Written by Delialah Elizabeth Burns
October 2021

JUST OVER SPA CREEK drawbridge, where the city of Annapolis connects to its Eastport neighborhood, resides one of the oldest African American yacht clubs on the East Coast. What was once a two- room schoolhouse for African American youth is now home to The Seafarers Yacht Club (SYC), a community-based organization promoting inclusivity through seamanship and youth maritime education.

Seafarers Yacht Club - marinalife
Courtesy of Seafarers Yacht Club

The first SYC (originally The Seafarers Boat Club) was established in Washington, DC, in 1945 by Lewis T. Green, a local shop teacher who built boats as a hobby. Founders Joseph Barr, Hugh Dowling and Albert C. Burwell incorporated the Seafarers Yacht Club of Annapolis in 1959.

Some early members from the DC location moved from the historic facility along the Anacostia River to the spacious Chesapeake Bay location that afforded expansive boating opportunities. The members first held meetings in each other’s homes and rented a tiny one-room storefront in downtown Annapolis. They purchased the abandoned schoolhouse in Eastport in 1967.

Eastport has a long history of employing African American laborers in maritime professions ranging from oystermen to ship builders. These positions eventually evolved into sea captains and business owners, but it was not an easy journey, because maritime education was not always accessible for black children.

Serving the Community by Saving Lives

SYC members were aware that African Americans have one of the highest levels of drowning accidents compared to the rest of the population. In swimming pools, black children ages 10-14 years drown at rates 7.6 times higher than white children, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The SYC board members wanted to lower those drowning rates, which motivated them to create a summer educational program targeting this public health concern.

After opening a newly renovated clubhouse with a swimming pool, SYC offered a summer youth program for kids ages eight to 12 years old, giving them basic to advanced swimming instruction. Taking water safety a step further, they also taught sailing and boating, fishing, and marine navigation. Before long, financial planning and chess instruction was integrated into STEM skills development and introduced to the curriculum.

Forging Partnerships Bolsters Programming

It’s no surprise that a boating town like Annapolis would have other organizations with maritime-related missions in sync with SYC. The Boys Scouts of America’s Sea Scouts Ship 1959, was a perfect match for SYC and Seafarers Foundation, because it promotes seamanship, citizenship, personal fitness, leadership and community service.

Through their partnership, kids learn about the boating lifestyle. Weekly meetings target essential nautical topics such as marine safety, sailing and navigation, and even galley skills. Accident prevention is a top priority.

SYC | Annapolis, MD | Marinalife
Courtesy of Seafarers Yacht Club

In 2018, they held an official launch of the Sea Scout Ship 1959, Seafarers Commitment. This was named in honor of SV Commitment, a 47-foot sailboat used by Captain Bill Pinkney, the first African American to solo circumnavigate the globe via the southern route, through the great capes. He purchased the boat in Annapolis before leaving from Boston on his journey and became a beacon of hope for black boaters by breaking social barriers in local maritime traditions. He is honored in the National Sailing Hall of Fame.

“We all benefit from scouting in our lives, and it could have an impact on society, leadership development, confidence building and skills development,” says Captain Dr. Derrick Cogburn, former scout, skipper of Ship 1959 and vice commodore of SYC.

The Sea Scouts Ship 1959 was recently awarded the 2021 National Flagship by BoatUS for their honorable achievements. The summer youth program not only prides itself on quality education, it also teaches inclusivity, self-respect and respect for others.

sea scouts - seafarers yacht club - marinalife
Sea Scouts | Photo by Alexa Zizzi

“This happens because we take them to places like the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, MD,” says Captain Benjamin McCottry, SYC commodore. “They’re learning things they can use one day down the road — and who knows where the road will lead them.”

The success of exceptional programs at Seafarers Yacht Club and the universal value of maritime training for all children is best expressed in the words of Captain Bill Pinkney in As Long As It Takes:

“… The sea has afforded me the chance to prove my potential when placed on a level playing field. That is because the sea does not care who you are, what your race or gender is, how much wealth or power you have, or even what flag or political system you embrace. The sea treats everyone the same. It can be a harsh mistress for those who dare challenge it. But those who do challenge it have the chance to reap a great reward; learning who they really are.”