A Brief History of the South Bay Yacht Club

The South Bay Yachting Association (SBYA), parent organization to the South Bay Yacht Club (SBYC), had its modest beginning in 1888, according to Robert A. Trevey Jr., son of one of the founding members, Robert T. Trevey Sr.. Mr. Trevey Sr., owned a general store in Alviso, known as the Robert T. Trevey Company. It was said that if it couldn't be found in San Jose, the Trevey Company would stock it. Further information about this first group of enthusiastic yachtsmen who gathered and formed the South Bay Yachting Association comes to us from a personal interview by the club historian, Clarence Boncher, with 94 year old Kenneth McKee Coykendall. He is the grandson of Joseph Olcott McKee who was instrumental in forming the original group and who later served as the first Commodore of the SBYC. McKee Road in San Jose is also named for J.O. McKee.

Since the SBYA did not have a club house, they met initially in the back room of Samuel E. "Shirt-tail" Smith's Haderdashery in San Jose at 10 South First Street. The Bank of America building now stands on that location. Some additional meetings and social functions were held at Market and Santa Clara Streets in the Chamber of Commerce building. The group became quite active in sailing the south bay, basing their operations in the Port of Alviso.

During this time, pressure mounted in the south bay to realign the Guadalupe River and connect it to the Alviso Slough, which also has been known as Steamboat Slough. This was accomplished to facilitate shipping as the Port of Alviso was a major shipping point for goods going to San Francisco and the Sacramento Delta Regions. This feat was accomplished with horses, Madison scrapers and men. Leaving the Guadalupe River and Alviso Sloughs connected as they are today.

On March 4, 1896, the SBYA was reformed as the SBYC. The first founding board consisted of Commodore, Joseph Olcott McKee; Vice Commodore, Dr. Hume Spencer; Treasurer, Samuel E. Smith; Secretary, J.E. Auzerais; Measurer, Frank Davis; Directors, Oliver Ortley and H.G. Coykendall.

The club began with 35 members and counted a number of yachts and launches in its fleet. These included the schooner Dawn, owned by Oliver and William Ortley, the sloop Papoose, S.E. Smith, the sloop Wanderer, Commodore Joseph O. McKee, the sloop Rana, H.A. and H.J. Spencer, the launch Frank D., Frank Davis, and other vessels such as: Cloud, A. Mead; Grace, Jesse Adel; Bessie, Capt. Moon; Amee, Capt. Peckingham; A&C, H.G. Coykendall; Garden City, Capt. Dow; Abbie Neil, F. Lundy and F. Holmes; and Lolomi, Robert Trevey.

Soon after its inception, SBYC's secretary, J.E. Auzerais, made an application to Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Association for membership. PICYA, doubting that SBYC was a legitimate yacht club, delayed its application. SBYC was eventually acknowledged as the sixth member club in PICYA during March of 1897 (See SF Chronicle, March 27, 1897).

During Yachting season 1897, our sister club, Corinthian Yacht club, sailed into SBYC. They presented us with a large CYC pennant which to this day is still displayed in the SBYC building. During SBYC's 50th anniversary, Robert A. Trevey, Sr., related some of the history of SBYC. He noted at that time, that San Francisco Yacht Club was formed in 1869. Cornthian Yacht Club, in 1886, and Encinal Yacht Club in 1890. The establishment of the SBYA in 1888 leaves the title to the third oldest club in the bay area in doubt. This friendly discussion between Encinal Yacht Club and SBYC as to who is the older club will probably continue into the next century.

In the years following the founding of SBYC, the enthusiastic group of sailors of the club conducted races, regattas, and just fun sailing to other clubs. Weekends and overnight cruises to Drawbridge, Newark, Hospital Cove in Angel Island, Sausalito, Drake's Bay, Half Moon Bay, and other cruises around the Bay Area were in evidence. This did not stop the intrepid sailors of SBYC from venturing to such places as San Diego, Baja California, Hawaii, Tahiti, and other south sea locations.

The San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1903, "South Bay Yacht Club to Have New Quarters. San Jose, CA, April 12, 1903, South Bay Yacht Club will begin erection of its new club house at Alviso this week. Plans were drawn and a contract has been let." With enthusiastic effort by the members and with much of the material donated by members and business people, the new club house was dedicated on June 24, 1903. A clam bake and barbecue was held at the event which also marked the opening of yachting season. About 150 prominent citizens of the San Jose area attended and then Commodore Spencer gave an address. The San Francisco Call Bulletin said, "The house of the club is a commodious structure." The San Francisco Chronicle said, "The clubhouse, while simple in its appointments, will be the equal of any around the bay." Many still feel the case.

The San Francisco Chronicle, on August 24, 1903, reported the regatta at SBYC for the Sonniken Cup was won by the schooner Comrado, commanded by the owner and builder, Capt. J.O. McKee. In October, 1903, SBYC reorganized and became a non-profit corporation. The club now boasted 100 members.

In 1905, Joseph Alcott McKee died at age 70. In 1908, tragedy came to SBYC, Commodore Curtis Barker drowned in Half Moon Bay off his yacht, Muriel. From this time to 1917, many social and sailing activities occurred, but in 1917, some of the members went to WWI and activities in the club declined. In 1917, one of our members, Chester Gaston was elected president of PICYA. To date, no picture of Chester Gaston has been located as he died an untimely death in an auto accident near Bakersfield, CA. By 1922 there were 24 yachts in the SBYC fleet.

Records relating to the history of the SBYC prior to 1920 were destroyed that year in a fire (not in the clubhouse). This has necessitated that information and documentation related in this history be retrieved from many other sources.

The SBYC continued in existence during the great depression and up to WWII. During the war, many members answered a call to help in assisting the war effort. SBYC members, including the late R.B. Engfer, Art Mirrasou, Judge Marshall Hall, and others departed and present, assisted the U.S. Coast Guard as its civilian arm. From these civilian patriots came the organization we know as the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. With WWII ending, boating activities again increased and SBYC became a large part of the boating scene in the bay area.

In 1946, SBYC celebrated its 50th anniversary with a great celebration led by the Commodore, Richard B. Engfer, Sr. This celebration was attended by 65 members and their guests.

In the days when the SBYC was formed, it was very much a men's club. This is not to say that women did not have a say in its operations. This was evident with the formation by the women of a SBYC Auxiliary in 1938. Margaret Trevey, wife of Robert A. Trevey who was then Commodore, formed the first such organization that we know of in the bay area. The SBYC Auxiliary had 12 members that year. The Auxiliary continued as a great asset to SBYC until February of 1986, when the bylaws were amended to allow for family memberships and also to provide memberships individually to women.

In 1969, in cooperation with the Santa Clara Valley Water District, SBYC abandoned the mooring basin which it had used for many, many years across the slough, in favor of docks and slips next to the club house. The members worked with the District, negotiated a lease with the State of California, State Lands Commission, built new docks and moved to the new location. This was a massive undertaking and as was the case with the clubhouse, done entirely by the labors of the members.

In 1972 our venerable SBYC building was listed in the National Registry of Historical Buildings. A fact which would benefit SBYC greatly in the future. The area around the club house contains many historical buildings which now are listed in the Alviso Historical District.

In 1975, acting secretary, Clarence Boncher began collecting and preserving SBYC archival data. He has interviewed many who have related to him the early days of the club, thus clarifying its early beginnings. In 1981, the previous historian, Robert Trevey, passed away and Boncher became the club historian and keeper of the archives.

In the years since the club was built in 1903, the land under the building has under gone quite a change. A heavy increase in agricultural water needs led to more wells to obtain water for the crops. In the very early days, the Alviso area had numerous artesian wells and water flowed freely, but with these new wells through out the valley pumping down the water table, the ground started to subside. As a result, between 1930 and 1960, the average elevation of the Santa Clara valley floor dropped 15 feet. The SBYC club house was slowly disappearing behind ever-growing levees. These levees proved time and again to be inadequate in protecting the club and the community of Alviso from flooding. SBYC members as a result had numerous opportunities to "dig out" the club after one of these floods. The club house always bounced back after a little loving care. The motto was that you just can't keep a great club down.

In 1983, the worst of these floods hit Alviso and the club house. The water rose to almost six feet deep in the club, the flooring fell apart and the old piano which had been the center of many a party, just could not stand to be under water and floated up on its side and died. Commodore Robert Machado and his crew had their hands full this time in getting the club house back into any sort of usefulness.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) was under extreme public pressure to correct the problem and to provide flood protection, especially to the community of Alviso. Past Commodore Russ Robinson was appointed as a representative of the club to work with all the agencies involved to find a solution. The SCVWD determined that a much larger and higher levee system would be required if any sort of protection could be obtained. Two options were available to the club: one would have a huge wall built in front of the club as part of the levee system, the other was to relocate the club to higher ground. The first option, while allowing the club to remain in its original location, did not provide as secure a levee and would have, in the eyes of the club membership, compromised the entire project. The relocation option required a number of actions on the part of the club, such as agreeing to relocate, swapping land with the SCVWD and negotiating various agreements with the City of San Jose.

It was decided that the club house would be moved about 100 yards north to the corner of Hope and Catherine Streets to an elevated site on the levee. A house moving company was contracted by the SCVWD to do the job. All started well but they dropped the structure and declared that they could not save it. When Past Commodore Robinson, who by this time was in charge of the move, reminded them of the historical status of the building, they found a way to continue with the moving. The club was repositioned on a new foundation, new flooring timbers were installed, and the interior was completely redone. A new coat of exterior blue paint was applied. Some started to call her the "Blue Lady." The club house now stands proudly at the same elevation at which it was built in 1903. As a reference point, the streets below the club give a good indication of the 15 feet of subsidence that has occurred over the years.

During this difficult time, Commodore Boncher held meetings at John's Oyster House in Alviso and major club functions at various locations in the San Jose area. Sailing and boating activities continued as usual. On April 11, 1985, the first meeting was held in the newly moved and renovated club house. True to tradition, the Preseason Dinner was held on April 27th and on may 5th, Opening Day was observed. Father Stout, from the local Star of the Sea church, blessed the club house and the fleet in a gala celebration of the rebirth of the club. To complete the festivities, Commodore boncher led the fleet on his Bon-Tikifor an Opening Day cruise on the south bay.

The years since the club house was relocated have seen many new members and social events. 1995 saw the first woman as Commodore, Marlene Inderbitzin. The club continues to represent the historical tradition of camaraderie among people who enjoy boating and boating related activities. The SBYC club house itself stands as a prominent landmark in Alviso with her tall flag staff and yard arm proudly displaying the South Bay Burgee. This historical burgee has seen the world, being proudly displayed by the likes of Father Hubbard, the "Glazier Priest," Jack London, the well known author and frequent visitor to the SBYC, and man, many adventurous members who have sailed and visited the seven seas.

May the South Bay Yacht Club and its members continue to be a driving force for another 100 years in the community of Alviso, the bay area and wherever boaters gather to talk about the great yacht clubs of the world.


The writer, Clarence Boncher wishes to thank the following for their assistance in compiling this historical view of the South Bay Yacht Club.

  • Lloyd Ryland, Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Club historian
  • Will Deady, Corinthian Yacht Club historian
  • Mrs. Susie Engfer, SBYC Matriarch and senior member
  • Mrs. Priscilla Strum, archival assistant
  • Russ and Norma Robinson for editorial and publication help
  • And the many members who have contributed so generously to the research and the preservation of this archival data.

Respectfully submitted:
January 3, 1996

Clarence R. Boncher
South Bay Yacht Club Past Commodore and Historian

Subpages (1): Historical Documents