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Sue Carlton: A South Tampa tempest brews over cocktails at the Yacht Club

Published Dec. 15, 2015

Could members of the South Tampa elite soon have to go without their cocktails by the pool?

Might the Tampa Yacht & Country Club actually go dry outside?

This is one of those classic Tampa stories, playing out at the uber-exclusive club nestled among the moss-draped oaks below the southernmost curve of Bayshore Boulevard. And it is proof that even the upper crust can go bare-knuckled for a good neighborhood fight.

Started in 1904, the Tampa Yacht Club is where this city's monied have long hoisted glasses of a particularly potent milk punch to toast the powerful pirates of Gasparilla (a mix of bourbon, brandy, vodka, milk, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg, since you asked). It's where you ordered fried oysters and gumbo and Sam the bartender's specialty coffees.

It's the place where generations of well-heeled youngsters swam and sailed and played tennis, where they rode horses and lounged by the pool, signing for food on Mother and Daddy's tab.

It can cost more than $20,000 to get in, plus hundreds in monthly dues. One must be sponsored. One may be blackballed.

Of course there are bars at the sprawling 13.5-acre property that has hosted countless Tampa weddings and parties — civilized ones in which to get a proper cocktail. (What would be the point of a dry yacht club?)

Now, the Tampa Yacht Club has big plans to add a new and permanent outdoor bar by the pool overlooking Hillsborough Bay. Small problem there.

In preparation for this expansion, interested parties could not find conclusive evidence that the yacht club has been allowed to sell and consume alcohol outside the actual building, according to city officials. But this is something the club has done outside since its inception. According to yacht club administration, alcohol always having been "an important component of the Club."

Now the yacht club is asking the city for a formal determination to clarify and confirm where alcohol can be sold and consumed — and encouraging its powerful membership to paper City Council members and the mayor with form letters of support.

"It is important to point out that if our application is not granted, the Club would not be able to serve drinks outside by the pool, to include wedding receptions, Club functions and … Gasparilla events!" said a letter to members.

Okay, so I added the dramatic pause and the exclamation point. But a sunny Gasparilla morning pre-invasion without pirates poolside hefting those milk punches is unimaginable in certain corners of this town.

You might expect smooth sailing with so many big shots on the roster. But there are other big shots.

A letter to members also details the club's troubles with "our neighbor immediately to the south," which according to property records and city officials would be Tom Rankin, 74, of the Lykes family, one you could rightly call a dynasty.

Said neighbor "became aware of this compliance issue through their attorney" and "used this to try to effect changes on the way the club operates, especially as it relates to outdoor noise," the letter said. While the club worked with the neighbor, the letter said, ultimately it was decided his "additional demands … would be detrimental to the operation and enjoyment of the club and discussions have stalled."

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Wouldn't you love to know what those "additional demands" could have been — club blackballing privileges, perhaps? Sadly, neither Rankin nor Yacht Club Commodore Arthur R. Savage returned my calls for the rest of the story.

Did someone say lawyers? According to city officials, both sides have lawyered up. Whichever does not like the City Council's decision can — and likely will — sue.

And so it goes, another South Tampa tempest in a fine old teapot.