"You know you're getting old when kids call you 'Mister,' " says Peter Seidenberg, one of the world's top Laser sailors in the Great Grand Master class, which is reserved for competitors age 65 and older. He's perfectly aware that this salute is meant to be polite, but youngsters (like those under 60) don't realize they are doing him no favor with formality.
Just the hint of being considered over the hump lights a fire in Seidenberg, who has been sailing Lasers exclusively and competitively for 37 years. At the 2010 Laser Masters world championships at Hayling Island off the south coast of England, he finished second to bring home one of six medals by U.S. sailors. Silver was "OK" for Seidenberg, who has competed in 27 of the 28 Masters world championships held. As you digest this factoid and look at pictures showing him tear it up around the buoys, it helps to remember that he was born in Germany in 1937, two years before Hitler invaded Poland to start World War II. That's 73 years ago and a long way from Portsmouth, R.I., where he makes his home today.
Sticking to his game
"Since 1973, when I started sailing Laser, I didn't sail any other boat," Seidenberg says. He recounts the beginnings of the illustrious career that has netted him eight world championship titles, six North American Masters, eight U.S. Masters and six Canadian Masters championships in various age divisions. Scott Ferguson, the 2009 and 2010 Laser Masters world champion, has known Seidenberg since 2003 and calls him the "Iron Man of the Laser." At 49, Ferguson considers Seidenberg a role model.
"Peter is an incredible sailor and has so much enthusiasm for the sport. I hope that I'll be able to even sail a Laser at his level when I am his age," Ferguson says.
But what's the charm of toiling in a dinghy when there's Social Security and the lure of large boats with a couch and coffee maker? It comes down to economy of dollars and time spent sailing multiplied by the fun Seidenberg is having with "man-against-man competition," as he calls it. "I like the Laser's strict one-design concept, its cost-effectiveness and its popularity. It's affordable to own more than one boat for practicing and racing, and there are plenty of regattas with good participation at every level."
Others feel the same way, which is why Masters regattas continue to produce excellent turnout (350 competitors at the 2010 world championship) and why Seidenberg keeps coming back year after year, decade after decade.
But to get to this point, he had to break with his past and leave the oppressive system of post-World War II East Germany where he grew up. Busting out from behind the Iron Curtain was a jailbreak and a suicide mission rolled into one. The tiniest mistake would get you life in a prison run by Stasi (the reviled government spy agency) or a bullet in the back.
An escape by boat
He grew up in landlocked Magdeburg, about 100 miles southwest of Berlin, earned a degree in naval engineering and worked as a mechanical/ structural design engineer in the shipbuilding industry and other industries. When he was 12, he started sailing the Pirat, a hard-chined two-person plywood dinghy.
But living in Magdeburg, close to the border with West Germany, he received TV and radio programs that showed the world on the far side of the Berlin Wall and his resolve grew to make a break for those greener pastures.
"On Oct. 25, 1963, a friend and I got into a tandem folding kayak and paddled to Denmark," Seidenberg says matter-of-factly. But that's the abridged version. The date was chosen because it was a calm, moonless night and they had to cross the Baltic Sea from the seaport of Warnemünde to Gedser on the Danish island of Lolland.
It was a frantic paddle across open water that covered 25 nautical miles in 7-1/2 hours and avoided the heavily guarded border to West Germany. Sailing in East Germany at that time, Seidenberg remembers, was restricted to the 3-mile coastal zone and the border area to the west was crawling with military, Vopos (the ubiquitous and often brutal police) and snitches who were suspicious of anyone who brought an air mattress to the beach. "It made me mad and my ambition was to escape," Seidenberg says. Later, he lived in Hamburg and left for Canada in 1967, "because they were looking for immigrants." He lived in Toronto until 1991 before moving to Rhode Island.
A Laser and a dolly
At first he got into the Olympic Finn dinghy, which is akin to a nautical torture rack, as it requires big and strong sailors to muscle the 300-pound boat and 108-square-foot sail. Seidenberg might have had the skills, but at 165 pounds he was 35 pounds below average weight for the class. So when the Laser was introduced in the early 1970s, he found his ride. It's still a single-hander, but much lighter and simpler than a Finn.
What irked him most about the boat was lifting the hull from the cartop and carrying it to the beach to rig and launch. The early dollies were a joke, with wooden hull support and flimsy PVC handles that fell apart after a short time. At one point, Seidenberg decided he'd seen enough and wanted to correct the situation. Aided by his background in structural engineering and his German-ness, he set out to build the Rolls Royce of dinghy dollies.
"It had to be light, strong, corrosion-resistant and it had to disassemble for easy shipping and storing," Seidenberg explains. It was an instant hit and his company, Seitech, branched out into models for other boats and storage racks for kayak stores. It was a good run for Seidenberg until 2001, when he sold it so he could gradually slip into retirement.
But instead of joining the Snowbird commute, he plunged deeper into Laser sailing, undeterred by the physical rigors imposed by this boat. "The equipment has improved dramatically, with better sail controls that allow you to trim the boat with ease," Seidenberg notes. And adding smaller rigs like the Radial also helped bring in new sailors or keep old-timers like him in the game.
The Energizer bunny
How long will he keep it up? "I feel well. Physically I'm on top; there's no reason to stop now," he says emphatically. To keep it that way, he does yoga stretches every morning, lifts weights every other morning and rides his bike as often as the weather permits. He also sails in as many regattas as possible, which means most weekends in the summer months, plus he spars with friends on Tuesday nights in nearby Bristol Harbor.
If that sounds a little nutty to the average retiree, Seidenberg sees sailing as his personal fountain of youth. "I know that at this age I would deteriorate fast if I stopped working out," he explains.
Last season he went to Thailand, where he competed in the Asia Pacific Championship and he traveled to his native Germany, which was especially sweet since he won the Masters class at the International German Championships in Neubrandenburg.
But most of all, he relishes every opportunity to match up against his peers, as well as sailors who could be his grandchildren. More than ever, Seidenberg is ready and prepared for "man-against-man competition."
So go ahead, call him "Mister." But do so at your own peril.
This article originally appeared in the Home Waters section of the December 2010 issue.