United States Power Squadrons’ Glorious 100-Year History
By Marlin Bree
In the early years of the 20th century, yacht club members, mostly with large wooden sailboats and some with fine steam yachts, looked askance at the “stink pots,” a derogatory term for gasoline- or kerosene-powered boats.
To be sure, the big wooden sloop with its magnificent and towering cloud of sail brought a swell to the hearts of many sailors. With an offshore wind in its billowing sails, a racing craft silently slicing over the ocean was the source of much excitement—and pride. Boating in those days was more of a rich man’s sport with paid, professional crews. No one owned a yacht except the very wealthy.
But powerboaters were creating waves, and many proper yacht club members looked with consternation on “those far-out folk who sullied the horizon with their smoke-blackened stacks.”
The infernal internal combustion engine was coming into its own and beginning to stunningly prove itself in marine hulls. In 1902, the boating world was wowed as the 38-foot Abiel Abbot Low, powered by a kerosene engine, crossed the North Atlantic from New York to Falmouth, England, in 37 days. A second impressive voyage under power came in 1912 when the 35-foot gasoline-powered Detroit made the crossing from New York to Queenstown, Ireland, in nearly 22 days.
Both boats’ engines ran perfectly all the way.
At the Boston Yacht Club, member Frank Pembroke Huckins, age 25, who’d built a 25-foot gasoline-powered boat, complained bitterly that there were no races or events in which his craft could compete. He pointed out that his speedy powerboat was good for six knots when “running downhill on an ebb.”
The upshot was a split between sail and power boaters, resulting in the formation of a new 36-member club within a club and the election of Roger Upton to head the new Powerboat Division of the Boston Yacht Club. Although a sailor, Upton often despaired of sail’s reliance on the wind. On a number of occasions, unfavorable weather or dead calm had forced him to forego scheduled events and miss business meetings. To solve his problem, he bought a gasoline-powered launch to tow his 50-foot ketch when it was becalmed. Later, he installed a 20-horsepower engine that could run on kerosene or gasoline so he could motor the ketch to port without hauling the launch along on all cruises. The restless Upton eventually bought a 60-foot double-ended wooden steam vessel, Elizabeth.
If it was action the early power boaters were craving, the innovative and dynamic Upton—now with his own powerboat—would give it to them.
The fledgling fleet grew both in experience and in numbers. But Upton took no chances. He personally chartered a “floating machine shop bristling with mechanics that trailered every cruise. By the most diligent efforts, over half the boats made port under their own power, the rest in tow by the machine shop.”
In the unofficial United States Power Squadrons History of the Educational Department, Upton is described as a “self-taught navigator, a stickler for doing things properly, devoted to teaching, training and encouraging power boating, always willing to dispense grandly of his own funds to attain those ends, with great leadership ability, inspiration for others to follow and to help him.” That first Power Squadron aimed to “promote better acquaintances among owners of powerboats and establish a high standard of skill in the handling of boats.” Powerboats were defined as “all yachts driven in whole or in part by machinery.”
With Elizabeth Commander Upton often headed out to sea to lead his 36 members in maneuvers, cruises and special bang-and-go-back races. He also inaugurated drills modeled after naval maneuvers because he believed that well-trained private powerboat owners could be invaluable to the U.S. Navy in time of war. The power boaters were also testing themselves.
The proving of the powerboats came in July 1912 when 40 sailboats accompanied by 20 powerboats and led by Roger Upton set out for Portland, Maine, on the annual club cruise. A severe storm came out of the northwest—a “screeching nor’wester sprang up without notice.”6 Sailors were caught with their sails up, and many boats were dismasted and driven out to sea, “so ravaging the fleet that only two craft reached Portland that night.”
“But the squadron men so-far-thought heretics came into their own,” the account read. “Every power boat had a disabled sailor in tow and probably saved some lives.”
The dramatic rescue by the powerboats was celebrated in magazine and newspaper articles. The September 1912 issue of Motor Boating magazine, which dramatized the rescue with a six-page photo story, reported, “The fellows of the Powerboat Division provided meritorious service and emerged from the ordeal crowned with glory.” The report concluded, “Forever after, the Squadron was welcome on the Club Cruise, and one may add, in the clubhouse and the anchorages.”
The powerboats had arrived. Other yacht clubs expressed interest in forming a power squadron. Nathaniel Livermore Stebbins, the Power Squadron of the Boston Yacht Club’s first secretary, was sent by Upton on a whirlwind tour of the Great Lakes to encourage additional yacht clubs to form power squadrons. Stebbins was a noted marine photographer and his early glass plate negatives contained many pictures of power squadron activity.
But some government officials, many of whom were old sailing or steamship men, felt that the new powerboat squadrons needed regulations along the lines of the professional ships.
“One must have a little picture of boating in those days,” said Charles F. Chapman, a USPS founder and past chief commander, in The Ensign (August 1972). In the article by Past Rear Commander Bob Green, Chapman explained, “At the turn of the century, practically all (power) boats, both pleasure and commercial, were powered by steam—steam generally generated by coal and in some cases by fuel oil. As the years passed, the internal combustion boats became more and more numerous. Not many compared with the boats today, but they were becoming a fairly large percentage in comparison to steam-powered yachts.”
At that time, the US laws governing navigation applied only to steam vessels, and a board of steamboat inspectors, who were old seagoing men, governed them. These inspectors had no use for small internal combustion-powered craft. They wanted to gain control of these boats and have them subject to the same stringent rules that governed ocean liners and other steam-powered vessels. The small-craft boatmen knew nothing about boat handling and interfered with their operations, the inspectors complained.
“A small group of us felt that the internal combustion powerboats should be protected from these steamboat men,” Chapman said, “and we formed this group to impress them with the fact that we would instruct the members on the rudiments of boat-handling and thus remove one of the objections which they had to small craft. That was really why USPS was formed.”
What had begun in 1912 as a club within a club at the Boston Yacht Club continued to grow. By 1913, the club’s name became the Power Squadron of the Boston Yacht Club, and its officers and rules were listed in that year’s Boston Yacht Club Yearbook.
The Squadron’s early work caught the attention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who at the time was assistant secretary of the Navy. Upton had Roosevelt aboard Elizabeth to witness the Squadron’s drills and maneuvers. With the world heating up with threats of the First World War, FDR saw the need for preparedness at sea. Interested in using the Power Squadron as an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy, FDR urged Upton to make it a national organization. The idea of a regional power
squadron spread, and in 1914, delegates representing 20 clubs with powerboats met at the New York Yacht Club in New York City.
By 1917, only three years after USPS’ official beginning, the organization had 590 members in 20 squadrons, an increase of 113 from the previous year. Membership dues for 1918 were set at $3, of which $1 was for a subscription to The Ensign. World War I brought about the first big change. Educating the public about boating became important, and ads were published welcoming “every American citizen” to a “Free Nautical School” in New York City; Newburg, N.Y.; Boston; Washington, D.C.; and New Haven, Conn. Classes met every night, Monday through Friday. About 5,000 students took these courses, many of them going on to become officers in the armed forces.
By February 1919, things had changed. Six squadrons had disbanded, one was described as dead, two had paid no current dues, and two were termed inactive—a loss of 11 squadrons. World War I and organizational problems had exacted a toll. With membership withering, some wanted to disband.
“What had happened,” Green said in a phone interview, “was that after the war, members had lost interest in all things military.”
The squadrons still had members perform maneuvers as if they were part of the military, and many members became disinterested. At one time, membership was down to little more than 100 members, and a motion to disband was moved. Chief Commander A.B. Bennett made sweeping changes that saved the organization.
“The squadron dropped the military maneuvers and drills, and also eliminated the requirement that you had to be a member of a yacht club to be a member of USPS,” Green said. “Instead, anyone who joined locally also became a national member. That started the comeback.”
By 1924, USPS had transformed from a “semi-military to a teaching organization.” Membership hit 319, up from 255 members in 1923. A year later, USPS—no longer broke—had $1,000 in the bank. By 1931, the Women’s Proficiency Certificate gave women credit for achievement in what had been traditionally a “men’s sport.” Any woman who passed the Piloting examination could be awarded the certificate. Earlier, it was noted, women had “managed to surreptitiously attend New York’s public classes.”
In 1939, USPS’s 25th anniversary year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt complimented USPS on its growth and accepted an honorary membership. USPS, which had been Atlantic-coastal, took on the challenges of further growth. Two squadrons were chartered in Florida, one in Miami and one in St. Petersburg, beginning expansion into what would become the state with the most USPS members. New squadrons were chartered in Washington and California. Also, educational materials became better suited to different squadron locales and covered instructions for boating on rivers and lakes.
War once again loomed, and preparations for the coming conflict began to increase. “Now began intensive efforts on the part of USPS to contribute in its own rather restricted way to the war effort,” said one report. “Essentially this consisted of educating people and involved departure into areas far beyond its then-normal four courses. In some ways it duplicated its efforts in WWI, 24 years previously, as…a general public course where men could gain knowledge and prepare themselves in a special way, to aid their acceptance as volunteers afloat.”
Boating itself changed. Notices to Mariners warned that defensive sea areas and some maritime control areas had been established, and that vessels approaching these areas without permission would risk “real danger” to themselves. Gas rationing went into effect in 1942, both for automobiles and boats, with each boat receiving “an amount of gasoline each week equal to the horsepower of the engine.” But boats in armed forces services got all the gas they needed for official missions, such as air-sea rescue. Boaters were encouraged to keep their craft in the water for “possible employment for war needs,” according to a May 1942 Notice to Mariners. On everyone’s minds was the rescue by small powerboats—the famed little ships—of trapped English troops at Dunkirk.
USPS was recruited to help the Army find men between the ages of 18 and 35 who knew how to handle small powerboats and also skilled craftsmen, including mechanics and carpenters, to build, maintain and service such boats.
More than 3,000 USPS members joined the armed forces, including Chief Commander William Anderson. Thousands more served in the Merchant Marine, the Red Cross and other wartime agencies. USPS classes bulged with recruits, and many members’ boats also went into military service.
The war effort stimulated great interest in USPS. Membership boomed during the 1940s and 1950s, reaching 45,000 in 268 squadrons by 1959. Gearing up for peacetime, USPS wanted to teach as many people as possible the fundamentals of good boating.
Each year more people became interested in boating, noted one report, and although an estimated “150,000 people had been taught by USPS since 1914, registration of boats had by that time reached 450,000.” The report emphasized that the “call for our services grows stronger all the time” and noted the “appalling number of small boat accidents in 1949 involving losses and drownings.”
Over the years, USPS’ stalwart communications link, The Ensign, grew from a one-page sheet at the Boston Yacht Club into today’s nationally distributed four-color magazine. With the newest overhaul of the publication in 2004, The Ensign began winning honors and awards from Boating Writers International, a professional organization composed of boating writers, editors, columnists and boating magazine publishers. In 2004, one The Ensign writer won BWI’s Grand Prize, and, in an unprecedented honor, won that same award again in 2008.
Over the years, USPS has been honored by five US presidents for its service to our nation. In 2004, on USPS’ 90th anniversary, the governors of 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands signed the Proclamation of the Governors, proclaiming their “Recognition and Grateful Appreciation for the United States Power Squadrons.” Today, USPS has 403 squadrons with nearly 35,000 volunteer members, approximately 66 percent men and 34 percent women. The ensign has flown just about everywhere on Earth and even in space. USPS members own all types of boats, from powerboats to sailboats, kayaks, canoes, personal watercraft and others. Although the average number of boats per member is 2.189, not all members own boats. Today, USPS is heralded as the nation’s premier nonprofit provider of boating safety education.
In its 100 dynamic years, USPS has come a long way from the original vision of its first commanders, but undoubtedly they would be pleased. As would the original 36 “stink potters” at the Boston Yacht Club.
Marlin Bree (marlinbree.com) is a long-time The Ensign contributor. He is the author of numerous boating books including Boat Log & Record (4th edition), Broken Seas: True Tales of Extraordinary Seafaring Adventures, In the Teeth of the Northeaster: A Solo Voyage on Lake Superior, and Wake of the Green Storm: A Survivor’s Tale. He is a past judging chair for Boating Writers International and a past president of the Minnesota Press Club.
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