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Recording contribution of Native Yacht Club

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Recording history: Shirley Pearman, left, and Maxine Esdaille are detailing the role black people played in Bermuda’s sailing heritage

When Maxine Esdaille started asking about the Bermuda Native Yacht Club she got only blank looks.

The all-black club started in 1844, and was probably the first of its kind.

“I talked to people from the local sailing clubs, commodores from all three yacht clubs and sailing historians,” the retired teacher said. “No one had ever heard of it.

“I first read about it in Heritage, a book by Dr Kenneth Robinson. I was fascinated.”

Ms Esdaille is now on a mission to make the public more aware of the contribution black people made to sailing. The 68-year-old took on the cause after she heard that sports was the theme for this year’s Heritage Month.

Next week she is giving a lecture about the Bermuda Native Yacht Club and she’s also selling T-shirts with its name on the back.

Her goal is to show that sailing wasn’t something just done by rich, white people.

“Sailing was probably the first sport Bermudians were involved in,” she said. “Before we ran or cycled, we had competitive sailing. Unfortunately, Bermuda has only been focused on one segment of our community’s involvement in sailing instead of recognising our whole community has been involved.”

She enlisted the help of Dr Robinson’s daughter, Shirley Pearman.

“What impressed me about the club was that it was formed just ten years up from slavery,” said Mrs Pearman, a retired teacher and history buff. “The men who formed the club were all on a walk to be giving and participate in their country.”

Some of the members were probably involved in boat building or sailed pilot boats before emancipation, the 77-year-old said.

The Bermuda Native Yacht Club was led by Esau Simmons, a ferry boat operator from Salt Kettle, Paget, who raced a boat called Elizabeth. Peter Tucker’s Teaser was considered majestic, with a 48ft high mast that towered above all others.

Ms Esdaille said many of the boats were probably constructed from cedar, by members’ own hands.

“That would have been the most available wood on the island,” she said.

The Royal Bermuda Yacht Club was also formed in 1844 and the two clubs often challenged each other to races.

The Bermuda Native Yacht Club disbanded a few years later. According to Ms Esdaille, there “is no definitive information” when or why that happened.

In the 1850s Mr Simmons formed the Paget Union Club, an organisation that lasted for around seven years. A century later, another tradition arose: the Long Distance sailing race.

“It was like Cup Match,” said Mrs Pearman. “One year it would be from Somerset to St George’s and the next year vice versa.”

She heard her husband Roderic describe the first one in 1944.

“He was 10 years old,” said Mrs Pearman. “He remembers watching it from his parents’ veranda in Somerset. It was very windy and wet, but the race went ahead.”

George “Ossie” Philpott of the West End Sail Club started it. Nick Swan, Tudor Lambert, and Allan Butterfield were some of the early participants.

The race takes place on National Heroes Day, as the Edward Cross Long Distance Comet Race. Participants will wear Bermuda Native Yacht Club T-shirts in their team colours.

Regular T-shirts are $25; colour T-shirts are $30. To order, telephone 234-0582.

Ms Esdaille and Mrs Pearman will give a talk about the Bermuda Native Yacht Club at the Bermuda National Library tomorrow from 6pm to 8pm.

An exhibit about the club is on at the library until September.

(Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
(Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
(Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)