Yachtsmen adore being commodore Prestige: He (or she) is basically the head of the yacht club, but perks of office include a fancy but meaningless title, a spiffy uniform and free drinks.

September 19, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

The Commodore: An impressive title that means, well, nothing to the outside world.

But it is the ultimate quasi-military rank for anyone who wants to dress up like a three-star admiral -- or an extra in Gilbert and Sullivan's "HMS Pinafore."

In uniforms covered with stripes, anchors and trefoils, commodores aren't just the heads of their yacht clubs, but the top officers in a play navy.

It is up to them to bless the fleet, stir loyalty in the ranks and do other important things, like salute a lot. Plus, it's not bad getting called "Commodore" all day.

"It's great fun -- I love being commodore," said Claude Engle, who spent 16 years working to become head of the exclusive Gibson Island Yacht Club.

"There's a symbolic importance to the job. When you are a commodore, you represent the club -- not embarrass it."

This fall, scores of commodore hopefuls will begin climbing the ranks to the post.

Elected by fellow club members, commodores preside over yacht club business, participate in naval traditions older than this country and enjoy the peculiar celebrity of the title.

It usually takes more than a decade to get elected to the position, which is really nothing more than a fancy name for yacht club president.

Not just in the waters off Annapolis, but all over the country, the status symbol of commodore is irresistible.

"I'm very popular," said Terry Anderlini, commodore of the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, one of the top clubs in the country.

"I'll go to a party and before I know it, people are taking out their cameras and taking pictures of me."

As commodore, Anderlini gets a cocktail named for him, a free parking spot, the window seat at dinner and all the free drinks he can stomach.

He gets saluted by the military color guard at the cannon-firing ceremonies and treated with a surprising amount of respect. People aren't required to bow and scrape -- some just seem to enjoy it.

"People who would normally say, 'Hey, Terry, how ya' doing?' now say, 'Commodore, I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Jones,' " he said.

"I guess they want to impress their friends and say they know the commodore."

Actually, the last place to find a real, live commodore is in the Navy.

The title was first adopted during the American Revolution as an alternative to British ranks and used by anyone who commanded a squadron or fleet of ships.

Never a step in the ladder of promotion, it was an extra military title given to senior captains and admirals, trotted out particularly during wartime.

But because so many status symbols existed in the military -- and this one carried so little weight -- the Navy let the title die after World War II.

When Congress tried to resuscitate "commodore" as a one-star rank in the 1980s, military leaders quietly ignored the directive.

The same cannot be said of civilians.

A raft of commodores

More commodores preside over the Chesapeake Bay region than ever before, said Harry Seeback, the commodore of the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Clubs Association.

He counts at least 113 of them.

"We are very formal about it," said Seeback, 70. "You want to look like you know what you're doing and you're sure of your own position. That's important."

Proper protocol is so important, in fact, that Seeback gets irritated when commodores offer mushy salutes.

"How well you salute depends on how much experience you have," he said. Although he has no Navy background, he had been in military service in World War II and a Boy Scout leader for a number of years, so he knows how to do it.

Commodores fit into a larger nautical tradition -- where a sailor's respect for naval customs is just as important as yachting speed or skill.

Upholding tradition

"Boating etiquette is more than tipping your hat to the commodore," writes Queene Hooper Foster, in her book "Boating Etiquette."

There is a proper way to do everything from gesturing to another boater (wave as if to say, "After you, Captain") to getting seasick (go downwind and don't complain), she writes.

Commodores know these rules by heart and can uphold the customs with ease.

Louis Calomeris, commodore of the Maryland Yacht Club, wears a genuine Navy uniform (which he buys at a uniform shop in Baltimore) and salutes at least 100 times on special occasions.

"My favorite part about it is I make my wife so proud," he said. "I can see it in the gleam in her eye."

Commodores say they try not to get too carried away by their role and are in fact quite busy with real business.

The job demands hours of unpaid work, with the commodore and the "bridge" -- the top club officers -- running the equivalent of multimillion-dollar businesses.

For years, this club power center has been the bastion of white men. Some commodores -- even one "Mammadore" -- are trying to change that.

"Women have had to work their way into the tradition," said Beryl Kramer, the above-mentioned commodore, who is only the second woman to head the Selby Bay Yacht Club, founded in Edgewater in the 1940s.

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