Marshall Willliamson on the deck of his Impulse 26 sailboat. The sailing club lacks a clubhouse, but he says that doesn’t matter: “The soul of the club is the people in the greater Tucson area that have that common interest.”

A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star

So, did you hear the one about the sailing club in the desert?

No really, there is one. Right here in our dusty backyard. It’s even been around for more than 40 years.

The Tucson Sailing Club sounds like a punchline, but it’s the for-real deal. Look it up —

Jerry Helm even had a backpack emblazoned with the words.

“I used to wear that when I went skiing in various places. People would come up to me and say, ‘That’s a joke, isn’t it?’” says Helm, a retired teacher who first read about the club in the newspaper and has been a member since 1978. “I’d tell them, ‘Well, if you met our members, you’d think it was a joke.’”

Perhaps it’s the heat that messes with their water-loving brains, but these sailors enjoy pulling shipnanigans.

Richard Sebastian, who joined in 1974, recalls his first club trip down to Mexico. One of the members sailed on ahead of the other boats so he could greet them.

“He put on a tuxedo and met us on the beach,” Sebastian says. “He held a sign that said, ‘Welcome Tucson Sailing Club.’”

Decades later, the memory makes him chuckle.

“We still pull each other’s legs,” says Sebastian, whose official title is head instructor. Fact check: He is also the only instructor.

Naturally Sebastian is a sailing enthusiast — he grew up in Wickenburg. The retired dentist went to dental school in San Francisco, which has a smidge more saltwater than Tucson. That’s where he first sailed, around San Francisco Bay. He was hooked. After graduation, he settled in Tucson, antsy to get back on the water.

“There were three people in town selling boats out of their backyard in Tucson,” he says.

In the beginning, the sailing club had around 30 members. Now, Sebastian reports, it’s got about 140, a mix of retirees, professionals, tradesmen, even some families. Sailing on the water on a small boat with no Wi-Fi is the ultimate in togetherness.

Sebastian says he loves floating on the ocean, catching dinner — his favorite dish is freshly caught, fried fish that’s been coated in Cap’n Crunch cereal seasoned with a touch of garlic powder — and shooting the breeze.

“We’ll just sit around and talk and tell stories,” he says. “It’s a very bonding experience. You just don’t do that in a bar where it’s loud and noisy.”

Not everyone in the club owns a boat. Some are into racing, others prefer gently cruising. The club does both. Members head out to Silverbell Lake or to Lake Pleasant north of Phoenix, which takes just a few hours of driving. There are regular excursions to the Gulf of California and regattas in San Carlos, which sailing club commodore Marshall Williamson says “is a real jewel.”

While there have been travel warnings from the U.S. Department of State about travel in Mexico, Williamson says club members go back and forth regularly without incident.

“Last time I drove there, I drove down at night and back at night,” says Williamson, who sells software and is also a member of the Tempe-based Arizona Yacht Club. “I felt safer doing that than in certain areas in Phoenix.”

A few years ago, the Tucson Sailing Club got some love from Sailing Magazine. The national publication ran an eight-page spread on its May regatta. Quite the coup for the sailing club in the desert.

While bigger groups along the coast have some pretty swank clubhouses, the local group makes do with monthly meetings at a barbecue joint. The lack of a clubhouse, or even a coastline, doesn’t matter, Williamson says.

“I call it the virtual sailing club because the physical brick and mortar is not the soul of the club,” he says. “The soul of the club is the people in the greater Tucson area that have that common interest.”

Contact Kristen Cook at or 573-4194. On Twitter: @Kcookski