Harry Anderson, with ancestral ties to American wealth and power going back to Aaron Burr, learned to sail as a boy at Seawanhaka, a venerable yacht club on Long Island’s North Shore, its gabled clubhouse rising from a green bluff on Centre Island overlooking Oyster Bay.
Growing up in Manhattan, a scion of a long line of patrician lawyers (a great-grandfather was counsel to Cornelius Vanderbilt) he would spend summers at Seawanhaka immersing himself in the art and mechanics of sailing and in the gentleman’s sport of sailboat racing. One summer, at 15, he joined a race to Bermuda with one of the Roosevelts. Another summer he crewed for a Vanderbilt.
He eventually went off to Yale and, following the family tradition, graduated from law school at Columbia. But the law would prove not for him. He was continually drawn back to the sea. And that was where he would make his mark.
By the time he died on May 11 at 98 in Mystic, Conn., Mr. Anderson had become one of the most influential figures in American sailboat racing in the last half-century, helping to develop the sport’s modern rules and regulations, leading successful defenses of the America’s Cup and creating a national governing body for sailing.
Buoyed by his inherited wealth, Mr. Anderson left the financial sector to become a “full-time volunteer” in sailboat racing, in the words of his biographer, Roger Vaughn, author of “The Strenuous Life of Harry Anderson.”
Mr. Anderson’s roles were manifold. He was commodore of two of the country’s oldest yacht clubs, Seawanhaka Corinthian (founded in 1871) and the New York Yacht Club (1844). He ran the North American Yacht Racing Union and served as a North American representative to the International Yacht Racing Union.
And he groomed competitors for the U.S. Olympic team by contributing fleets of racing dinghies to collegiate sailing programs and nurturing Olympic-caliber sailors like Gary Jobson, the America’s Cup winner in the 1970s.
“Harry recognized the value of promoting intercollegiate racing and recruiting the top sailors to compete in the Olympic trials,” Mr. Jobson said in an interview. “Many of America’s sailing Olympians came out of the programs that he pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s.”
The yachting historian John Rousmaniere said of Mr. Anderson: “One way or another, for 40 years or more, he was involved with the planning of all the important events in the sport worldwide. He really understood sailing and sailors. He was the M.V.P. of American sailing for a long, long time.”
Harry Anderson at the wheel, circa 2016 Credit…Jamie Hilton NEWS SERVICE OK
Henry Hill Anderson Jr. was born in Manhattan on June 2, 1921, the eldest of three boys of Henry Sr. and Helen Jennings (James) Anderson. His parents moved the family from a small Long Island estate in Roslyn to Oyster Bay when the boys were young.
Henry Sr. was a partner in the family’s New York law firm, Anderson, Howland and Murray. Clients included Harold S. Vanderbilt, a railroad executive, champion yachtsman and great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Mr. Anderson’s great-grandfather Henry B. Anderson, in addition to advising Cornelius, was counsel for the City of New York.
Much of the family’s wealth came from another great-grandfather, Oliver Burr Jennings, who was one of six initial stockholders in the Standard Oil Company, founded by John D. Rockefeller. (It was that branch of the family tree that reached back to Aaron Burr, the country’s third vice president and the slayer, in a duel, of Alexander Hamilton.)
Henry Jr., who was known as Harry, emulated his father’s work ethic.
“Harry’s card was to have an extraordinarily strict father,” Mr. Vaughn, his biographer, said. “One reacts to this accident of birth several ways. One is to rebel and run away. Or, when he says, ‘Jump,’ jump as high as you can. Harry said, ‘I’ll show him how darn high I can jump.’”
At Yale, Mr. Anderson sailed as a member of the university team, organized by the student-run Yale Corinthian Yacht Club in Branford, Conn., where his grandfather had been commodore. (Today, the team is considered one of the best collegiate programs in the country, and Mr. Anderson remained devoted to it, donating waterside property for its use in Branford.)
His Yale class of 1943 graduated early, in December 1942, because of World War II, and he joined the Army, serving as a field artillery officer in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army and receiving a Bronze Star.
Mr. Anderson was a Columbia law student when his father and Harold Vanderbilt enlisted him to help research and revise the rules of racing, which many yachtsmen then found vague and inconsistent.
“Harry’s father and Harold Vanderbilt rewrote the racing rules of sailing in the 1940s,” said the historian Mr. Rousmaniere, who credited Harry Anderson with refining many of those rules, including which sailboat gains right of way when they meet at turning marks in a race.
Mr. Anderson went to become a respected race judge when he was still in his 20s, running the Yacht Racing Association of Long Island Sound. As executive director of the North American Yacht Racing Union, he orchestrated its split in 1975 into two governing bodies: the United States Yacht Racing Union and the Canadian Yachting Association. Before then, Canadian and American sailors were accredited for the Olympics by one organization. The split allowed for national autonomy for selecting Olympic teams.
“No one had thought about it,” Mr. Anderson once said. “It was way overdue.”
Mr. Anderson’s career peaked in the 1970s and early ’80s with the New York Yacht Club, then holder of the America’s Cup. It was the epicenter of the sailing universe when Mr. Anderson became head of the club’s race committee, overseeing successful defenses of the cup throughout the 1970s. He was commodore when Dennis Conner, in his 12-meter boat Freedom, made the last successful club defense of the cup, in 1980.
Mr. Anderson, who never married, and whose death was confirmed by a niece, Tanya Anderson, is survived by a younger brother, David, as well as 44 other nieces, nephews, grand nieces and grand nephews. In 2014, he was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., where he was a longtime resident.
In the mid-1970s Mr. Anderson helped found the American Sail Training Association, now called Tall Ships America, a nonprofit that teaches youths, including underprivileged ones, how to sail.
“He believed that the shipboard experience was transformative, a great equalizer,” said Caleb Pifer, the group’s executive director. “It put people of all different backgrounds and socioeconomic situations together. Everyone was the same, working together at sea.”
Anderson turned his 90th birthday party into a fund-raiser for the organization. “The Tall Ships programs were addressing a social need,” Tanya Anderson said. “He liked that. It was not just the yachty people with cocktails sailing around buoys.”