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By Alice E. Gerard
At the age of 11, Jack Dally began sailing at the Niagara Sailing Club on East River Road. It wasn’t long before sailing was a big part of his life. He developed his skills by participating in the various sailing programs that the club offered for youth.
Years later, his information technology career took him west, away from Grand Island. He continued sailing, however.
“I ended up getting a boat that I could sail out into the big water, and I sailed all the way down to Mexico and into the Caribbean. It was in the mid-1990s. Basically, I had the abilities and the skill based on what I’d learned in the sailing club through those early years of learning how to sail on the river. If you can sail on the river, you can sail anywhere. It has everything. It has currents. It has changing winds. It has boat traffic. You learn all the skills you need,” Dally said.
After 30 years out west, Dally returned to Grand Island in 2018 to help his aging parents. He immediately rejoined the Niagara Sailing Club as a member of the board of directors. He became a fleet captain and is now commodore of the club.
In March 2021, the clubhouse burned to the ground.
“Apparently, it started as an electrical fire from all of the fire investigations could interpret from the remains of the fire. The suspicion was rodents. It was the perfect combination of the age of the structure and all of the contents and the way the building was just one large open space. It didn’t take much time at all for it to race through the entire building. It burned to the ground in half an hour,” Dally said.
He recalled the day the clubhouse burned down as being “profoundly sad. There were people who showed up, and they were crying. Anybody who had been an active member of the sailing club almost always has deeply fond memories of their involvement, the camaraderie that they had there.”
Sue Dobmeier, past commodore of the Niagara Sailing Club, said, “Everybody was there. And it was like disbelief. Everybody was just hugging each other and remembering.”
She said members of the club had formed a strong bond through their activities: “It’s a working man’s club, and everything was done by the members. There were work parties. You get together for cleaning night or planting night, a painting night or putting the awning back up. Everything was scheduled and done by work parties. They put the docks in, then they pulled them out, closed up the pool, opening it. Always together. It was a good group of people that would always get together and be a part of it.”
With club memorabilia destroyed by the devastating fire, members clung to their memories of earlier days, when the 85-year-old sailing club hosted national regattas, large local regattas, and held lightning events that attracted boaters from all over Western New York. One club possession that was saved was the commodore’s punch bowl, that was not in the building at the time of the fire.
Members will have a chance to create new memories, as the clubhouse is being rebuilt.
Construction of the new clubhouse “started shortly after the beginning of this year. We were able to start working on the foundation pieces of it. And now, we’ve got four walls up on the first floor. So, the next thing is the roof, and it will really start looking like the club it will ultimately be,” Dally said.
Dobmeier said the clubhouse was designed to fit into the neighborhood near the corner of East River and Ransom roads.
“The greatest thing about the sailing club is that it’s in a neighborhood. You have to like your neighbors,” she said. “We keep that in mind. We turn down our music before it gets too late, because it is in a neighborhood. We try not to be too crazy when we’re there. We know that we’re part of a neighborhood. One of our biggest challenges is that we don’t want to stand out like we don’t fit in the neighborhood anymore. They get an aesthetically nice club, but not be too much for what the neighborhood is.”
After the fire, other clubs offered help and support to members of the Niagara Sailing Club.
“There are seven clubs in the area that we always get together with. It’s called interclub,” Dobmeier explained. “There’s a commodore and a vice commodore that go to each of the balls at each one of the clubs every year. So, there’s seven different balls that you go to, and each club puts on a commodore’s ball. They all came together and really helped us out with everything. They’ve provided us with meeting spaces to have our meetings.”
A devastating fire on March 20, 2021, destroyed the clubhouse belonging to the Niagara Sailing Club. (Photo submitted by Jack Dally).
A fundraiser to benefit the Niagara Sailing Club, featuring Nerds Gone Wild, was held at the Buffalo Launch Club. Other clubs that provided support included the Sandy Beach Yacht Club, the Inner Harbor Yacht Club, the Buffalo Yacht Club, and the Rod and Gun Club.
Dally said the club has gotten a great deal of support in the rebuilding process from the Town of Grand Island.
“(Supervisor) John Whitney has helped to make sure that we are connected to all of the right people on Grand Island to make sure that we have everything that we need to move forward on our rebuilding,” he said. “The Building Department has worked really closely with us. We are very thankful for all of their support and input.”
In addition, Dally said, the town has offered the club use of municipal buildings for meetings.
Dobmeier, who is retired after a 40-year career as a television news producer, said she was grateful for the coverage of the club’s story of loss and reconstruction.
“When I was working at Channel 7 (as executive producer of ‘AM Buffalo’), Channel 7 came out and covered it. Channel 2 came out and covered it,” she pointed out.
As the new clubhouse continues to be built, excitement grows for a resumption of regular club activities.
“We have a lot of members volunteering to be part of the building committee, the design committee, the continuity committee,” Dobmeier said. “Jack’s been great as the commodore of the club, designating different people whose skillsets can help in different ways. We are using a Grand Island company as our builder, J.F. Dickinson Construction. We miss it. We want the whole summer of being out there.” Gary Pools also provided help in repairing the swimming pool, which had survived the fire.
Dally added, “Our membership and the community is anxious to have some place to enjoy, now that COVID has hopefully gotten over our shoulder, and we are able to start doing things a little more normally. We’re really looking forward to having as full a season as possible.”
“The club was founded in 1934,” Dally said. “The first clubhouse was just a warming shack, someplace to gather just to dry out or to change clothes after sailing. They built onto that. Then, in the ’60s, I believe, they did a major rebuilding project, where they actually moved the physical location of the original piece and put in a bigger foundation to move it to where it currently resides. On the grounds, there had been many renovations: increasing docks, putting in a pool. Pieces of the physical structure had been in existence since the 1950s that were part of the original construction. The addition was completed in either the late 1960s or early 1970s.”
The club was originally focused on sailing but, over the years, it has expanded to include power boating. Dobmeier is one of those boaters.
“My dad and mom were boaters forever. My dad was a Buffalo Launch Club past commodore. So, I was just constantly boating through my entire life,” she said.
In 1996, Dobmeier became a member of the Niagara Sailing Club and, in 2001, she was commodore of a club. She pointed out that there were a number of female commodores before her. The Niagara Sailing Club’s first female commodore, Bernice Groskopf Dickey, served in 1941, and she was the only female commodore of a yacht club in the U.S. at the time.
Dally and Dobmeier said the club is looking forward to future events, including races with other clubs and programs to teach youth to sail, as well as open houses and opportunities for adults to experience sailing. Dally said he wants the club to continue to be “a place for people to come and learn about safe boating, learn about sailing, having an opportunity to experience being on the river on sailboats.”
He explained the youth programs are geared toward young people between the ages of 9 and 17.
“Some of (the youth) have come back multiple times. It’s amazing that this is the highlight of their summer, in many cases. They come and get the chance to get out in all sorts of boats and get a chance to grow in their confidence level, in being able to steer and sail a boat,” Dally said.
Dobmeier added, “We also teach them ropes and knots, how to fold a sail, how to put a sail back in. How to flip a boat back over when you tip over.”
“We are also hoping to expand our adult sailing education. We have a number of boats well suited for kids of all sizes and ages, and we’ve been working collaboratively with LaSalle and Sandy Beach yacht clubs to put on a series throughout the summer that allows adults to come and experience going out in a boat, just doing a fun, relaxing sail. We hope to continue with that and expand a more formal sailing education and boating education program in the clubhouse. Certainly our hope is, as we have a new facility and we are going to, hopefully, have more interested new members joining, we’ll put on some additional educational programs and seminars on everything from boating safety to CPR and the power squadron boater safety,” Dally said.
He added, “We’re going to participate in all of the regattas at the other local clubs. There are three clubs on the river that we often sail with, which is Sandy Beach and LaSalle, and the Niagara Sailing Club. In fact, there’s a trophy that we fight over every year. It’s actually an old oaken bucket. This oaken bucket is specifically raced for every year by three sailing clubs. It’s a matter of pride to be able to win the oaken bucket and bring it to your club for the year and then host the next year’s race. This year, the race is going to be hosted by the Sandy Beach Yacht Club, because they won the race last year. They have the bucket.”
In addition, Dally said, the club is always open to new members who want to “participate and are willing to roll up their sleeves a bit and help out.”
Both Dally and Dobmeier expressed gratitude for the support that was offered to the club by the community. Dally said he is “so incredibly thankful for all of the people who’ve helped and reached out to us and the hope that we will continue to get people reaching out and helping us. We’ve got a long way to go to get back to the club that we used to have, and we certainly want new members to enjoy it.”
Dobmeier said, “I want to say thank you to everyone for their generosity, their patience and that we will be back and be another jewel on Grand Island.”
Jack Dally stands in front of the new clubhouse on East River Road, a work in progress (Photo by Alice Gerard).
A view of the new Niagara Sailing Clubhouse's river view (Photo by Alice Gerard).