When Fred Greene was growing up in Washington, he didn't want a hot rod, he wanted a runabout. Back in the 1950s, his uncle had a 16-foot boat, giving him what Greene thought was the greatest freedom--to go off on the water anytime he wanted.
"It was so unusual in those days for a black person to go fishing and boating anytime they wanted, with their own boat," reminisced Greene. Now he owns a 25-foot cabin cruiser, the Huni-Buni II.
One recent day Greene lined up with a dozen other black sailors, the members of the Metro Sailors Yacht Club, to go past the Southwest Washington marina where the fleet was blessed, under the 14th Street Bridge and into the slips at Columbia Island. Once on land, the Metro Sailors stood in a grove of trees and raised an American flag and their club burgee, a red, blue and gold pennant.
Under the direction of club commodore Theodore George, the 14 sailors and their guests heard a prayer from Martha Wright, joined local vocalist Tharon Thomas in the National Anthem, presented all their members, gave club princess Kelly Greene a flower and listened to former D.C. city council chairman Sterling Tucker talk about the beauty of the day. "You represent the best of what the out-of-doors is all about," said Tucker. "This day is ours to enjoy."
Leaving the island, the Metro Sailors cruised back to the Kennedy Center, tied their boats together and began a free-form, nautical open house. They hopped from boat to boat, sampling shrimp salad, fried chicken, banana pudding, beer and scotch. On some boats, the hot music matched the scorching rays of the afternoon.
"I had made up my mind that this is what I wanted to do," said Greene, his tall, muscular form stretched out in the galley of one boat. He fills his weekday time as an administrator with the Montgomery County school system. "I had one job, teaching physical education, then took another working for the Tourmobile people, then I took a third job to get the initial downpayment for the boat. My wife didn't know why I was working that third job. When she found out, she said, 'I can't believe you bought a boat before a house.' " He laughs, not looking for any agreement, and stabs a shrimp.
The Metro Sailors reflect a growing interest in boating by blacks, spurred by better-paying jobs and exposure to leisure sports. The Metro Sailors, started in 1975, have had as many as 34 members. Currently there are 20. The Federation of Yacht Clubs, an organization of nine black yacht owners' clubs from Washington, New York and Baltimore, plans to have a rendezvous in Annapolis next month. "We got together to develop rapport and camaraderie among black sailors," says George, a local obstetrician and gynecologist. "For some of the black yacht owners, it may be a status symbol, but mainly it's for pleasure, like car racing." The Metro Sailors, representing a variety of professions, feel they prove that theirs is a sport for everyman.
But a few don't mind someone thinking this sport is reserved for the privileged. "When I first went to the Boat Show here in Washington, I realized it was within my reach," says Reginald Harris, the director of the D.C. Medicaid Fraud Control office and the club's treasurer. "I always thought it was for the wealthy. People do think that? Tell them they are correct. No, tell them it is not for the rich, they can do it like an automobile on time."
Like Greene, George is fulfilling a childhood dream. "My father was a great fisherman, but when I was young he didn't have a boat. I had a boat before he did," said George, who grew up in Cincinnati near the Ohio River. He bought his 38-foot sedan fisherman 10 years ago for $55,000 and has approximate yearly expenses of $2,000 for dock fees and $2,000 for gas and maintenance. In the 10 years he has owned a boat, George has spent $15,000 outfitting it.
Like other clubs and fraternities, the Metro Sailors gives it members a support system. "Outside of the camaraderie, we have the proficiency of the other members, like carpentry, and collectively we have the ability to exert clout," says Harris, who owns a 37-foot sports fisherman sedan.
Both Greene and George feel boating is a sport largely free of overt racism. Once when the group docked at a marina on the Potomac River, Greene was the target of some racial epithets from local residents, not fellow boatmen. "Perhaps they were jealous. But Fred just walked away," said George. Adds Greene: "Anytime something like that occurs, it is on land. Once you are out on the water, everyone waves, is very friendly. Now on land you might not exist to those people."
The club's cruises to such points as the Yeicomo River 100 miles away and the members' individual journeys to the Bahamas, Cape Hatteras and Atlantic City have given them their share of adventures.
The flag raising, the kickoff of their sailing season, is the most formal of the Metro Sailors' activities and coincides with the annual Parade of the Boats and Blessing of the Fleet at the Washington Marina. This year the club won two awards. George's boat--the Georges 4--won a complimentary dinner as the "outstanding entry from a club," and Ira Moss' Foolish Pleasure won a similar dinner for best speedboat. Their four-month calendar includes raft-up parties, dock parties, picnics, fishing trips, cruises and a charity ball. Recently, the Metro Sailors joined another black yacht club, the Seafarers of Annapolis, for a ball at the Baltimore Aquarium.
Fun is obviously high on the agenda of the Metro Sailors. A former airplane junkie--Beechcraft Musketeer, four-passenger, single engine--Carl Baylor is now into boats. He has just taken on a $21,000 mortgage for a 31-footer, named the Carita II. And he's the Metro Sailors' newest member. "Your friends accept boating as less dangerous," says Baylor, a retired postal administrator.
For George, the boat represents tranquility. "It is just so peaceful. It gives me the ability to get away from the telephone, the noise," says George, who has a private medical practice as well as a staff position at D.C. General Hospital.
And Greene says that when his boat is out of commission, he gets disoriented. "Almost on a daily basis, my thoughts refer to the boat, my social activities revolve around it, it gives me satisfaction," he says. "When my boat is inoperative, I am."