Setting Sail with the Big Boys
With New Technology and New Money, Majestic Sailing Ships Are Back
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.
Like most passionate sailors, Johnson has cruised and raced boats most of his life. In 1995, at age 37, he'd amassed enough money to retire from his job as a currency trader, manage his educational charities and put together a team of some of the best naval architects, project managers and boat craftsmen around to build what would be the perfect boat for him and his family. "What I wanted," he says, "was a boat that was aesthetically pleasing but didn't compromise on speed."
That's a tough mission for one boat to fulfill. Naval architect Bill Tripp designed the Shaman and has also designed many world-class championship race boats. "Rob told us, 'Make it art for art's sake,'" Tripp recalls. "He didn't set a finite value on this boat. For him, the better the boat is, the more it's worth to him." The result is a boat that is a cross between a Grand Prix racer and a suite at the Ritz.
Historically, a boat as big and as luxurious as the Shaman has been a lumbering tub weighing more than 100 tons and digging a deep hole in the water. Jacuzzis, trash compactors and hardwood headboards add pounds. Using carbon fiber, Kevlar and other ultralight, ultrastrong materials for hull and mast, along with such tricks as cherry veneer on honeycombed cores for the interior woodwork, the Shaman was trimmed back to a downright anorexic 48 tons. The amazing thing is that shaving all those pounds--a practice more typical for a bare-bones race boat--didn't cost anything in luxury and comfort. In fact, reducing the weight allows the ship to slide over waves, making it less subject to pitching and rolling.
The ship's interior, designed by London's Andrew Winch, has an elegant 1930s feel, with elaborate polished woodwork, as well as all the amenities of home, including a washer and dryer, a big-screen TV, state-of-the-art electronics and a combination pilothouse and salon with 360-degree views that make riding out a storm a pleasure.
The exterior and guts of the ship, on the other hand, are all space age. The Shaman has a number of special, hidden features. These include ballast tanks that automatically fill with water to flatten the ship when it heels over in a strong wind, and a hydraulic keel that drops 14 feet into the water to ensure stability at sea, but lifts to permit passage into the shallowest reef lagoons nestled within uncharted Pacific islands. Johnson's ship can sail seas anywhere in the world, at speeds seen more often in championship racing yachts, yet make the trips in great comfort. Best of all, it can be operated by a crew of four.
Creating such an exquisite vessel wasn't cheap. Johnson won't say how much he spent on the Shaman. A more typical 100-foot sailing cruiser, purchased used, runs from $5 million to $7 million, for starters. Figure a minimum of $300,000 just for annual upkeep and operation, and it's not all that different from owning a jet. It'll take you wherever you want to go, but make sure your pockets are plenty deep to keep it afloat. "Sailing," says Bucket organizer Goldstein, "is like standing in a shower and tearing up $10,000 bills."
Unlike other means of global transportation, however, a sailing yacht is also a combination home and source of adventure. "It's more fun to travel with your own hotel and first-class restaurant," says Gosnell of life aboard his cruising yacht.
"What's unusual are the places you can go," adds naval architect Tripp. "Unless they're picking up passengers, these boats avoid like the plague anyplace with an airport. You can't get into the anchorages where they go." For instance, Johnson's itinerary for the Shaman for this summer includes the fjords of Norway, then into the Mediterranean, followed by a passage to the Galapagos Islands. A year from now he plans to pull his children, ages nine and 11, out of school for a year and a half of circumnavigating the globe. It'll be a family adventure they'll never forget. "I'd rather have my kids inherit experience than money," he says.
Why not just get a motor yacht? "In a motor yacht," says Tripp, who has designed several, "you have a chauffeur and they take you around. A sailing boat asks for your participation. There are times when everybody on the boat has to pitch in."
Cruising, even on the scale and luxury of the Big Boys, is a challenge--a challenge that requires experience and forethought. It's not for everyone. A boat heels over in the breeze and pounds through the sea. It's hard to stay dry. The wind screams, the boom can whip the sails at terrifying velocity across the deck, and when you're in the middle of the ocean and a storm front hits, you can't stop and ask for a quick lift home. "The scale of forces on a boat this size is nothing to laugh at," says Johnson. "You have to take precautions." Failure on a sailboat can be catastrophic. Every passage-making sailor remembers Mike Plant, then America's foremost single-handed sailor, who disappeared two summers ago during a transatlantic crossing. His boat lost its keel and was found turtled. Plant's body was never recovered.
For the architect, designing a seaworthy vessel that is both safe and comfortable isn't simple. "The sea is an unforgiving environment," says Tripp. "Your first concern is structural, so that the boat won't capsize and so it'll stand up straight in a lot of breeze. Then you want to create an environment people can enjoy. Boats have to be self-sustaining for a long period. There's nothing so eerie or satisfying as sailing out of a harbor and knowing you're not going to see another port for 3,000 miles. The closest comparable experience is probably setting off to climb a mountain."
Whether you design and build, or purchase a used vessel, a great sailing cruiser requires a big up-front investment in time. Much of that time should be devoted to getting an education. Johnson had been sailing since he was a child, yet he still spent several weeks with a friend, Australian America's Cup racer Joe Cooper, learning about the state of the art in the nautical world and visiting boat shows. Johnson suggests sailing school for prospective skippers who do not have much prior sailing experience but want to learn. "It's better to have a mentor," he says. Then, he adds, buy a small boat like a Laser, which is just a sail, rudder and hull. "The physics are the same in a 90-foot boat as a Laser, but you can feel it on a Laser." He also suggests chartering boats for vacations to compare their feel and to experience living aboard and making long passages. But Johnson warns, "Make sure you charter boats that are smaller than the boat you're going to buy so you won't feel disappointed."
Then you'll have to decide what it will take to meet your personal needs in a sailboat. If you can restrain yourself, there are many ways of keeping costs in line. For instance, a production boat will cost half the price of a comparable custom job. You can take a semi-custom boat--that is, one with a production hull and other major components--and then design the interior and details to your specifications. Prices can be kept under $1.5 million, even for a 65-foot boat. Drop down to a 40-footer and you can order a gorgeously appointed boat from topflight yacht builders like Alden or Hinkley for around $500,000 to $600,000. If you go this route, the choices are enormous. For instance, the 1997 Sail Magazine Sailboat Buyer's Guide lists 159 different models at more than 40 feet.
But there's nothing like deciding that you want to be at the helm of the ship you've created. For that, you'll need to go the custom route. Once you have a sense of what your ambitions are for the boat--from crew size to likely destinations--choosing a naval architect is the first step in creating your dream. The architect will have the assignment of putting your dream on paper. The foundations laid at this point will directly affect what you experience at sea, so it's vital that you feel comfortable with this person. Some architects have a specialized style and approach. For instance, Maine-based architect Bruce King is known for designing antique-style wooden boats with modern systems. Others, such as the venerable firm of Sparkman & Stephens in New York City, can work in a range of forms.
Tripp was an obvious choice for Johnson. They had known each other since both were teens racing boats on the Great Lakes. "We had a friendly rivalry," recalls Tripp. It didn't hurt that Tripp is also one of the most recognized names in the trade, with wide experience designing cutting-edge race boats and luxurious cruising yachts.
For the Shaman, Johnson put Peter Wilson, who has overseen the design and construction of many large-scale yachts for Marine Construction Management in Newport, Rhode Island, in charge of project management. Green Marine in Lymington, England, constructed the high-tech hull and deck, which was then put on a cargo ship and transported to Derecktor Shipyards in New York. Derecktor manufactured or installed the rest, from the engine and electronics to the interior, rudder and rigging. "There were only a few yards in the world with the sophistication to build this boat," says Johnson. "You have to trust the culture to embrace your goals."
For Johnson, making sure his goals were met was a challenge. "I was hiring a lot of high-powered people with big egos," he says. "They want their thing, their signature on it. When conflicts arose, I let them fight it out, and then I made a decision."
Anyone who's spent a long time under sail knows that on a boat everything is a compromise. That's true even on a boat like the Shaman. The choices--or compromises--take place at every turn in the design process because, unlike a house, the architect cannot conjure space where none exists, and the laws of physics as expressed by sail and hull won't bend to the whims of the builder. Unlike a motor yacht, in which space is relatively easy to manipulate, every nook and cranny on a sailing cruiser must be put to use. It's easy to feel claustrophobic. Privacy is at a premium. Just like creating a great house, however, the launch of a superb yacht comes about through a meeting of minds--that of the owner, the builder and the designer.
There are as many potential variables in boat design as there are changes in the sea. The biggest of these are speed, cruising range, comfort and size, and the money you're willing to spend to improve each. If your goal is comfort and speed, as it was for Johnson, bigger is better. A bigger boat will be faster (many still unbroken speed records under sail date back to the mega-sailing ships of the early part of the century) and generally more stable. And, of course, there's the glory and romance of watching those giant sails leaning into the wind.
The process of creating a great sailing vessel should also be fun. Johnson visited Derecktor at least once a week while work on the Shaman progressed. "I enjoyed feeling the creation taking place," he says. "Custom work is just that. It's improvisational. They'd ask whether I liked something like this or like that."
Mary Ann Clerkin, marketing manager for Derecktor, says, "People who build custom know what they want. This is their passion. This is the only way to get exactly what they want." Many of the yard's customers come from the Atlantic seaboard precisely because they want to live close enough to participate regularly in the boat-building experience.
When the Shaman sailed out to the race course with the other Big Boys in the Nantucket Bucket last summer, Johnson's dream of a world-class, high-performance, luxury sailing yacht finally became a reality. As he steered through the last leg and approached the finish line of the race, he felt chills as he watched the boats pouring in. "I saw 19 different dreams on display. Each was different, and each fulfilled a vision of nautical creativity." That, rather than a great drive to win the Bucket, was what inspired him to enter the regatta.
On some distant sea somewhere in the world right now, Johnson is probably at the helm, scanning an unbroken horizon as the wind fills the sails of his dream.
Marc Wortman is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Connecticut, who writes frequently about architecture and design. Come Sail Away
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