By Ron Weiss
Twenty-eighteen marks the 80th Anniversary of the Storm Trysail Club. The founding of the club began during the 1936 Bermuda Race, when a group of sailors set off on the schooner Salee. The ’36 race was bad, one of the worst in the history of the event. Many boats withdrew, but others elected to challenge themselves and tough it out.
A crew celebrates a successful day at Block Island Race Week XXVII with a product of Barbados that was largely introduced to the U.S. by members of the Storm Trysail Club in the early 1950s. ©MountGayRum.com
During that horribly rough storm, one sailor on another boat was ejected from his windward bunk, smashed face-first into the leeward bunk, spat out his freshly dislodged teeth, got his foulies on, and at 4 am, took his trick at the helm. As the storm built in intensity, Salee’s mainsail blew out, and the crew was forced to set the storm trysail – a small, triangular and heavily constructed sail generally used in only the direst of conditions.
That winter, as the crew of Salee gathered around a bottle of rum (and possibly more than one) and talked about their shared memories of the race, this hardy group was inspired to form a new club – The Storm Trysail Club – open only to those sailors who had proved capable of handling themselves offshore in the worst weather imaginable. Dues were initially set at a bottle of rum a year.
From these rough and tumble beginnings (literally) The Storm Trysail Club has grown to over 1,000 members. Each member, from the first to the latest, has been selected for their experience offshore, their willingness to share their experience and knowledge with others, to be a good shipmate and a tough competitor, as well as being someone who knows how to have fun.
While many sailors are familiar with rum, very few know that the Storm Trysail Club helped introduce Mount Gay Rum to the United States in the early 1950s. Back then, many of those who sailed in the Bermuda Race would bring bottles of booze back in their bilges as it cost only 25¢ to 50¢ a bottle. Frequent and informal tastings proved that a Barbados rum nobody ever heard of (except racing crews) won the prize for “Best-Tasting,” so from about ‘52 on all the bilges were loaded with Mount Gay.
Oftentimes the stores of rum were raided during the delivery home, but suffice it to say that any remaining bottles that made it to shore were rapidly depleted, thus leaving a thirst for more. A number of Storm Trysail members (who will remain nameless to protect the tattered remnants of their reputations!) conspired to find an importer and distributor to bring Mount Gay to our shores. As it turned out, one of the Club’s members at the time had a father who was a director of McKesson Liquor – a big importer, and the then-owners of the 21 Club in New York City agreed to be the distributor. All that was needed at that point was to develop the market demand.
To successfully accomplish this, the Commodore of the Storm Trysail Club – Paul Hoffmann – wrote the following letter on Storm Trysail Club stationery to every major yacht club from Maine to Florida:
Dear Commodore _________,
We expect to be cruising in your area this summer and would appreciate a rundown on the facilities – ashore and afloat – at your club. We expect anywhere from ten to thirty sailboats, with about 5 or 6 in the crew, average, all thirsty…
PAUL HOFFMANN, Commodore
P.S. Please have a goodly supply of MT GAY RUM on hand as that is our favorite brand.
The distributor’s salesman was then provided with a kit that included a presentation of Mount Gay, personalized for each commodore. The product itself did the rest of the marketing job at that point and that was enough to capture a small, but loyal audience that has grown by leaps and bounds ever since.
The Storm Trysail Club is involved in organizing or co-organizing various prestigious offshore races including the annual Block Island Race, the biennial Block Island Race Week, the Ft. Lauderdale to Key West Race, the Pineapple Cup Montego Bay Race, The Down-the-Bay Race in the Chesapeake, the Mills Trophy Race in Lake Erie, and the Wirth Munroe Race from Miami to Palm Beach, FL. They are also one of the four organizing clubs of the Transatlantic Race 2019. For more information, visit stormtrysail.org.
So the next time you are drinking Mount Gay – or just wearing one of those ubiquitous red caps – you can thank the Storm Trysail Club. Better yet, pour yourself a glass tonight and toast our 80th Anniversary.
Ron Weiss is Chairman of the Storm Trysail Club’s Communications and Sponsorship Committee.