club rejected a challenge from Green Lake that year, because this city had nothing speedy enough to compete.
Fond du Lac never was part of the ILYA circuit, though local boats competed at Green Lake or Oshkosh. Most people at the turn of the century were too preoccupied with a six day workweek of ten hour days. The boats that did exist had their own little club of groupies. It would not be until 1920 that the Fond du Lac Yacht Club was organized as a corporation. Between 1900 and 1928, some boats were tied on the Fond du Lac River below the steamboat landing at Scott Street where Ed Malone lived. A cabin sailboat was owned by Ed Malone, Sr., in whose name his son donated a silver cup to the present Sailing Club. Typical sailboats were 20 to 25 foot in length, gaff-rigged, with a sturdy roundbottom planked hull. Ron Hill, born 1908, recalled helping his father steam oak ribs in downspout sections, and sailing as a child tucked away safely in the cuddy of his father's open boat. There was no organized racing locally. Another life member of the Sailing Club, Langdon Divers, roamed Lakeside Park as a youth and cruised on the yacht “Rainbow” as a Sea Scout. The Lewis Cup used as our Sailor of the Year award since 1971 was won by him in model sailboat racing of that era.
Some boats were moored in an open marsh where Fountain Island now stands in Lakeside Park. A boat livery there had 3 sailboats in 1905 as well as canoes and rowboats. A wooden lift bridge on the entrance channel at the pavillion permitted lake access until the stone bridge was built in 1929.
In the 1930's, money was scarce. A Sea Scout unit acquired 3 used lifeboats rigged with sails. Looking for something sportier, they talked barrelmakers from Damrow Brothers into building half-dozen Snipe class sloops. Malone said they were perfectly watertight, but heavy. Races were held. World War II brought that to an end, with most boats dry-docked for the duration. On one occasion the "Spindrift" overturned, and several young men clung to the hull on the deserted lake for 26 hours before being found. It is still a record. In 1947, a further pall was cast on the sport by the tragic drowning of 4 young men off Roosevelt Park in an over-ballasted boat with faulty lifejackets. Ed Malone arranged for the National ILYA Class A races to be held off Lakeside Park in 1959, but organized sailing in Fond du Lac was non-existent until the Fond du Lac Sailing Club was organized in 1962.
Resumption of the America’s Cup races with sleek 12 Meter sloops created a burst of interest in yacht racing. Dick Stokely placed a newspaper notice for anyone interested in forming a sailing club to meet at Roosevelt Junior High. Thirty people showed up November 9, 1962. Some had boats, some were prospects, and others were Yacht Club leaders giving moral support. From March 1963 on, the Sailing Club has met monthly at the Fond du Lac Yacht Club. Veteran scow racer and official Malone gave valuable guidance on conducting races. By summer of 1963, four E scows and sixteen sloops of every sort were ready to compete in 14 Sunday and holiday races.
After only a year, the Sailing Club made a major impact on Lake Winnebago when the skippers of all 3 local cruising boats (Joe Kuncl, Bert Myers, and Tom McGauley) decided to sponsor an invitational Fondy Forty Miler yacht race, with Ed Malone in charge of measurement and handicapping. While cruising boats were still very scarce on the lake, the 1964 race made history by reviving racing on Winnebago for big boats after a long hiatus. In March, 1969, delegates from all yacht clubs on the lake met at the Fond du Lac Yacht Club to form the Lake Winnebago Sailing Association. Each club undertook sponsoring one race each year, hosting a social with it. The LWSA took care of measurement, uniform rules, and season trophies. While the organization became inactive after 23 years, the pattern of competition and good times it set still remains.
When colorful Duwayne Jensen closed his boatyard on the river about 1965, the Yacht Club acquired his Travelift. That made winter storage convenient and economical for keel boats, increasing their popularity. By 1973 there were 18 cruising boats in the Sailing Club. The city had built Docks A through E in 1969 to serve 100 boats, using an excellent design drafted by boaters. At a rental of $3 per foot, the $105,000 cost would be recovered in 12 years.
Efforts to establish a one-design day sailer fleet at Fond du Lac have always had mixed success. In 1972 eight members acquired Lightnings and founded Winnebago Lightning Fleet 442. It enjoyed six seasons of sporty racing before the fleet dispersed. An annual regatta on the Midwest Circuit brought in top-notch competitors. From Sheboygan came youths Tryg Jacobsen and Mike Elmergreen, who went on to sail in the world championships in Switzerland in 1977. As a Fond du Lac resident, Mike set out in 1984 to revive the Lightning fleet. In 1988 the Lighthouse Regatta was resumed at the suggestion of Eric Anderson as an open-class event. Elmergreen succeeded him as race chairman for 20+ years.
1992 Lighthouse Regatta
An attractive price convinced a dozen members to buy Force 5's in 1976. They raced as a fleet through 1982, and the boats are still seen from time to time.
Beginning in 1972, Jim Kuber set out to gather a fleet of 5.5 Meters at bargain prices from individuals in Menominee. Ten identical boats had been built in 1964 to train the USA team for the 1964 Olympics, bankrolled by a Gulf Oil exec who put up $300,000. After the games, the Marinette-Menominee Yacht Club bought the fleet for $45,000. They were gorgeous keel boats, sleek with a 31 foot mahoghany hull and slender 6'5" beam. The 36 foot masts carried 312 feet of sail and huge spinnakers. A weight of 4,400 lb. was mostly in the 3,000 lb. lead keel. Draft was 4'6", causing the boats to be stranded regularly. They had no engines. Eight of the 5.5's were gathered by 1973, and another later. The one-design fleet experienced exciting racing on Wednesday evenings from 1973 through 1979 before interested wavered and the boats returned to Menominee.
In recent years, scow skippers have largely settled on the I-20 class, creating spirited competition on Tuesday evenings, and leading to hosting large regattas.
Other racing divisions have included catamarans, Buccaneers, Rebels and O'Day Daysailers. To cope with a mixed fleet of other daysailers, the Sailing Club adopted in 1968 the Portsmouth handicapping system which takes wind speed into account for each production model.
Cruising boats were first handicapped with the One Of A Kind rule, measuring the hull and sails to get a rating for time allowances. With the shift to mass-produced boats, it became feasible in 1969 to use the simple PHRF ratings based on actual race results reported for a production model. Under PHRF, ratings are expressed in seconds per nautical mile.
In the winter of 1987-88, sailors built a municipal mast lifting facility at their own expense on city dock F. The base was redone when the wharf was upgraded, and a launching hoist added nearby later. Since 1959, sailors have taught the youth sailing program for the Yacht Club, open to all kids. Ten wooden 8 foot Optimist Prams were maintained each spring, with some members using their boat-building skills to replace some. Eventually the dozen aging hulls were replaced in 1991 by ten fibreglass Sinbad dinghies, and again by O'pen Bics and Lasers.
Several cruiser races have become a tradition. The Fondy Forty Miler was run in June each year from 1964 to 2007. Reviving the Fond du Lac-High Cliff TransWinnebago that was part of the LWSA circuit as a night race, the new TransWinnebago with a partying theme began in 1988. Each fall, a Frostbite race is also held with other clubs invited.
1996 Transwinnebago Race
Other activities have included fish fries, roller skating, family potluck suppers, summer holiday picnics, a Memorial Day race to Calumet Harbor, winter getaway weekends, rafting parties, moonlight sails on larger boats, and TGIF parties. Guests for evening cruises have included the Handicapped Fun Club, Big Brothers/Sisters, military veterans, IAC flyers, and iceboaters.
For skippers of larger boats, organized cruises to other lake ports are enjoyable. In 1982 a dozen of them took a 10 day Last Trip Though The Locks, repeated five more years before the Fox River Locks closed. The trips to enjoy pristine waters and islands of Green Bay only copied what other members had done years before. Through trailering and chartering, some skippers continue to expand their horizon.
The Fond du Lac Sailing Club observed its 50th Anniversary in 2012. On Lake Winnebago, what began as necessary transportation became a pleasurable sport over 150 years. May it forever be so.
History of the Neenah-Nodaway Yacht Club, James C. Kimberly, Privately Published, 1957
Lake Winnebago Sailing Association [History], Jack Martin, LWSA, 1972
Steamboats of the Fox River, Don Mitchell, Castle-Pierce Press, 1986
Hollands City Directory of Fond du Lac 1887-1891
Lakeside Park, League of Women Voteers, 1976
History of Fond du Lac County, 1880
ILYA 100th Anniversary Booklet. 1997
On The Water magazine, Aug 2007, quoting Sam Neff writing Jan 4, 1899
History of Fond du Lac Yacht Club, Tom Grebe, 1995