Island's oldest yacht club celebrates 40 years of camaraderie

In the spring of 1971, a few local sailors formed an organized sailing club. Now a fleet of more than 100 families, the group is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month.

What began as the Hilton Head Island Sailing Club evolved into the Yacht Club of Hilton Head Island by 1977. Longtime member Tom Caldwell said the name change broadened membership to include not just sailing enthusiasts but powerboat owners, as well. It also affiliated the local group with yacht clubs around the country, giving members the ability to visit other clubs.

But Caldwell, who joined the club in 1978, said the biggest change was the construction of the clubhouse in 1980. Before the clubhouse was built, members would only meet twice a month. Since they didn't have their own space, they would gather at someone's office or rent a meeting room somewhere. The clubhouse at Palmetto Bay Marina gave them a central place for meetings and functions. Over the years, Caldwell said, they have added on to the building. It now has a lounge, decks and a swimming pool for members to enjoy.

"It's just a fun place," Caldwell said. "It's been a good group of people."

Caldwell has made friends and memories through his involvement in the club. He and other members got the chance to participate in the 1996 Olympic sailing events in Savannah. After about four years of training, he worked the race committee on one of the courses.

The club participates in races throughout the year, including the Harbour Town Cup, the Calibogue Cup and weekly "Beer Can" dinghy races in the summer.

In addition to the races, cruises and fishing trips, the club offers a variety of social activities. Members get together every Friday for cocktails and dinner. They meet for brunches, lectures, golf outings, Mah-jongg and much more.

Sonny Compher, the club's 2011 commodore, said members gather for pool and tailgate parties, Kentucky Derby parties, holiday parties -- any event that provides an excuse to celebrate. Members will commemorate the club's 40th anniversary today with a dinner party at the clubhouse.

Compher said the club is the oldest yacht club on the island and is known for being laid-back.

While most members are boaters, it's not a requirement. Some have never owned a boat. Some come for the food.

"We have a great chef," Compher said. "That's probably the main reason most people belong, to be honest."

For Compher, it's the camaraderie more than anything else.

"It's family," he said. "You get to know everybody here."