Behind the Venue: McNay Family Sailing Center, home of the world’s oldest collegiate sailing club
Originally constructed in 1967 as the Yale Sailing Center, the McNay Family Sailing Center was renovated in 2002 and renamed in 2006. Since then, the state-of-the-art facility has nurtured generations of accomplished Yale sailors, including world champions and Olympic medalists.
Anasthasia Shilov, Illustrations Editor and Zully Arias, Production & Design Editor
“Behind the Venue” is a series of feature-form articles that dives into the history, character and most memorable moments of Yale’s various athletic forums — from stadiums and fields to pools and boathouses. While not all articles in the series will resemble one another, all attempt to take a deeper look into how these places came to be and how they have fared over time. This article is the 14th in the series.
Located just 15 minutes away from Yale’s campus on a cove in Branford, the McNay Family Sailing Center, home to Yale’s sailors, sits on the Long Island Sound.
The Sailing Center is one of the best facilities for college sailing in the United States. Originally, the venue was solely occupied by Yale club sailing, which was known as the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club. However, in 2002, Yale sailing transitioned to varsity status, but it retained its club aspect. The varsity team became a separate entity, and the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club became public. Today, the center is used by both Yale’s sailing teams and the public.
Since the facility was first used by members of the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club, the McNay Family Sailing Center is affectionately called by the club’s initials, YCYC — pronounced “yic-yic” — by its sailors and visitors.
A state-of-the-art complex, YCYC is both historic and modern. The expansive facility includes a full maintenance area, living quarters, a kitchen, offices, classrooms, lockers and storage space. It houses a well-maintained fleet of 420s, Flying Juniors and Lasers, as well as motorboats and safety launches. Through the center, Yale has nurtured generations of accomplished sailors, including world champions and Olympic medalists.
The location of the Center, Long Island Sound, allows for exposure to a wide variety of weather and geographic conditions, ranging from flat water and shifty winds to rolling waves in open water.
“It is a magical place,” Zachary Leonard ’89, head varsity sailing coach at Yale, said in a phone call with the News. “I’ve spent a significant portion of my life [at YCYC], but I just never get tired of looking at it.”
The early history: ‘Tradition and excellence’
Sailing is one of the oldest collegiate sports in the United States and possesses an extensive history. Collegiate sailing began on an informal, club basis in the late 19th century and today has grown to include more than 200 active colleges. Sailors compete both during the fall and the spring.
The Yale Corinthian Yacht Club is the oldest collegiate sailing organization in the world. After its establishment in 1881, the club became prominent in the sailing scene, but it was not until the mid-20th century that it would gain a sense of physical permanence.
Prior to the 1960s, the team had practiced and rented out spaces at various yacht clubs, mostly in Branford and Milford. However, several Yale sailing alumni wished to change that, most ardently Briggs Cunningham II ’31 and Henry Hill Anderson Jr. ’42.
Having enjoyed their Yale sailing experience and wishing to give back to the program, the alumni bought an old boat yard — where YCYC stands today — and decided to convert it into a sailing facility. It was completed in 1967 with the financial backing of Cunningham and Anderson.
According to Leonard, after they had finished developing the facility, Cunningham and Anderson invited Kingman Brewster Jr., then-president of Yale, to the site. Then, they handed Brewster the keys and gifted him the facility for the sailing program.
When asked what he associated YCYC with, Yale sailing associate head coach Bill Healy responded with “community,” as well as “tradition and excellence.”
Healy has been a part of the Yale sailing coaching staff since 2003 and continues to sail competitively when possible. He has won nearly every major U.S. International 420 regatta, and is a national, North American and mid-winter champion in five different sailing classes.
The facility not only reminds Healy of his childhood in Niantic, Connecticut, with his father who sailed at Yale during the 1950s, but also of “the long lineage of fantastic Yale sailors who have gone on to accomplish great things in the sport.” He recalled hearing stories about the members of the sailing team from his father’s time as well as those from subsequent generations who would dominate the sport in the following decades.
‘Benign neglect’: YCYC in the late 20th century
According to James Ewing IV ’99, who now serves as Yale Sailing Association co-president alongside Ted Ferrarone III ’98, two major trends greatly impacted his sailing experience at Yale during the late 20th century.
The first trend was unique to Yale: a slight decline in the undisputed dominance of Yale’s sailing team in the competitive collegiate scene. This was a period described by Ewing as “benign neglect,” as the administration simply made no significant changes to the sailing program.
The second trend was the increasingly competitive nature of collegiate sailing, which was especially catalyzed by the prominence of coed sailing beginning in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Yale’s sailing team ranked consistently among the top 10 in the nation. It remained a powerhouse, and produced some of the most decorated sailors in Yale’s history. However, it no longer single-handedly dominated collegiate sailing. Collegiate teams from other regions, as well as some from the Ivy League, had already transitioned from club to varsity. This gave them access to more resources and advantages, including coaching, physical therapy, recruitment programs and secure funding.
Though Leonard described the high quality of the team during the 1980s, he said that “the league was also becoming more competitive,” and that the Yale team was gradually “being left behind.”
As a club sport, Yale sailing was student-run. Student leaders were tasked with managing the logistics of the program and the physical maintenance of YCYC. The program also did not receive financial assistance from the University, and the Yale Sailing Association was responsible for all improvements of the facility. According to Ewing, these factors, along with the increasingly selective nature of Yale’s admissions, made it more likely for prospective sailing recruits to attend other colleges that offered fully funded sailing programs.
For JJ Fetter ’85, however, Yale became her top choice. A senior at Yale when Leonard began his first year, she sailed all four years in the women’s and coed teams. She was also team captain and an All-American.
Recognized today as one of the sport’s most accomplished figures, Fetter continued competing after college. She is a two-time Olympic medalist, and has won several national, European and world championships, among other accolades. Fetter has also been inducted in the National Sailing Hall of Fame.
As a senior in high school, Fetter was offered spots in the sailing programs of other prestigious institutions; however, it was the warm and inclusive nature of Yale’s team which influenced her final choice. Though coed sailing had become more prominent, some barriers remained for female athletes. Other institutions, for instance, were primarily interested in having Fetter be active in their women’s sailing team. Only at Yale was she encouraged to try out for both the women’s and coed teams, something which she wanted to do.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” she said about her time at Yale sailing and its subsequent impact. “There is such a strong sense of community within the Yale sailing team. The alumni network is also so supportive, and they are a group you can always reach out to.”
Ewing, Leonard and Fetter all emphasized the overwhelmingly positive experience they had with Yale sailing. However, they acknowledged that changes could be made to the program, especially to YCYC, which had not undergone any major improvements in more than three decades.
The early 2000s: A period of momentous change
With the arrival of the new millennium, the former neglect of the facility became even more apparent, especially as the Yale sailing team continued to increase in number.
In fact, the situation became so serious that on Oct. 27, 2000, the News reported that the sailing team was in need of $500,000 in the next 18 months to avoid severe structural damages to the facility.
All of that changed in 2002 when the McNay family made a $1 million donation to the Yale sailing program. To honor this contribution, the sailing center was officially renamed on June 3, 2006, to what it is today: the McNay Family Sailing Center.
The McNay family’s connection to Yale sailing runs through Stuart McNay ’05, who captained the Bulldogs during his time at Yale. McNay has represented the U.S. at the Olympics three times — in 2008, 2012 and 2016. Joseph McNay ’56, Stuart McNay’s father, is a prominent investor and significant donor to Yale.
The donation allowed for the first-ever full renovation of the facility. Exterior repairs occurred, such as the re-shingling of the entire building and the fixing of leaky walls and windows. Aesthetic changes were also made and the facility’s interior was completely redesigned. For instance, previously, the facility only had one locker room and one shower stall, which were shared by all team members. During the renovation, two spacious locker rooms were built that provided more comfort to the athletes.
Then-commodore Michael Renda ’04 told the News in 2002 that “before the renovation, the old boathouse suffered from cold showers, crowded locker rooms and a poor interior layout,” and that “the overhaul fixed these problems.” As the commodore, he managed the facility and was tasked with maintaining a welcoming environment for both competitive and non-competitive sailors.
Through the McNay family’s gift, the sailing program at Yale was also promoted to varsity status in February 2002. According to a News article, the team had been considered for varsity standing for several years prior, but the donation “accelerated the administration’s decision to grant it varsity status.”
Elizabeth Larson ’03, the first Yale varsity sailing captain, noted the significant impact of the transition on the program, and said that it “added a sense of formality.”
Larson described the facility prior to the renovation as being a “little rough around the edges,” and that it often felt like both “a college dorm and a sailing center,” seeing as some student sailors lived at YCYC to help run the place. As a club sport, the success of the team was entirely contingent on student efforts.
After the transition, the team was able to receive more professional and administrative support. The program was able to hire coaches, as well as staff members that could assist with facility operations. According to Larson, all of these actions further enhanced the team’s performance, made it “easier for student-athletes to simply be student-athletes” and eliminated the need for team members to have to take on additional roles.
The late 2000s and 2010s: A powerhouse reborn
“One of the most incredible things about the Yale Sailing team is that it is a place where some of the world’s greatest [sailing] athletes and walk-ons can all come together,” Andrew Kurzrok ’11 SOM ’18 said in an interview with the News. Some of the teammates he mentioned he had the pleasure of sailing alongside were future Olympians Thomas Barrows III ’10, Sarah Lihan ’10 and Joseph Morris ’12.
Kurzrok sailed on the varsity team at Yale for all four years, and also served as commodore, which he described as “one of the best leadership experiences [he] ever had in college.”
To this day, the YCYC and the Yale sailing team still utilize the same space and coexist effectively. The facility is public, so it is not only available to the Yale affiliates, but also to residents of New Haven and surrounding communities.
Jason Rabinovitch ’08 had also been a commodore at YCYC. Additionally, he served as freshman team captain and regatta chair. Though he was a walk-on, he expressed his appreciation for the warm and inclusive nature of the team, which accepts both recruited and non-recruited athletes.
“Sailing at Yale is an amazing opportunity, and I am fortunate to have been able to do it for all four years,” Rabinovitch told the News in a Zoom interview. “[YCYC is] a gorgeous facility and a great sailing venue. We were very spoiled to be able to sail in those conditions, especially compared to other schools.”
The changes that occurred in 2002 as a result of the McNay family donation revitalized the sailing program, and allowed the team to further support its existing talent. Since its transition to varsity status, Yale’s sailing team has won 17 national championships and five Fowle Trophies, which are awarded annually by the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association to the best overall team, among other accolades. It has also consistently ranked among the top five sailing programs in the nation, and has thus far produced 109 All-American sailors.
The present and the future
Although YCYC is currently considered a world-class facility, Leonard told the News that “there are improvements that we can and want to make.” He added, however, that the current facility has been functioning well, and that minor changes would only serve to further enhance its present quality.
Healy agreed with this sentiment, stating that “what we have right now is already so amazing,” but that there are small modifications that could be made, such as the expansion of meeting rooms, which he believes would be especially beneficial when hosting regattas.
Ewing emphasized the importance of regular maintenance for YCYC, especially as the facility is regularly exposed to a variety of extreme weather conditions, including ice, snow and salt water. It also often experiences flooding, which has become more intense as a result of climate change and rising sea levels. He recalled, for instance, the flooding that occurred in the facility due to hurricanes Irene and Sandy.
Overall, however, the McNay Family Sailing Center has been praised by generations of Yale sailors for both its well-renovated physical conditions and its symbolic significance. It has been described by athletes and coaches as a space of learning, growth, leadership and life-long friendships.
The McNay Family Sailing Center is located at 179 Clark Ave.