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Setting Sail with the Big Boys

With New Technology and New Money, Majestic Sailing Ships Are Back
Marc Wortman
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

It's just after dawn in early August, and the fog along Nantucket Harbor slowly begins to dissolve into a pure azure sky. Already the docks are a flurry of activity as the crews make their boats ready. Along Straight Wharf, masts, rigging and pennants appear out of the mist. When the fog finally lifts, a breathtaking sight unfolds. With hulls arrayed Mediterranean-style, stern to the dock, 19 of the world's most magnificent, largest and newest sailing ships stand abeam. These modern behemoths range from 75 to 175 feet long. Masts tower more than 10 stories above the decks. The "Big Boys," as they're affectionately called around the island, dwarf the other sailing yachts, mere 40- to 70-footers, that pack the harbor. In a few hours, the Nantucket armada unfurl their sails; some have enough cloth in a single sail to drape the U.S. Capitol dome. With a roar from the crews and the thousands gathered on shore and in boats, one after another they peel off from the formation and head to sea. It's the sort of display that hasn't been seen since the glory days of great sailing yachts that ended almost a century ago.

Sailing yachts this size are more typically dinosaurs, antique training vessels like the Tall Ships, owned and operated by navies and schools, but each of the Big Boys is owned by a single skipper who gets drunk on the exhilaration of feeling the wind in his sails, the waves slapping his hull. These boats are personal expressions of their owners' intense passion for the sea and for sailing. For these yachtsmen, marriages and mergers may matter, but this is the high point of the year, when they set out to sea for a regatta that will determine the year's claimant to the coveted Nantucket Bucket. To the winner goes a case of Veuve Cliquot Champagne, an engraved silver pitcher--the event's circulating trophy--and the right to have his name engraved upon a scrimshaw plaque that is screwed onto an old wooden slop bucket that sits on a back shelf at a pop-ular Nantucket watering hole, 21 Federal. That's it. No commercial endorsements, no syndicate backing, no shot at the America's Cup. It's bragging rights with their friends and good cheer that drive these sailors on. That and an unbridled love of sailing and the money to put to sea in some of the greatest private sailing yachts ever built.

"The Bucket is just about three letters: F-U-N," says investor Peter Goldstein, the man who, along with New York Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday, has organized the event for the past 11 years. "What we've designed is a chance to get together with family and friends and really enjoy sailing. We're very careful. We'll penalize anybody who becomes too competitive." Hyper-competitiveness is not easy to prevent in the high-stakes, cutthroat world of ocean racing, where, say, winning the Whitbread 'round-the-world race or challenging for the America's Cup drives an entire industry of naval architects, shipbuilders, captains and crews to an Ahab-like fury to shave pounds, increase sail thrust and push their hulls, keels and masts to the breaking point.

Being the fastest boat rounding the mark may not count for much among the Big Boys, but being the biggest, sleekest and most tricked out definitely does. The Big Boys who sail into Nantucket each summer for the Bucket are just part of a boom in big-sailboat building, racing and ownership that has returned sailing yachts to a size and grandeur that had become all but extinct. Until just a decade ago, nobody built boats this size anymore. From the early 1930s until the 1980s, not a single 100-foot sailing yacht was built anywhere. The '80s and '90s have seen a rebirth of the big boats that are reminiscent of the great sailboats of the 1920s, which was known as the great age of sail. A technological revolution in materials and machinery has made it possible for yachts that once required as many as 30 burly crew members to be handled by a skeletal crew or even a small family of skilled sailors. Now, in the waters of sailing havens such as the Caribbean, the Maine coast and the Greek isles, big, sleek, fast and luxurious yachts have restored the Gilded Age romance and glamour to life under sail. Only this time, it's a lot less work and a lot more fun.

"When I started out sailing in the 1960s," says Goldstein, "a big boat was 45 feet long. Then the cruising boats started stretching out. Ten years ago, the big ones were 100 feet. Now they're 150 feet. Boats are back that we haven't seen for 100 years. The big difference, though, is that now they're sailed not by uniformed crews but by family and friends."

Like any other gear-oriented sport, sailboats have become increasingly sophisticated. Soon sailors will be able to take out the biggest yachts in the world and hardly flex a muscle, except for the finger on the joystick. Jim Clark, cofounder of software producer Netscape Communications Corp. and computer maker Silicon Graphics Inc., has designed his new 150-foot yacht, now under construction in the Netherlands, to be monitored and operated almost entirely by a bank of 26 on-board computers that handles everything from weather forecasting to adjusting the sails.

Like a biker who heads for the trails on his mountain bike one day and rides the pavement on his racing bike the next, Tom Gosnell, a retired publisher from Rochester, New York, decided that he needed a different boat for every sailing situation. He built a 118-foot cruiser for long-range travel in 1992, then decided that he needed a high-performance boat for day sailing, so in 1996, he added a superfast 77-foot day sailor to his fleet for jetting around the Nantucket and Long Island sounds. "We've traveled just this side of the Arctic and rounded the Horn in 45-knot winds comfortably," he says of the cruising yacht. The ultralight day sailor, by contrast, he says, "is a sort of speedster. There isn't an ounce of extra weight on it. You can't take it around the Horn."

The booming demand for big, high-tech boats has meant that a handful of great custom boatyards around the world have a swelling backlog of skippers waiting for their ships. For instance, if you want to build your dream boat at Derecktor Shipyards in Mamaroneck, New York, perhaps the top custom yacht builder in America, you'll need to stand in a line that's more than a half-year long. And then expect it to take at least another 18 months before your finished boat is ready for its shakedown cruise.

But if you've got that one dream of a boat in mind, it's worth the wait to have it done right.

It took Rob Johnson nearly three years, from the time he started looking for a boat until he launched the 88-foot Shaman last July. But he knew that what he wanted was so special, so far out on the technological leading edge, that rushing things might have resulted in cutting corners. And that could send everyone to the bottom when he rounds Cape Horn, graveyard to thousands of ships, which he expects to do any day now.

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