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Sailboat

Our 
Story

A history | 1960 - present

Part 1: 1960 - 2001.

The WRBC was the brainchild of three people. Phil and his brother Pete Oetking (pronounced Ett King) had the original idea and approached Mr. Pittman with it.

All three were members of the Corinthian Sailing Club on White Rock Lake, but that club was having a problem with who owned what davit, and the price of davits was out of hand because their club had no control over prices. The Oetkings had developed a fine catamaran called the Hellcat and had gone into production with growing success in sales, but they couldn’t find davits at CSC. Mr. Pittman financed the construction of WRBC not only to supply davits but to help sell Hellcats. He was not a sailor, but after our club was built, he had a powered version of the Hellcat built, and it became the club’s first rescue and committee boat.

The club was started in 1959 or 1960 with a few differences from its present state. There was a simple barrier door about where the committee boat/tack room/gas locker is now. The clubhouse was a much smaller structure than the current one, but it occupied the same position. It consisted of two small enclosures, each a two-hole privy on either side of the walkway. The current kitchen and opposing tack room occupy that same space. The walkway continued straight on through a roofed and floored-in area attached to the restrooms on out to the tie-up dock. Seating was on the banisters around the edges—no chairs and no telephone. It was all a bit rustic, and in the summer when the winds were light, the atmosphere became a bit fetid if the wind was from the north.

The small davits occupied the same space they do now, but there were no Butterfly pads, and there was no committee boat davit. The large davits stopped where the walkways now change direction; the outer ones were added about two years later as the club grew. The wheels for all davits were specially made for uniformity and painted silver. Each davit was equipped with an H-shaped cradle and wired to allow it to reach the lake bottom 14 feet down. Each boat owner purchased a davit and was responsible for its maintenance as well as the outboard walkway (from the clubhouse).

 

The owner could only sell the davit back to the Club at its original price, thus eliminating the chaos of the time at the Corinthian SC. The cradle could be modified to fit his boat, but he was not permitted any further construction changes. He was also required to keep his boat in seaworthy condition. Small davits sold for $250, large ones for $325. Annual dues were $25, which included a $5 city tax; the rest was for club maintenance. Over a period of time, it was found that some types of maintenance were beyond the ability of davit owners to perform without hiring outside labor, which was not feasible, so gradually the replacement of pilings and rewiring was performed by small groups gleaned from work parties.
 

Replacement of pilings was a Herculean task because the water was much deeper and the pilings much longer. Imagine standing atop a 10-foot stepladder and taking a full swing with a 16-pound sledgehammer at the metal cap of the piling! Fred Oberkircher, an M scow skipper and notable architect, was the prime source of such courage and skill until some sadistic club member invented a device called the “iron maiden.” It’s rather hard to describe. A 2-foot length of thick-walled iron pipe with a cap on top was placed over the end of the piling. It had a circular piece of the heavy pipe welded around the base of the vertical pipe, allowing several stalwart volunteers to lift and then drop this device on the piling many times, thus driving it into position. It could not be lifted by one person.
 

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After many years, this device was finally replaced by the inspired thinking of Dave Planka, who thought up the use of the water jet. Planka, another M scow driver, is also responsible for all the ironmongery of the steel doors and frames plus the gas locker. His early and much-lamented death was felt by all the Club members. The Oetkings had designed all the walkways to float up between the pilings, which were left the same height as the davits in the event of high water. In 1960, the spillway had a walkway along the top, and boards could be added to raise the lake level.

This worked fairly well until flooding took place, and the davit walkways floated up and ended up all over the lake. Towing them all back to the club was only half the problem. Each one should have been numbered to fit its davit because they were not quite interchangeable, and they had to be back in place before the water went back down. This happened several times in the middle of the night, raising volunteerism to a new level and finally resulting in the introduction of the work party.

When the city removed the spillway walkway, the lake level was fairly stabilized at its current level, and the Club has never had the disastrous flooding of the early years. Most club members never appreciated how quickly the lake level could change with the resultant damage to club and boats, and that lack of appreciation has existed throughout the life of the club. One early flood in particular tried the patience of those volunteers. Water was 5 feet deep over the walkways, and walking in shoulder-deep water on a floating walkway as it sank haphazardly beneath your weight became quite a sport. Walking near the clubhouse was particularly unnerving since the electrical wiring’s “insulation” left something to be desired. The tingling sensation to immersed body parts produced quite a few bawdy remarks.

As the floods became more manageable, work parties began nailing down the walkways, causing most of the damage as it now exists. As the water rose, the walkways began pulling up the pilings, causing the unevenness seen today. Boat owners have always been encouraged to leave their hailers or transom plugs open so, in the event of a flood, the boat will simply fill and remain in place on the cradle, draining as the water recedes. Some boats have bow fittings that become trapped under the wheel axle if the boat is allowed to float. It’s a weird sight to see Lidos and Flying Scots with their bows under water and the transoms 6 feet in the air. If the wheel axle on your davit has a kink in the middle, now you know why.

The worst flood of all has fortunately been preserved in photographs. As the water rose and the volunteers arrived, the boats were floated across Lawther Drive and up the hill. Fortunately, the water level stabilized before any of the masts hit the high-tension wire still there today. Much later, as the water receded, the small work force shoved the boats back across the road. The group was so small that some boats were left high and dry on the hill. It was quite a sight several days later to see the owner, and as many volunteers as he could muster, manhandling a Flying Scot back into the water.

One incident was nearly tragic. In the lifting process, one Hellcat's halyard came in contact with the aforementioned high-tension wire. Someone saw it in time to yell, and everyone except the owner dropped the boat. The owner, a Braniff airline captain, was burned through both biceps clear to the bone and was unable to fly for over a year. Several others were burned about the feet from standing on wet ground or in the drainage ditch bordering the road when the current jumped as much as 6 feet.

The club originally had lights delineating the tie-up dock, and it was not unusual to see several boats all rigged up, moored there. Families and bachelors with dates (or looking for them) would picnic in the clubhouse on nice weather evenings. Alcohol was not allowed by the city for several years. One Japanese hibachi caught the dock on fire, and, with no running water, several members went overboard, splashing enough water to put the fire out without much damage to the club. Hibachis were prohibited thereafter.

Night sailing was quite pleasant and enjoyed by quite a few sailors until one night an inebriated C scow sailor sawed all the light posts down. The cause of his fit of pique remains unknown, but night sailing went to a watery grave. As mentioned, the City of Dallas had stipulated that no intoxicating beverages were to be used on Club premises for fear that hedonistic practices might evolve, so the offender will remain nameless.

In the very early days, the club inaugurated a short-lived Commodore’s Cup, which was supposed to be awarded for a race or series of races open to all members. It was specifically designed by the Commodore to be fun for all—not to be taken seriously—and take up one afternoon. There were three Sunfish in residence, which were promptly pressed into service in rotation. The first race, a triangle, had the weather mark 10 feet on the shore, so the boat had to be dragged around it and back into the water to continue. Protests were not allowed. Female participants were allowed an onshore crew.

The second race was all in the lake, a short triangle, and if your derriere touched the deck you were disqualified. The results went overboard with the Commodore, so the Cup was held over until next year, at which time it was discovered that the Commodore's Cup had disappeared, some thought at the hands of the reprobate who had sawed down the dock lights, a natural enough conclusion since the Cup was a handsome beer mug. Next year, the new Commodore bought a very ugly new Cup and changed the racing format to exclude non-fleet boats. That ugly cup happily was retired when the Joint Lake Racing Committee came into being and still exists.

The Oetkings were all excellent sailors. They had moved here from an area where they had been very successful sailing scows and iceboats. They had built one very large ice boat named Ferdinand that set many records for speed, and the boat is still being sailed today. Interested in fast boats, they were involved in the pioneer days of the Little America’s Cup International for 20-foot catamarans with 300 square feet of sail area. They built three such boats, one of which is still sailed by Phil Oetking. These boats were quite influential in the adoption of cat-rigged boats, which, while much perfected, are still the norm in this international competition.

Their interest in these larger boats came at a price. The production of the standard Hellcat came to a halt, and, without new boats, the fleet gradually died. The first Club championship was sailed in Hellcats, and the winner was Phil’s 8- year-old son Curt. Now grown, he was the director of Sailing Operations in the Hawaiian Challenge for the America’s Cup (the big one) in Auckland, New Zealand. 

In the ’60s, the new technology of fiberglass hulls and Dacron sails brought about an outpouring of new one-design boats, many of which began showing up with new members. Several new fleets formed, making orphans of single examples of some new designs left out of the racing scene. This prompted the Club to require of new members that their boats be of the same class as those with racing fleets on the lake; however, racing has never been required of Club members. This rule helps to stabilize fleet boat value but, sadly, reduces the value of orphan boats.

Fleets come and go. The Hellcat fleet had produced most of the Club’s officers, but as it died, the C scows began their rise to eventual dominance. One happy coincidence occurred that really exploded the growth of the scow fleet. The first Black Tie Regatta was somewhat laughingly put together in June, 196[], and seven boats showed up for the two-day affair; a black tie party was held at the Fleet Captain’s home. One skipper showed up in a beautiful tuxedo complete with black-dyed Topsider sneakers. The wives and girlfriends, who usually acted as crew, outdid themselves, as the transformation from crew scruffiness to evening wear was eye-opening.

In subsequent years, they formed an auxiliary called the “Puckerstringers” (a string on the sail that the crew regulated to change the sail shape), adopted a rather skimpy costume, and met each boat after each race with refreshments for skipper and crew. Buddy Melges, a manufacturer of scows, heard of the fun to be had with this upstart fleet far from the center of scow country, and discovered that due to Wisconsin tax laws, if you took delivery of a new C scow in Texas, a new owner could defray the cost of the trip down here, tune his new boat in the Black Tie Regatta, and steal a march on his Wisconsin competitors before their lakes thawed out.

Melges and a competitor, the Johnson Boat Works, delivered many new boats at successive Black Ties, and the regatta achieved national fame so rapidly that White Rock Lake became too small and the event had to be moved first to the Fort Worth Boat Club and finally to its present home at the Rush Creek Yacht Club. The local C fleet split when the RCYC was formed, and the two separate fleets competed for many years. In the year 2000, the 37th annual Black Tie Regatta enjoyed over 100 scows ranging in size from the 16-foot MC class to the magnificent 38-foot A class.

The Hellcat, the catamaran for which the Club owes its beginning, was an excellent boat. The Oetking brothers produced about 40 of them. They were not only faster than their factory competitors, they were also tougher and cheaper. They were 18 feet long and nicely fit the big davits in width. Two hundred- fifteen square feet of jib and main made them quite powerful, yet they still remained docile for the new sailors who bought most of them. Each hull had a deep rectangular cross section, built like a model airplane fuselage. This was covered by ¼-inch marine plywood and then a covering of Formica in all of its drain board patterns and colors—buyer’s choice. Each hull had a retracting centerboard, and the rudders tipped up. The bridge deck was mahogany, before the invention of the trampoline. Hellcats were powerful and fast enough to pull a water-skier but not at the exciting pace such skiers wanted.

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The Hellcat deserves one final note. Mr. Pittman had his fitted out as a party boat with a stand-up bridge deck, seats, and a removeable umbrella canopy (which was promptly stolen) until the boat was so heavy that the 10-horsepower engine allowed by the City would barely move it. Some unknown hero petitioned the City for more power, and, under the promise that the boat would be useful as a rescue craft, was allowed a 50-horsepower engine.

Before this, the Dallas Fire Department had to be called in the event of a capsize. It took them nearly an hour to launch their barge, and all they were allowed to do was offer those in peril a ride back to the dock. Pittman’s boat was used to destruction and performed many tasks as committee boat and rescue craft. Kept in a davit next to the center walkway where the clubhouse Butterfly pad now exists, it had one quality that endeared it to several race committee personnel. Instead of baking in the summer heat, they could start the race and then go overboard under the bridge deck, with feet against one hull and head against the other, and enjoy comfort unavailable in later committee boats. Pittman became restless about the slow progress of the payoff the Club owed him, and for some still obscure reason, our Commodore, Mr. Ralph Hartman, trial lawyer of note, managed to get the Club’s debt to Mr.Pittman forgiven.
 

Our Club has had many such unsung heroes. The Club has had many memorable floods, and it has had two forgettable droughts, one only a few years ago, just before the last dredging. The other one, in the late ’60s or early ’70s, was much worse. The lake dried to the point that there was about a 1-acre puddle near the dam, and another between the CSC and the west shore. Some owners with trailers were smart enough to pull their boats out in time, while others found to their dismay that if you tried to walk on the dried, cracked surface, it was only 6-inches thick with White Rock muck just below.

The grasses that grew in the recent drought acted as reinforcement and would support your weight, but they never grew in the early drought. The lake was a wide expanse of gray relieved only by the boat clubs and the forlorn sight of your boat sitting high and dry in the davit 6- or 8-feet up with no way to remove it.

Sunday afternoon was racing time, and, since each club had its own program, it was not unusual to see a committee boat from each of the three clubs setting out their own buoys. Many times the courses overlapped, and lots of new swear words were born until new sailors learned the rules of the road. There was a fleet of Y Flyers, made of wood, built by their skippers in Doc Miller’s barn at the end of Fisher Road, and these skippers, who were to a man Dallas Cowboys fans, began racing on Saturdays. Races at that time were usually three- legged affairs, finishing on a run. The wise Ys began throwing in a fourth leg, finishing at the weather mark. This became very popular with everyone except the race committee, which now had to move the committee boat from the starting line to the weather mark.

Around 1990, sailing went into a decline all over the world, and in that time, seven fleets either died or went into hibernation on White Rock. The Butterfly fleet was all there was left at WRBC, and they did the best they could maintaining the Club, but since they had no use for the davits or the front tie-up dock, this fell into the disarray we are now recovering from. The Butterfly pads evolved from the abandoning by the Oetkings of their efforts in the Little America’s Cup Challenge. They had built two very large davits on the west end of the small davits to house their catamarans, and when their efforts subsided, they donated this space to the Club and the pads were quickly built.

The Oetkings were made honorary lifetime members for their service to the Club. Phil lives now at Lake Ray Hubbard, summering somewhere in Iowa, where he sails the last of the big catamarans. Sadly, Peter Oetking died several years ago. About the same time the west pads were built, the new clubhouse, designed by Bill Hibbard, was built, as well as the committee boat davits, gas locker, etc., and finally the east Butterfly pad.

History is rarely accurate. Two people, viewing the same incident will seldom describe it the same way. English is not a very descriptive language. To use an old cliche, try describing a sunset to a blind person. Opinions also enter into the mix. These are simply personal recollections. If you saw an incident described here and disagree as to what happened, you’ve proved my point.

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Part 2: 1990s - present.

Bill Caldwell’s excellent history of our club is almost too kind in its portrayal of the club’s predicament in the ’90s before the lake was dredged.

The lake had silted in, and grass was growing under our docks. The docks and physical structure of the club were deteriorating. The club had perhaps 25-30 members left, and most of those were Butterfly sailors. Minutes of a very somber annual meeting from 1994 record that they adjourned the meeting unable to find anyone who wanted to serve as commodore and proposed to take a 30-day hiatus to consider the future of the club.

The club had been formed as an active sailing club, but, as it became almost impossible to launch a sailboat from our docks, non-sailing members such as kayakers and rowers were permitted. It is a testament to the endurance of those who kept our club going during some pretty dark days. Several were active in lobbying the city to get the lake dredging included in the next bond election.

With the bond package approved by Dallas voters and the lake finally dredged by the mid ’90s, Mother Nature refused to cooperate, and an extended drought left the lake level down to almost the end of our current finger piers. In the words of one member who helped keep us afloat during those years, “With no members and no money coming in, the dock started to fall apart. We might do some Band-Aid repairs, but that was it.”

Once the lake level began to refill and areas around our dock dredged, the club began to attract new members. All of the upkeep and construction on the club was done by members who were now facing an extensive amount of required rebuilding. Some members advocated increasing the dues and hiring professionals to do the rebuilding. Others opposed this and said that we should continue to do all the work ourselves and keep our dues low. The do-it- your-selfers prevailed. This may have been an attitude reflecting the survival mentality that got a small group of die-hard members through the rough years prior to the lake’s dredging. But it was probably not the way to approach the daunting challenges that lay ahead if the club was going to make significant progress.

There are certainly heroes to this story, and chief among them was the late Roger Hansen, who played an outsize role in working with the city to make sure that the dredging barges came in close to our docks. The story told is that Roger “bribed” the barge crew with cases of beer to dredge as close to our piers as they could.

In 2008, Roger Hansen stepped back in as commodore and presented a plan to our members for rebuilding the club using a professional contractor. The club membership by now realized how extensive the repairs were and how slow progress was going to be if they tried to do it all themselves. This time they voted for a dues increase to allow rebuilding to begin. To get the ball rolling, Roger even fronted the costs out of his own pocket. The rotting wood 4x4s were replaced with welded steel pipe, and new walkways and decks were built. None too soon as a major storm blew the roof off the old clubhouse. One of our members, Lynn Floyd, brought in a crew of house framers to build our current clubhouse. Every year about 50 percent of the club’s budget is dedicated to rebuilding and improving the physical structure of the club.

2011 was the centennial celebration of White Rock Lake. Our commodore, Megan Doren, charted a course to continue the rebuilding begun during Roger Hansen’s tenure, and this included bathrooms with real flush toilets. The club also purchased a new Boston Whaler Guardian rescue boat to replace an older mechanically plagued boat. Our club hosted the reception event for the White Rock Centennial, and we were active participants in the Centennial regatta.

It was also the 50th anniversary of the club, which was celebrated with a bang-up party.

The following year, our club hosted the Butterfly National competition; we hosted it again in 2016. The club had long been the home for Butterfly Fleet 20, which produced several national champions. The fleet still sails every Saturday morning year-round, and they welcome new sailors.

One of the innovative programs begun at our club was Sail Away, a shared boat program. Sail Away members have access to a club-owned fleet of Flying Scotts, Harpoons, and a few other boats. This program took shape when the club became the beneficiary of some sailboats formerly owned by the Texins Sailing club, an employee recreational affiliate of Texas Instruments. The Sail Away program has grown in popularity and is a means for members to sail who do not want the responsibility of boat ownership. We also now have a “fleet” of five club-owned kayaks for member use.

Over a period of 4 years, all the davits and walkways were rebuilt. This was followed by the pads and decks, the gazebo area, new steel kayak racks, a floating kayak launch, and new storage rooms. The latest improvement is a large and beautiful covered awning over the deck. Successive commodores and boards have shown a commitment to continuous improvements for the club. But they couldn’t do it without the hard work and enthusiasm of countless volunteer members.

For the last several years, the club membership has been at capacity with new members being admitted only as we have openings.

Sensing the time was right for a youth sailing program in 2017, Sea Scout Ship 1899, an affiliate of BSA , was chartered at White Rock Boat Club. From our docks, this active group of boys and girls pursue scouting and boating throughout the year with the help of WRBC members providing guidance.

It’s no secret that our club is one of the best spots in Dallas to hold a party, and our club has an active social calendar for members, their families, and guests. Our 60th anniversary party, which took place after the COVID quarantine, was appropriately called “Bach on the Dock” with a trio of young musicians from Booker T. Washington serenading us with classical music.

We’ve survived and we’ve thrived for over 60 years through floods and droughts, booms and busts. White Rock Lake is an urban oasis in the middle of a busy metropolis. The White Rock Boat Club is one of the jewels in the crown of this urban oasis. It’s a place our members call home.

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