February 2003


Keeping Old Boats Out of the Woodpile

By Kenny Wooton

Where I live in Connecticut, a cord of firewood costs about $160. A cord is a tight stack roughly 4 feet by 4 feet by 8. There are numerous stories of people paying less for larger piles that contain the fragmented remains of once-beautiful, once-functional sailing boats and motoryachts that carried families up bays and out to islands for memorable picnics and wonderful weekend adventures. Some carried young men and women on courses across oceans that changed their lives and off to races that made them famous. Others served as intimate platforms for decisions and discussions that changed the world.

Yachts are now made of materials that are generally stronger and easier to maintain. But who with a heart and an appreciation of beauty and fine craftsmanship isn't sad when he sees a tangled pile of wood that was once a boat? Who doesn't appreciate the intellectual labors of talented designers who created yachts as objects of beauty, pencil line by pencil line on the drawing board, and the physical labors of craftsmen who executed the visions with careful strokes of a plane? Those yachts were more than simple platforms for recreation.

For me, the thrill of reporting the "Keepers of the Flame" story in this issue was experiencing the profound passion the three people in the piece share for preserving and restoring our shared legacy. Each of the subjects, Bob Tiedemann, Elizabeth Meyer and Earl McMillen III, cited the horror of seeing those ugly woodpiles in boat yards as significant motivation for committing their careers to classic yacht preservation. Each has found a way to make a viable business out of the passion, and each is responsible for many classic

yacht restorations. More important still, perhaps, is that many of the boats they've restored are available for use by anyone willing to put up the charter fee.

I've benefited personally from their labors. I've witnessed two products of Meyer's restoration efforts, the J-Class yachts Endeavour and Sbamrock V, cross tacks in the Caribbean trade winds. I've seen Tiedemann's vintage 12-Meters, Gleam and Nortbern Ligbt, sail out of Newport for a day of America's Cup-style dicing on Rhode Island Sound. I've cruised up the Intracoastal Waterway on McMillen's Belle and raced aboard his 12-Meter Onawa in the America's Cup jubilee. For these experiences, I am deeply grateful.

Meyer, Tiedemann and McMillen are based in one New England city: Newport, Rhode Island. But they're just a few of hundreds-perhaps more-committed enthusiasts worldwide whose sawing, planing, fastening, sanding, varnishing and painting give new life to wooden yachts of all sizes and types. Some are professionals who do restorations for a living, others are volunteers donating time in museums and still others are midway through decade-long projects in their garages and basements.

On a personal level, each is producing something of great value-something he someday may be able to sail or drive or show off to friends. But the collective efforts have greater implications. By preserving old boats, these people are sustaining the legacy all of us have inherited from the community of enthusiasts that preceded us. All yachtsmen owe these people a debt of gratitude. Thanks to them, our grandchildren may someday be boating on a bay and be treated to a sight that will feed their eyes and stir their souls.

If you get the chance to meet any of these people, shake their hands or, if it's appropriate, write them a check. They deserve it. Classic yachts always look better on a mooring coated in sparkling varnish than in a pile next to the fireplace.

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