"The club was named after a reef on New York Bay," said Joseph Ryan, one of the experts of local history. "The club moved when the Military Ocean Terminal was built."
Robbins Reef Yacht Club harkens back to an era when Bayonne was a yachting capital of New York Harbor, and the 19th century vacation resort for many of the area's elite.
"A large portion of the town was dedicated to yacht clubs and boat building," Ryan said.
The club was organized at the Baywater Inn located at East 44th Street in August 2006, then found its first home at the foot of East 47th Street in early 1907 where it remained until 1946 when the club relocated to its current site on Pavonia Avenue and Newark Bay.
"This was the Schulyer Mansion," said member Walter Leahey, who had come to the club for a meeting of the board one night in early September. "We switched here in the 1940s. The property was deeded over to us."
The Schulyer Mansion, which had previously served as a headquarters for another yacht club, which had constructed a dock and parking areas, was the location of the Cadamus family home, one of the founding families of Bayonne, according to Ryan.
More than just a club house In his remarks on the 100th anniversary, Mike Bondarowicz, the club commodore, said the club is more than just a club house, ground and marina. It is an organization rooted in tradition and camaraderie to promote yachting, and seamanship.
"We're the oldest yacht club still operating in the city," said Richard Gormley, who serves several roles, including as member of the board of trustees and has been a member of the club for 25 years.
He said Robbins Reef is a private club that provides educational and recreation opportunities for its members.
"We like to think of ourselves as the best kept secret in Bayonne," he said.
The club is organized around boating and fishing, and has become a society of people who often help each other with common boating problems. The club often provides instruction, something extremely relevant to new boaters and old as new stringent licensing criteria come into place.
While the club has no real boat size restriction, the largest currently used at the club is about 36 feet long. Most boats have little trouble coming and going, despite the rise and fall of tides - although every boat generally carries a tide chart.
The club is rich with ritual and ceremony, opening the season each year with welcoming ceremonies and the firing of a small canon. Boating season generally runs from mid-March to early December, although Gormley said most members are out of the water by November.
"The diehards hang on until after Thanksgiving," Gormley said.
The club runs two fishing tournaments a year, although part of the attraction of belonging to the club is the ability to sail out almost any time day or night to catch whatever fish happens to be running at that time. Some people get up in the middle of the night and sail out to make a catch. Many travel out through the Kill Van Kull and down the coast to "the mudhole" near Point Pleasant, or settled off Sandy Hook.
Fishing for fluke is popular, although most members follow the seasons and switch over to fish as they migrate, such as striped bass or black fish. The tournaments usually are accompanied with some ceremony and awards for various categories of fish caught.
A family tradition
Although many members are local - many the children of former members through generations - the club draws boat lovers from surrounding communities as well.
"We're a small club with a membership of about 120 people," Gormley said. "Some of our older members have retired to Florida, and though they are no longer active, they maintain their membership here."
The oldest member, Ed Zaleck Sr., was recognized at the anniversary ceremony in August. He has been a member of the club since the 1950s. His son Ed Zaleck Jr. is also a member.
Because the bay side club has a limited number of berths for docking boats, membership has to be limited, and the club operates in several ways. It's annual budget funds capital projects through yearly membership fees and the interest accumulated from the various joining fees over the years.
Since it is a private club, it has to pay its bills each year through the money generated from its members, this includes - like most property owners in the city - its share of taxes, as well as the ever-increasing cost of insurance. In order to build a river wall around the perimeter of the boat-docking berths, the club took out a mortgage for the first time in its history, providing protection for the boats, but also increasing annual expenses.
To offset some costs, Gormley said, members lend their labors and their expertise in providing remain and maintenance. Along with fees, members are asked to perform 50 hours of work service.
Since many members have talents and crafts due to their careers outside the club, they often apply those services to the work requirement.
"We try to be as self sufficient as possible," said member Frank Nese.
This not only provides the club with carpenters and plumbers, but often a significant discount from the amount they would have to pay if the club was to contract for such services with non-members. But work requirements often can include general daily maintenance such as raking lawn, sweeping up, tending bar and clean up around the boats. Considering how clean the property is, the effort appears to work although the club also encourages prisoner and student waterside cleanup programs, Gormley said.
Nese said the club encourages cooperative effort. The club has several environmental programs including bay side cleanup efforts by the Passaic County Water Authority and the Hackensack Riverkeeper. The club also helps out with one of the school programs run out of PS No. 14, where kids are taught about the local environment and come to the club for a day of fishing - the club also provides the kids lunch.
Handing down the club better than they found it
The club technically has 6.93 acres of land - some of which happens to include a piece of Newark Bay.
The bay, of course, plays a huge role in many memories of the members since it was a very busy place in the past, when speed boats frequently raced up and down it, and Elco Boatworks - when operating - tested many of its Patrol Torpedo Boats.
One of the disastrous moments in the club's later history occurred in the 1990s when there was an oil spill that left the place a mess.
The settlement from Exxon, however, had a financial benefit in that it gave the club a nest egg to assure against future financial hardships.
Each generation has left its mark on the club, making improvements or maintaining and building new traditions.
"Our forefathers had the building and kept the club up to the best of their abilities," Gormley said.
But since his coming on 25 years ago, he's seen additional improvements such as paving, and improvements to the building that help make certain the next generation will have something worth preserving as well.
Nese said the club has become a safe haven for kids, but also a place where traditions are passed from father to son.
Robbins Reef also has something other clubs do not have - its own ghost, Vance.
This was the son of the previous owner who apparently hung himself from the upstairs bedroom window after breaking up with his girlfriend. Some people claim they occasionally hear noises in that unlighted part of the house. "Several people say they feel a chill when they go near there," Gormley, said with a laugh.