Sailing May 1993

There is a Season to Rekindle

The 12-meter start included included the Tiedemann's Northern Light.

Nantucket makes the most of history. Standing firm against the full force of the Atlantic, 30 miles to sea, the small sandy island is a haven of clapboards, cobblestones and Yankee charm. Lobster pots and catboats dot the harbor with shoreline bleachers of widows' walks and salty, shuttered captain's homes from the 18th and 19th century.

This Atlantic outpost was hail to thousands of sailors who cruised the seven seas for blubber and whale oil, carving their trophy's teeth on deck and spreading the Nantucket name among the world's distant fleets.

This windswept island still cherishes its historical role among sailors and in whaling folklore. While whaling and the age of sailing commerce have given way to vacationing tourists, islanders still take pride in the classic sailing fleet that gathers each summer for the Opera House Cup. Bringing history to life in this New England town, the fleet of classic wooden yachts, 32 feet and longer, lures some of the most glamorous, along with some of the most unusual, woodies from throughout the Atlantic.

No, the Opera House Cup has nothing to do with grand voices bellowing Italian on theatrical stage... or any fat lady singing. It is a celebration of a local watering hole and popular restaurant, known as the Opera House, which welcomes locals to the narrow cobbled streets at the end of the island's main wharf.

For 20 years Gwen Gaillard, owner of the restaurant has hosted the longest running wooden boat regatta on the East Coast, with entries vying for the trophy that was once a champagne bucket from her restaurant. Sailed in good humor and camaraderie, the Cup stands out as one of the most festive of all the stops on New England's Wooden Boat Regatta Series and as an important leg in the National Schooner Race Association.

At a time when fiberglass boats were the growing rage, Gaillard and a few other Nantucket residents, including Chick Walsh and

William Torpey, were disappointed that the wooden boats were not recognized as a separate class by the local yacht club. Spontaneously they organized 13 classic yachts and staged the Opera House Cup in 1973.

"Since that time," says Bob Tiedemann, a four-time Opera Cup winner, "the Newport Classic Yacht Regatta and several other classic East Coast regattas were fashioned after Gaillard's original idea."

Nantucket Harbor, where for almost a full century the waters were rail to rail with tall ships, was again brimming with romantic teak and mahogany classics of brass and boomkins, gaffs and gollywobblers.

Primarily a cruising race, with no Kevlar, Mylar, spinnakers or other hot stuff allowed, the dockside fleet looks more like a mutual admiration club with appreciative boat owners examining classic trim details, traditional rigs and glowing coats of varnish. Owners scramble over each others' boats with glowing praise, leaving themselves just enough time to dash back to their own yachts and parade out the harbor, past the lighthouse and crowds of wooden boat fans waving from shore.

The bonhomie fades with the starting gun, at least for most entries. While there is still a handful of crews who dress in festive costume and bring a champagne lunch, or simply are out to enjoy the summer breezes and witness the fleet first hand, most sailors summon those competitive urges to see what their classic boat, properly trimmed and raced, can do against other speedsters of the era.

"These sailors come for a lot of reasons-it's a great party and most of the sailors have become friends through their wooden boat associations," says race organizer Chick Walsh, who runs the 21 Federal, a Nantucket restaurant-bar which holds the Cup and display of the winners on a carved quarterboard. "Nantucket is a seasonal sailing destination for many of these yachts. The classics feel a kinship to these historical harbors and it's a great place to sail, to bring the whole family, and the town really welcomes the classics."

The fleet had arrived in a raging 30-knot squall on Saturday, but by race time on Sunday the breeze had all but died, and the rain filtered off until only a flat grey sky loomed overhead. Sixty boats made the start, including five classic 12-meters, Gleam, Intrepid, Valiant, Weatherly, and American Eagle, the 137-foot Pride of Baltimore, the 97-foot Whitehawk, Heritage, and others.

The 19-mile course began in less than 10 knots and the breeze died from that point until many of the yachts were forced to anchor just to hold position in the turning tide. Several entries dropped out as ratings and handicaps had little bearing on the water. Crews moved gingerly on decks, hugging the leeward rails, scanning the glassy sea for any sign of a breeze, while the shoreline was crowded with binocular-toting spectators straining to see any trace of action.

All year long these gaffed-rigged beauties had been snuffed to weather by those pop-out Tupperware speedsters. This race was to be their chance, but the wind, or lack of it, was no help to those eager to put their boats through their paces off Nantucket. The dramatic back drop of Great Point light and the fact of being adrift off this enchanting historical port took the edge off the racing frustration.

Few sailors were disheartened at the light airs. This was just another year with a sparkling fleet on a breathless sea, and a post race party on shore, brimming with fresh seafood and tales of previous years on the course. Already sailors were planning on match or small fleet races to finally establish whose yacht was the swiftest that season. For most, though, waiting until the next Opera House Cup would have to do.

close window