For the San Diego Yacht Club, there’s been no year like 1934. Founded in 1886, the club expanded its racing schedule in ’34, admitted its first woman “flag” member, Viola Sommermeyer, and watched the dredging of a 200-foot, 20-foot deep channel off La Playa. The spoil from the dredging created what would become Shelter Island. That year the club created a new trophy, the Royal Order of Mudhens, awarded to anyone who fell overboard while fully clothed. The SDYC also moved its clubhouse from Coronado’s Glorietta Bay to La Playa in 1934. They towed the 60-by-70-foot, two-story structure, intact, across San Diego Bay.
Club members voted for the change because most lived on the “mainland” — Mission Hills and Point Loma (especially the Roseville/La Playa are, which runs west from the old Marine Corps recruiting depot to just east of Ballast Point) — and most moored their boats around the Roseville Pier. Not wanting to ferry or motorboat to the Coronado clubhouse, they chose the foot of Talbot Street because it was available and inexpensive. Plus, port director Joe Brennan promised to dredge the site, from the beach to the tip of Roseville Pier, and fill in what would become the club’s grounds.
La Playa had a long nautical history. Named during the Mexican period (roughly 1821-1848), it served as the anchorage for hide and tallow ships from Boston. Richard Henry Dana Jr. describes La Playa harbor, 100 years earlier, in Two Years Before the Mast: “A chain of high hills, beginning at the point (Point Loma) protected the harbor on the north and west … On the other sides, the land was low and green, but without trees … The entrance is so narrow as to admit but one vessel at a time, the current swift, and the channel runs so near to a low stony point (Ballast Point) that the ship’s sides appeared to almost touch it.”
The harbor, in 1835, had “a smooth sand beach” and “four large houses, built of rough boards … with piles of hides standing round them and men in red shirts and large straw hats … These were the hidehouses.”
Later La Playa — “the beach” in Spanish — became a fishing port, offering protection from the elements. Starkist had a tuna cannery there.
Discussion of the move began in 1932. Discussion of how to make the move — transporting the entire structure across San Diego Bay — began in 1933. Bert Israel (whose grandfather, Robert Decatur Israel, was the legendary Point Loma Lighthouse keeper from 1871 to 1891) consulted with architects and civil engineers. They assured him the move was feasible. The clubhouse stood on pilings. This made it possible to roll it onto barges.
Clem Stose, SDYC commodore in 1932 (and winner of the difficult 1928 Honolulu Race), fought the idea “like nobody’s business.” Stose owned San Diego Marine Construction Company. He built boats and understood the haphazard physics involved in towing the building “with those barges, and sawing the end off and strapping them on to hold them together .. I wasn’t about to expect it to go even half that way.”
No one remembers who made the decision — or even if they got any estimates — but the ruling notion claimed it would be cheaper to tow the building than construct a new one. The country was in a depression, and the bay offered “the smoothest highway.”
To help fund the scheme, members sold bricks from the original fireplace for a dollar each; women gave cake parties, recalls Bert Israel, “all sorts of stuff like that in order to raise money.” Prior to the move itself, they stripped “all the stuff that they could out of the clubhouse.” It was just a shell, a vast, ungainly shell, but could they transport it?
Moving day was January 14, 1934. High tide would occur, at the Roseville/La Playa site, around 9:00 a.m. This was crucial, because the club had sunk pilings in the bay, beyond the edge of the pier. If everything went well, barges would tow the clubhouse onto the pilings, and, as the tide went out, they’d maneuver the structure into position.
The move began at dawn. Bert Daniels – SDYC commodore in 1938 and founder of the civil engineering firm of Daniels, Brown and Hall – was in charge, although, says Charles La Dow, “there was a good crowd of sidewalk superintendents, for it was a ticklish operation in which all had a stake.”
The crew “rollered” the clubhouse – rolling it across huge cylinders – onto two 60- by 40- foot barges, on loan from Jerry Sullivan’s lumber company. Club members’ motorboats pulled the barges across the bay. Joe Brennan had a tugboat standing by, just in case.
Sun broke through the morning haze as the boats commenced. The clubhouse – two two-story structures joined by a one-story link in the center – creaked, and balked, and groaned at the massive, unthinkable enterprise. The trip, nudging across the bay, took three hours, during which every window shattered. “Unbelievably,” says historian Iris Engstrand, “the scheme worked!”
When high tide ebbed, the clubhouse dripped dry on 25 pilings. It required numerous internal repairs, but all agreed that the move was a success.
At first, the clubhouse was “situated over water and required trekking over mud for access” (Engstrand). But members built a ramp to reach it. In time, the length of Roseville Pier became filled in with s”spoil” from dredging, and the clubhouse stood on terra firma.
“The new site lasted until 1962,” says Engstrand. “Then it was moved to the back of the parking area and eventually destroyed. Today it would have been put up as a historic building and never taken down.
The San Diego Yacht Club: A History, 1866-2000, by Iris Engstrand and Cynthia Davalos, San Diego Yacht Club Sailing Foundation, 2000.
The Ships, the House, and the Men A History of the San Diego Yacht Club, by Charles LaDow, Fraise Industries, 1977