A remembrance: Bob
Tiedemann's love for restoring and sailing vintage yachts
for a Mariner
IN SOME WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM, THE beginning of the end will happen to all of us, and for Bob Tiedemann it happened on January 1, 2006, in a strange, surprising manner. Other than the novelty of the holiday, it was a routine winter's afternoon for Bob and his wife, Elizabeth, a statuesque brunette who'd been at his side for all sorts of adventures-on water and on land-for some 15 years. The Tiedemanns' daily exercise habit this day favored an hour-long walk, and midway through the stroll Bob made an announcement that stunned his companion.
"I need to sit down," he said. The record suggests that it was probably the first time in his entire 56 years that he'd ever uttered those words, or anything remotely close to them. Just four days earlier, he'd been schussing down the steeps of Stowe, Vermont, which he'd been expertly tearing up since childhood. But though he knew the mountains and enjoyed playing in them, his calling, his life, was the sea.
If you've ever visited or sailed into the charmed harbor of Newport, there's little doubt that you saw something of the work of Bob Tiedemann; in fact, the chances are pretty fair that you laid eyes upon Captain Bob himself. For he was there almost every summer day, dressed in white, blue eyes twinkling, at the helm of his beloved 12-Meter, Gleam, in many observers' eyes the prettiest 12-Meter of them all. It's been estimated that Tiedemann spent more than 13,000 hours at her helm-13,000 hours!-though long-time Newport wharf rats will insist that the figure seems low.
While Tiedemann rested and caught his breath on that January day, one wonders if he gave at least a passing thought to the upcoming summer and all the work and fun and sailing that lay ahead. Like every year, it was going to be jampacked: Gleam had to be extricated from her winter wraps and brought back to her spit-and-polish stateliness. So, too, did the handsome 12-Meter Northern Light and the 54-foot Alden-designed yawl Mariner, the other remarkable wooden sailboats in the Tiedemanns' bustling waterfront business, Seascope Yacht Charters, which introduced countless sailors (and first-timers) to the singular joys of classic yachts and yachting.
And let's not forget the powerboats- the 62-foot commuter vessel Pam, built in 1921, and the 40-foot Fawan, a 1911 harbor launch-both of which offered a more genteel experience for their passengers. After decades of finding and restoring derelicts to their full potential and glory, Seascope had evolved into an enterprise that, from a nautical perspective, served as a full-service portal to a more elegant time. Once the fleet was again Bristol fashion, there'd be all the regattas, and weddings, and corporate team-building events; a full slate of nonstop activity that allowed the Tiedemanns and their closeknit work force of skippers and crews to live and thrive by working on the water and doing what they loved. Oh, yes, there'd be plenty to do, plenty to see.
As it turned out, however, Captain Bob was suffering from something far more drastic and sinister than the excesses of the season, and a roadside breather wasn't even close to being the answer. For his energy, it would soon become apparent, was being sapped by the tumor on his pancreas. And by early May, five short months later, just around the time Gleam usually takes her inaugural summer sail, Bob Tiedemann would be gone.
By 12, he was racing the family Lightning. At 16, he convinced his father that what the clan really needed was a certain Alden yawl-built in 1950 for the CEO of Bethlehem Steel by the German yard Abeking & Rasmussen-and furthermore, that they should occasionally charter the boat to cover her costs. And just who would skipper this big 54-footer called Mariner? Well, there happened to be, right under the same roof, a talented, precocious teenager who already possessed an uncommon sense of order and seamanship.
Who among us knows what they want to do with their lives before high-school graduation? It appears Bob Tiedemann did, though he also got a kick out of fast cars and briefly contemplated a career as a test driver and mechanic. But by 1975, when he learned that a dilapidated 12- Meter called Gleam was languishing at a boatyard along the banks of New Jersey's Maurice River-and that she might be had for a very good price-it was clear that boats had trumped autos once and for all.
In a wonderful article called "The Tiedemann Collection" that appeared in WoodenBoat magazine (and which can be read on the Internet at www.seascopenewport.com), writer Bill Mayher recounts many of the trials and tribulations Tiedemann encountered in his early business days, including the purchase and subsequent delivery of Gleam, a 68-foot 12-Meter built in 1937, from an eccentric university physics professor.
"At first glance, Gleam, for all her storied past, was no beauty," wrote Mayher. "Perhaps in the spirit of some holiday occasion, her decks had been painted Christmas green and all bronze hardware Santa Claus red. To deliver the boat along the Jersey Shore to New York, Tiedemann was obliged to rig a gas-powered generator on deck to force sufficient juice through her ancient circuitry to run her bilge pumps. It wasn't until Gleam arrived at City Island for serious hull work that he discovered the problem with her wiring: Her 32-volt system was made up of a virtually infinite chain of three-foot lengths of used wire that the thrifty professor had harvested from the lab benches of his Physics 101 students."
Due to the professor's highly suspect practice of "renewing worn-out bronze screws by jamming a bit of bronze wool into the hole, and then setting the old screw back with a daub of white glue," Tiedemann had a major refastening job in front of him as well. But he was nothing if not resourceful, and by the summer of 1976 he had a vintage 12-Meter ready for charter customers. Soon after, he decided to relocate to Newport, at that time still the home of the America's Cup.What could be more alluring to Cup aficionados than watching the competing 12-Meters from the deck of an authentic one?
With hindsight, it seems like a logical, straightforward, even brilliant idea. Back then, for a 27-year-old sailor who lived aboard to make ends meet, it was a mighty risk. He still had Mariner to keep going, too. But Tiedemann's next move was even bolder. Reasoning that if one classic 12- Meter was good, two would be better- more than anything else, it would heighten the sensory appeal when the two powerful sloops sailed aggressively side by side-he went searching for a stablemate to Gleam. He knew exactly what he was looking for.
Of the countless number of brilliant yachting pictures captured through the lens of legendary marine photographer Morris Rosenfeld, perhaps the most famous was "Flying Spinnakers," a study in light, shadow, and symmetry that featured a pair of pre-World War II 12-Meters under full, blossoming sail while running before a galloping sea. One was Gleam. The other was a 70-foot Sparkman & Stephens design built by the famed Nevins yard in 1938. She was called Northern Light.
Like a dog scratching for a bone, Tiedemann dove into research and learned that Northern Light was surviving-barely- just below the surface in a foul slip on Michigan's Lake Macatawa. If bringing Gleam back to trim was something akin to writing an interesting screenplay, then rescuing and restoring Northern Light could be likened to producing an epic, farreaching novel full of twists and turns and obstacles. The saga took two years, during which nearly every structural component, along with all the machinery, rigging, and electronics, needed to be addressed and overhauled.When the work was done, her deep-blue hull, contrasting with her varnished wood spars, made for an object of exquisite, jaw-dropping beauty. Soon after, Northern Light and Gleam were swapping tacks on Narragansett Bay on a daily basis, and no one needed a latter-day Morris Rosenfeld to reveal such an image for seacoast romantics.
For a moment, Bob Tiedemann could rest.He'd realized his vision, and his fleet, at least the sailing half of it, was in.
One has to admit, if the story ended right there, that it would seem pretty complete. But it didn't end, not by a long shot. If you visit Newport today, you'll see no less than a dozen 12-Meters plying the waters, plying the trade. The amazing collection of long, lean sloops has become its own cottage industry. They add grace to a waterfront that was victimized by one lame, poorly executed urban-development project after another throughout the 1970s and, especially, the 1980s. No, it wasn't necessarily a gorgeous harbor before then, but it was an honest, working one. One can make the argument that the fleet of 12-Meters, constantly under sail, has helped return to the city an air of legitimacy, of heritage. It certainly has played no small part in bridging the town's rich, important yachting history between Then and Now.
Bob Tiedemann was the instigator. Others, following his lead, joined ranks with him, and the whole, as they say, became much greater than the sum of its parts. The America's Cup disappeared from Newport in 1983, spirited away by the Aussies and their quirky, effective wing keel. But remarkably, the grandeur of the event somehow still remains, mostly because so many important Cup winners and contenders still sail its waters. Simply put, Captain Bob came to Newport and helped change it for the better, not in esoteric terms, but in real, tangible, visual ones that people can see, or sail, or just admire from afar. That's one powerful legacy to leave behind.
And yet there's another open end to the story that's more personal, for Tiedemann may have started out on his life's work essentially alone, but that's not at all how he finished it.
Elizabeth Tiedemann met her future husband in 1991 aboard-what else?- Gleam. She was working in corporate sales for a local hotel and had been invited out for a "familiarization" sail. "Bob called me afterward, and I thought he was looking for business from the hotel," she says. "It took me a while to realize he was after my business."
Both Elizabeth and Bob were casualties of broken marriages, and they didn't rush anything. Eventually she came aboard Gleam as a hostess, a stint that lasted two years, during which she literally learned the ropes. From there she took her corporate skills to the shoreside end of the Seascope operation, booking the charters and handling the payroll. Three years to the day from their first meeting, on July 10, 1994, they were married aboard Gleam. It's hard to imagine a more balanced union, her yin in perfect alignment to his yang, their lives together a whirlwind in which it was impossible to demarcate where the business ended and the passion began, because they were all one and the same.
Still, at first, she was wary of one thing and one thing only. "When we first met, I thought I'd come behind Gleam," she admits. "He was devoted to her. She was an extension of him, and vice versa.He loved her. She enabled him to do what he loved to do. She was responsible for the restoration of Northern Light and for the maintenance of Mariner, which has been in the family for 40 years. Pam and Fawan never would've been restored without her. Gleam paved the way."
So, yes, as it turned out there was plenty of room in Tiedemann's heart for Gleam, and Elizabeth, and for the projects that would follow, which they took on together. The restoration of Pam, for example, is an excellent object lesson in how that process worked. "Bob always approached it like this," says Elizabeth. "First you find the boat, then you rescue and restore it, and then you find it a market."
As with Gleam and Northern Light, Pam was a certified mess when Tiedemann found her awash in a canal in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But he'd always reckoned that the 12-Meters could use their very own tender and that it would have to be something special, something worthy of the role. Tiedemann took one look at the wreckage of the once-glamorous vessel- the caved-in foredeck, the seized engines- and, once more, saw something that others couldn't see.
"It was love at first sight," says Elizabeth." He had to have her."
Tiedemann got the engines going, limped up the Intracoastal Waterway, and had a temporary shed built for her in Jamestown, Rhode Island. Slowly, slowly, the couple put a bit of money into her, launched her, and chartered her out at low rates until they had more cash to inject into her rebirth. Today, in her own way, the "rumrunner" Pam is every bit the equal of the 12-Meters; she's found her market, and she does active duty on cocktail cruises, ash scatterings, dinners, lunches. With her classic lines and abundant brightwork, she's a throwback to another time and place. Then again, so was the man who found and saved her.
"He was old-fashioned," says Elizabeth. "He was in this world, but really, he was a man of the 1920s and 1930s. When we first met, he had little handlebars at the end of his moustache, which would definitely typify him as an old-world kind of guy.He was a gentleman, always a gentleman. Even when he was sailing, he always said 'Please' and 'Thank you.'
"I know exactly how I would've answered if, 15 years ago, someone said to me, 'You can have your soul mate, but only for 15 years. Would you still walk down that path?' "The answer's simple: In a minute I would."
Not of the sunlight,
Not of the moonlight,
Not of the starlight!
O young Mariner,
Down to the haven,
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel,
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow The Gleam.
-from "Merlin and the Gleam" by Alfred Lord Tennyson
May 12, 2006, was a stormy, rainy day in Newport, Rhode Island. The weather was unsettled.Maybe the whole universe was unsettled. That's what it felt like. Four days earlier, Bob Tiedemann had lost his battle with pancreatic cancer, and on this miserable afternoon, several hundred mourners packed old Trinity Church on Spring Street to its very rafters to celebrate one mariner's remarkable life.
Bob's friends were eloquent, sad, and funny. Jeff Marlowe spoke about Tennyson's lyrical "Merlin and the Gleam," from which the revered 12-Meter got her name. He said how right it was that Bob was one of the founders of the Museum of Yachting, whose mission is the preservation of the sport.And he got a big laugh when he said, "Bob loved his crew and treated them like family. Perhaps it's more appropriate to say that Bob treated his family like crew!"
Old pal Amos Shepard said, "I think he's here, listening to me, his hand on a railing of wood close by, and wondering how many coats of paint or varnish it will take to make it look new again." Elizabeth's friend Lydia Babich spoke about how Bob was always an avid participant in the regular Girls' Night Out, about how he pampered and looked after the ladies.
His mates and captains were the ushers, and one of them, Kyle Dufur-a Renaissance man, like his boss-played a stirring rendition of "Ave Maria" on the violin. Soon it was over, and Bob's friends and colleagues, sailors all, disassembled in the rain, with the community weakened, and strengthened, by the words and music.
One other thing happened that day. Gleam was launched, ready for yet another summer, her true captain nowhere in sight.