They came in out of the chill of a cool autumn night for the fellowship that can surround a hot meal. The Barnacle Club is the oldest running waterfront club on the Island, and its name always inspires interest. A barnacle by definition is a creature that doesn’t move a lot.

President Alan Wilder. — Mark Alan Lovewell

The club is made up of men who have a love for the sea and a gift for sharing their experiences on the water. Since the 1800s, the club has existed with two simple rules: no booze and no women.

Last Thursday night, the members came together at the American Legion Hall for a dinner of corned beef and cabbage and strawberry shortcake. They ran out of dessert.

President Alan Wilder, 77, who lives in Tisbury but spent more than 60 years living on Cuttyhunk, oversees the club. On Thursday night, he helped David Cron in the kitchen. Mr. Cron is a real estate broker with a flair for cooking, who has generously shared his skills with the membership for more than a dozen years.

Club membership isn’t so exclusive. One must have the requisite affection for the sea and the lore that goes with it, then fill out an application and have two active members offer sponsorship.

Members are a varied group. There is Robert Maciel, of West Tisbury, a former owner of Maciel Marine, and now the bridge tender of the Lagoon Pond drawbridge. Seated next to him on Thursday night was Earl Littlefield, of Tisbury, also a bridge tender.

Bob Earl
Robert Maciel and Earl Littlefield. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Farther down the table was Jay Wilbur, harbor master, and Bob Tilton, one of Tisbury’s authorities on the way things used to be done in town. Seated next to him was Peter Wells, the Chappaquiddick ferry owner. Paul Bangs was nearby. He is a tugboat captain and his late father, Stuart Bangs, was a prime mover within the organization.

Membership secretary Stephen Nichols, 75, of Vineyard Haven, oversees the 54 members, and he sends out a handwritten annual renewal postcard just before Labor Day each year. There aren’t many organizations around that cost $20 a year and promise a good time, around the dinner hour.

Running the club isn’t expensive; they own no real estate. There is an equivalent club on Nantucket, the Pacific Club, founded in 1854, but they own real estate and club membership included business people in town. The only business done this night was each person taking a turn to contribute cash into a bowl before they lined up with an empty paper plate.

Records show the club was founded in 1868, at a time when Vineyard Haven was one the most important harbors on the East Coast. Whale ships, merchant ships, coastal schooners, all came in and out of the harbor on a daily basis. The club came together, as the story is told, by a gathering of retired whaling captains and their waterfront friends, looking for a place indoors where they could enjoy each other’s company. They played cards, mostly cribbage. They played board games, mostly checkers and some chess.

There were plenty of nautical items in their meeting place, artifacts from past voyages. There are still members around who recall when stuffed animals hung on the walls or stood as statues on a table.

The location of the club has changed plenty. In 1923 it is recorded that the club moved to Main street, upstairs in the Benjamin Franklin Building, where the Green Room now is located. Early in the 1980s, it spent some time on the second floor of a building on Beach Road that is occupied today by the Martha’s Vineyard Times. For a time, it was located on the second floor of a building located between CornerFive Surf Shop at Five Corners and the Black Dog Tavern. They also met at the Seamen’s Bethel, today home to Sail Martha’s Vineyard on Main street.

On this night, the featured speaker was John Wilbur, the harbor master’s father. Mr. Wilbur, a retired minister and boating enthusiast, recited words written by Tom Dunlop that earlier this month had been read at a program to honor Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon, when the two received the Creative Living Award from the Martha’s Vineyard Permanent Endowment Fund.

Mr. Dunlop’s speech at the Grange involved the Vineyard Haven’s maritime history. Mr. Wilbur thought so highly of the words, he got a copy of the speech, to read for the club members.

The speech began with the early history of the town, of coastal schooners in the 1800s and up through the years when Erford Burt built boats and ran what today is Maciel Marine.

Mr. Burt was an active member of the Barnacle Club, and many members of his family were too.

So the conversation in the hall turned to memories of the boatbuilder, his marina and his legacy.

Denys Wortman, of Hines Point, a club member who owns a restored Vineyard Haven 15 sailboat, built at the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard in 1938 by Mr. Burt, shared his own memories of the boatbuilder. Mr. Wortman’s sailboat, Kanga, was recently restored at the Gannon and Benjamin boatyard.

Bernie Holzer, 77, of West Tisbury, is a fairly new member of the club. He joined soon after stepping off the ferry Islander. Mr. Holzer, who for years was given the affectionate title of “the voice of the Islander,” said he could recall being in his 20s and working on the steamer ferry Nobska as an able-bodied “AB” seaman.

The longest held membership in the club goes to Ralph M. Packer Jr., 79, of Vineyard Haven. Mr. Packer, who runs a number of Tisbury businesses on the water, was not at the evening dinner, but he later told the Gazette he has fond memories going back a long way. Records show he became a member in 1956. His father, a licensed Tisbury seafaring captain, also was a member.

Mr. Packer said he can still recall Capt. Hartson H. Bodfish, one of the Island’s last whaling captains, smoking his pipe and telling tales in the club. With him, he remembers, was Captain Ellsworth Luce West, who began his career sailing on the water, working as a whaling captain, but went on to captain vessels powered by steam.

“What has really changed is that when I remember back to those days, everyone smoked. The writer Joseph Chase Allen once wrote of a Barnacle Club meeting as being as thick with smoke as London fog,” Mr. Packer said. No one smokes today.

“Much has changed,” Mr. Packer said. “There are no more pool tables, no more cribbage. I don’t think anyone plays checkers anymore.”

But what hasn’t changed, Mr. Packer said, is the energy the members share in talking about the way ships were, the way they are now. “And they do look to the future,” Mr. Packer said. “It is an unusual gathering of men.”

The club will meet again in November. As in years past, there will be a special lady’s night in December.

Mr. Wilder said he is looking for more active members than he has been working with lately. “I am getting older,” Mr. Wilder said. “We need some help. There aren’t that many that ‘turns too.’”

In other words, Mr. Wilder would like some new club members to be a little less like a barnacle.