Behind the gates of Detroit's exclusive boat clubs

Jun 27, 2018 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge Detroit Yacht Club. - Violet Ikonomova
Violet Ikonomova
Detroit Yacht Club.

A year ago, a friend and I were denied service at a local yacht club that shall remain nameless for merely mispronouncing the name of the member we'd accompanied (he was outside on his boat). It was my first brush with the exclusivity of a club where boats are kept, and it left me wondering what lived behind the gates of these places where I was not welcome. Turns out, metro Detroit's yacht and boat clubs keep themselves sealed from the public (sometimes with barbed-wire fencing) because everyone would hang out at them if they could. On a visit to five well-known area clubs, we found beautiful views, swimming pools, and frozen blended drinks. But each club was also a cultural microcosm, representative of the people who call themselves members. Join us for a written tour from the blue-collar Kean's Marina, all the way up the coast to the hoity-toity Grosse Pointe Yacht Club.

Detroit Yacht Club

The historic yacht club on Belle Isle is one of Detroit's crown jewels. Founded in 1868, it's one of the oldest clubs in the country, and much of that history has been preserved. The Mediterranean-style clubhouse is steeped in nautical themes, with gold-painted rope and anchor embellishments along the ceiling, the face of poseidon carved into the concrete above the main entrance, and sailboat figurines and paintings throughout. At 93,000 square feet, the clubhouse is believed to be the largest yacht clubhouse in the country. It allows space for a seemingly endless array of amenities that include a banquet hall, bar, restaurant, snack shack, tiki bar, indoor and outdoor swimming pool, squash court, fitness center, beach volleyball court, and concert stage. Hundreds of members have joined the DYC just to utilize those offerings; the club's general manager says two-thirds of its members don't own a boat. And though one might assume such a grand club would feel stuffy or uncomfortable, the DYC appears devoid of pretense. "We're in the heart of Detroit," explains general manager Rick Price. "[The members are] down-to-earth people, they're normal Joe Blows. There's nobody here that looks at me any differently whether they have $10 million in the bank or $100 in the bank."

click to enlarge Kean's Marina. - Violet Ikonomova
Violet Ikonomova
Kean's Marina.

Kean's Marina

This "resort marina" has the tiki bar and playlist to make you feel as if you've been transported to Margaritaville. Beach music (think reggae hits like "Red Red Wine") plays throughout the marina, and people sip frozen cocktails garnished with mini umbrellas around a U-shaped pool.

Additional amenities include an indoor bar, jacuzzi, playground, and locker rooms. To hang out at Kean's, you must have a boat in one of its 400 wells or a storage rack. A convenience store and gas-up dock can be used by anyone boating on the river. Kean's is more affordable than a yacht club — it costs just $3,500 to put a 30-foot boat in the water and store it in the winter — and as a result, it's more laid-back and diverse. Co-owner Michael Litt says more than half of Kean's membership is black, and there's been a recent uptick in millennials who store their boats there.

click to enlarge Bayview Yacht Club. - Violet Ikonomova
Violet Ikonomova
Bayview Yacht Club.

Bayview Yacht Club

Bayview Yacht Club offers a home away from home for sailing aficionados in Detroit. It's not uncommon for members to set sail from the club several times each week. Commodore Ryan Farrell says he was up to four days a week until marriage force him to slow down his habit. On most weeknights, dozens of boat crews compete in races on the Detroit River as a sizeable crowd watches from a patio along the water's edge. Major races include a days-long regatta up Lake Huron all the way to Mackinac. Sailing and racing is really the focus here (the club counts an Olympian sailor among its members), so no pools or tennis courts, but there is a gorgeous bar-restaurant and lounge with plush leather seats. Much of the membership is from Grosse Pointe and St. Clair Shores, though the club is trying to diversify and expose more people to sailing. One of those efforts was underway the night I stopped by. Having not recognized me as a member, a regular asked if I was there as a "hitchhiker" — or, a person with no affiliation to the club who can join a boat crew once a week as part of a new program. "It's really not like the elitist sport most people make it out to be, I mean we're just Joe Schmoes around here," member Mike Dodge said as we stood at the water's edge. An air horn sounded, and a fleet of larger yachts came into view. He pointed out a 70-footer estimated to cost $300,000. "That boat typically has a lot more shrimp cocktail and lobster tail on it than some of the other boats," said member Kevin Rossell.

Edison Boat Club

"Egalitarian" is the word member Vince Pardi uses to describe this boat club for current and retired DTE Energy employees and their family members. "I love this club because you can have VP's and presidents and linemen and secretaries and nobody knows or cares," says Pardi. Situated on the grounds of a DTE natural gas plant, the club is more modest and homey than the others we visited. It has only 150 wells, and its primary features include a bar-restaurant, game room, and hangout area. On an overcast Friday evening, people of all backgrounds filled the windowed restaurant to take in the grey-blue view of the Detroit River. The atmosphere was cozy and friendly — no one inquired as to whether I was a member, and a guy who seemed to work at the facility popped up behind the bar and casually poured himself a shot of Jameson before disappearing again. The only unwelcoming aspect of Edison appears to be the barbed-wire fence that divides it from the McMansion community next door.

click to enlarge Grosse Pointe Yacht Club. - Violet Ikonomova
Violet Ikonomova
Grosse Pointe Yacht Club.

Grosse Pointe Yacht Club

This massive yacht club on Lake St. Clair is far and away the most grandiose of any club in metro Detroit. The Italian Renaissance-style clubhouse is distinguished by arched windows and a nearly 200-foot bell tower. Inside, an elaborate rotunda connects two dining rooms and a long foyer. There, a large bronze fountain statue called "Rhythm of the Waves" produces a light pattering sound that greets guests when they arrive. The 75,000-square-foot site features a bowling alley, Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool, multiple tennis courts, and a sailing center. But it's the details that set Grosse Pointe Yacht Club apart. A harbor staff will do "virtually anything for these boating members," a membership marketing manager says, from delivering food to washing boats. A gourmet outdoor pizza oven can cook a pie in 90 seconds. The bathroom in the lobby has lotion and listerine. Grosse Pointe Yacht Club was once ranked the top yacht club in the country and currently sits in the top five. Membership, of course, does not come cheap. A social membership requires an initiation fee of approximately $3,500 and additional payments of about $500 a month. Boating members pay even more. On its website, the club professes to embody "the true spirit of excellence" but adds that "owning a yacht is not a measure of any of our members' worthiness. We value members that are authentic, sincere, and goal-oriented." Ninety percent of the club's members live in the Grosse Pointes.

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