Writer / Debra Legg
John O’Brien grew up on the water, literally as a neighbor of the White River Yacht Club.
Bud Van Dyne, on the other hand, joined without ever having been on a boat. Today he owns eight.
They came to the club for different reasons — O’Brien out of love of the river, Van Dyne because he wanted to try something different. They now share a motive for returning year after year: camaraderie like that captured in the old “Cheers” tag line. It’s a place where “everybody knows your name,” O’Brien said.
The private club has 530 members and a two-year waiting list, Van Dyne said. The organization came to be in 1938, when a group of boaters incorporated the North White River Club. In 1947, the name changed to the White River Yacht Club.
Except don’t expect to find ascot-wearing millionaires and their big boats among the 100 or so watercraft registered at the club. The river is too shallow for anything much bigger than a pontoon to navigate.
“We always tell people don’t worry if you fall off the boat,” Van Dyne said. “You can just stand up. The water’s only about 4 feet deep in most places.”
O’Brien recalls seeing a few 50-foot houseboats in his time with the club, so “it all depends on what your definition of a yacht is,” he said.
On the other extreme, some members own canoes or johnboats, said Van Dyne, currently the club’s commodore. Mostly, they prefer craft with the “tilt and trim to get them down the river,” O’Brien said.
The club occupies 13 acres off of East 74th Street, a location that’s hard to find unless you know where you’re headed. “You’re going through this old neighborhood, and you wonder where this is even going,” Van Dyne said.
The first members met at their homes along the river or on their boats. These days, there’s a clubhouse that traces its roots to a summer home that was on the property when the club bought it in 1947. It’s been expanded and renovated several times. There are decks, both covered and uncovered, including one literally on the river. There are concrete boat ramps, as well.
Many of the current club members have homes along the river, like the one O’Brien grew up in. “When I was 7 or 8 years old, I’d go down to the club and they’d let me ride on the tractor,” he said.
In the winter, things are quiet. Members will stop in to enjoy nightly specials such as seafood, pasta or steak. Wings are popular when the Colts are playing, and Van Dyne said the burgers are among the best in the area. There’s a monthly prime rib night as well. Other than the occasional die-hard bass fishermen, though, not many members venture onto the river.
That changes as spring turns into summer. Members will stop in for a late lunch or early dinner before hitting the water, or they’ll spend the weekend with a group of friends on a pontoon.
That’s also the time of year when the club begins putting on its marquee events, from its Indianapolis 500 party that usually sees 500 or so people pack the place to the annual open house. Nonmembers are allowed to attend, but they must accompany a member. In between, there’s Music on the River, a weekly event where two- or three-piece bands play for the crowd on the deck and in their boats.
Van Dyne’s favorite event is the Fourth of July boat parade, where members trick out their watercraft and compete for prizes rich in bragging rights, but not much else. “It’s usually nothing much, except maybe a $50 credit at the club, and as soon as you win it, it’s gone because you have eight to 10 people helping you decorate your boat,” Van Dyne said.
Fireworks famous throughout Indianapolis cap off the day. The show is organized by the widow of former member Meredith Smith, whose cremated remains were launched as part of the finale in 2010.
Club members believe in having a good time, but the partying is never out of control. O’Brien doesn’t recall seeing a single physical altercation since he joined the club in 1980. “Most of the time, there will be heated words, then they’ll buy each other a beer,” Van Dyne said.
Members also believe in protecting the river and those who use it.
Every April, the club participates in the annual White River Cleanup, scouring the route from 86th Street to the Broad Ripple dam and collecting enough debris to fill the dumpster the city of Indianapolis provides. Though he’s participated for several years, O’Brien still is astounded at the refrigerators, tires and more that the club finds along the section.
The club encourages safe boating both by marking the river for logs, large rocks and other navigation hazards and by encouraging good behavior. Members won’t hesitate to take boaters to task if they see any nonsense going on, and the club lets the Department of Natural Resources use its facilities to launch river patrols.
“Some people get concerned about that,” Van Dyne said, “but I say, ‘so’? If you’re not creating a hazard, you have nothing to worry about.”
Though the big events are fun, for O’Brien the day-in, day-out camaraderie and feeling of family are the bigger draw.
“If you had a flat tire on the interstate and had a membership directory in your car, the first words out of the mouth of the first person you reached would be, ‘What mile marker are you at?’” O’Brien said.
Van Dyne, who turns 72 next month, likes that the club keeps him fit, active and engaged. “I think, wow, here I am doing what my 30-year-old friends are doing. It keeps me young.”