Sailing March 1987
By Alberta Molner
On Friday the 13th of June Lake Michigan said goodby to an old friend. She left in grace, her deep blue shining topsides peeling over the chilly water off Holland, Michigan.
The Olin Stephens designed 12-Meter, NORTHERN LIGHT, was heading east, back to the waters of her birthplace, Long Island Sound. But the time the 1938 Twelve, built of mahogany and cypress, spent as a Lakes Twelve wouldn't be forgotten. For it was while on Lake Michigan that the great Twelve, having nearly slipped into oblivion, was returned from pathetic disrepair to miraculous recovery.
NORTHERN LIGHT is US Twelve Meter 14, launched in 1938, just before US15 VIM, for Lee Loomis. She was built on City Island, New York at the Henry B. Nevins Boatyard. Loomis had sailed on the Twelve GLEAM, also built at the Nevins yard, just opposite the design firm of Sparkman and Stephens. He had wanted a similar, competitive yacht for racing on Long Island Sound.
And competitive she was. The year she was launched she won the Long Island Sound 12-Meter championship. When the war interrupted racing NORTHERN LIGHT was put into storage. Then in 1958 she was brought out, purchased by Wilber E. Dow Jr., renamed NEREUS and pressed into trial horse service with Cornelius Shields at her helm, as America's Cup racing resumed in 12-Meters, with the new S & S designed COLUMBIA seeking to defend. She also performed as pacer for CONSTELLATION in the 1964 series.
Eventually, she came to the Great Lakes, waters where many ex-race horse Twelve Meters have done well. NORTHERN LIGHT followed the paths of Twelves NORSAGA and MITENA, followed by WEATHERLY, and now HERITAGE and INTREPID (re-named INTREPID WINDANCER). She went on to claim her superiority by finishing well in Chicago-Mackinacs in the 70s. During this time she set the course record on the 120-mile long Mills Trophy race on Lake Erie when chartered to Al Gregory of Detroit.
But how quickly those laurels seemed to have faded into the past of the once-great Twelve. After a stint as a charter boat out of Pentwater, Michigan, by 1984 she was a pathetic, tragic sight. She spent what would seem to be her last years rotting at the dock at Bay Haven Marina in Holland, Michigan.
NORTHERN LIGHT had become a sort of salty fixture of the waterfront. Many who passed knew her and many like area sailor Russell Six had looked at her with special feeling. He, like a lot of people of the area, had fallen in love with that boat. But,there she was, seemingly helpless.
Finally, one of Lake Michigan's famous November storms struck. Battered against a piling in the wind, NORTHERN LIGHT sank at her dock on Lake Macatawa on Thanksgiving weekend 1984. She was impaled on a piling, rupturing her overhanging bow high up in the air, the stern down. Eventually, she was refloated. Dave Doezema's 21-foot Boston Whaler towed the 30-ton Twelve to Anchorage Marine where the TraveLift there could handle her. People from Bay Haven, Anchorage, the local Pirates and just interested passersby came forth on their own to help place a plywood patch over the wretched hole. It was a temporary patch. NORTHERN LIGHT was brought back to her old holding dock at Bay Haven.
That was when Bob Tiedemann from Newport, Rhode Island, looking for a reasonably sound wooden Twelve with wooden frames, turned up in Holland, Michigan. She was pretty well gone by the time he met up with the Twelve -he'd hoped to resurrect. After so many years of being ignored, she was in deep disrepair. As beautiful as she had once been, she was far from the beguiler she could have been. But, what was still there of her natural beauty was enough. Tiedemann was hooked.
The beauty of the Stephens lines, gracious overhangs, delightfully dipping sheer stretching elegantly 70'2" stem to stern, was too much for Tiedemann to turn his back to. The resurrection began that spring day in 1985 when he bought her.
For Tiedemann it wasn't a job; it was love. Six, who ended up doing a lot of the volunteer work on the Twelve, along with Susan Woods and a host of 12 to 15 other local interested people, said of Tiedemann and ressurecting old Twelve Meters, "It's been his obsession for life."
Tiedemann of Newport, Rhode Island owns GLEAM and NORTHERN LIGHT now. They're offered in charter out of Newport and were most recently seen in last summer's Liberty Weekend celebration parade and at the Newport Museum of Yachting Regatta. Tiedemann is founder of the Antique 12-Meter Association, an organization he has restricted to Twelves that pre-date World- War 11.
In searching for other Twelve Meters from prewar era, he hit upon NORTHERN LIGHT with enthusiasm because unlike many' of the English built Twelves, she was not composite constructed. Her mahogany over cypress planking with oak frames would be easier to restore than metal framed Twelves. Thus began the commitment to NORTHERN LIGHT.
Tiedemann and Louis Sauzedde, a Newport shipwright who assisted in the reconstruction, hauled the Twelve and immediately realized their work would be a lot more than originally anticipated. "Nothing was ever done to maintain her," Sauzedde said. "Structurally the boat was quite a mess.'9
She was so fragile, Tiedemann realized the work had to be done right there, rather than on the East Coast. NORTHERN LIGHT in her shakey state, couldn't survive a jouncing haul to the East Coast.
The stern post was split down the middle.
Replacing the post required pulling all the planks on the starboard side that abutted the stern post. Planks pulled from around the hole made by the piling exposed, to the surprise of many, metal frames. The different metals, aluminum and iron, had caused electrolysis. Eleven iron members were replaced with bronze cast fittings.
Thirty sister frames were placed in the deepest part of the 15-ton keel. Four planks were replaced on the keel and seven more elsewhere. And a new rudder was built, while the ballast was re-bedded. Tiedemann worked on her for 16-hour days for the months of March and April last year.
A lot of the original hardware and gear weren't on NORTHERN LIGHT. The replacement wheel, among the items gone, was bronze cast, made from the pattern of the 12-Meter NYALA's wheel.
"It's just like restoring an antique car," saidTiedemann, who is wont to making car and 12-Meter comparisons. "We have to fabricate, have parts cast out of bronze and brass, then machined. Fortunately, a lot of hardware should be similar to that on GLEAM. I have GLEAM as a pattern since both were built by the same boatyard. On other car and NORTHERN LIGHT comparisons, Tiedemann has said, "I often make the analogy of comparing it to a Ferrari vs. a station wagon. It is a thoroughbred. You know this is something different when it gives that response and feeling back through the helm."
I The helm was nearly his. But, first the launching. NORTHERN LIGHT was ready for the water by late May last year. She needed at least a week in the water for her planks to swell before the trip out through the Lakes to the East Coast in time for Liberty Weekend could be made.
As soon as the Twelve was settled in the water, Tiedemann along with Sauzedde dashed onboard, down the companionway to watch the water pour through her seams.
Russ Six remembered that the water was gushing in. But then after about five minutes it cut to about half. In 20 minutes it was down to a trickle. And throughout the sail from Holland, Michigan to New York City her bilge stayed bone dry.
NORTHERN LIGHT, layed up now in Newport for the off-season, will return this season to the waters of Newport where so many famous ladies of the 12-Meter International Rule design have sailed. Her interior, largely unrestored when she left Michigan, still needs to be refinished, but her hull is back to seaworthiness, and glinting sunlight from its attractive, shapely curves.
Those curves seem to help cultivate a sort of awe in the viewer, such as that of Lawrence Matista. He once owned NORTHERN LIGHT and raced her out of Detroit. From his remembrance he has said, "Once you have been on this boat it becomes an addiction, a disease; but a nice one. It's such a joy to sail. It haunts you. There's nothing like it." There will, no doubt, be many more great remembrances made from onboard the Twelve Meter NORTHERN LIGHT now as she sails on again in grace and loveliness and agility.