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A legendary boat and family heirloom

We’ve all heard it from inveterate romantics: Pretty boats do resemble pretty women. While this notion is false flattery for most floating objects that are stamped out by factories, it is the essence of the legendary racing dinghy Aera II.

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Edges, chines and brutal pragmatism are anathema to this dainty, curvaceous beauty. Like an elf, she strokes the water with minimal disturbance, propelled by the faintest whiff of air. Yet behind the uncommon looks of this streamlined beauty built near Munich, Germany, in 1937 is a common idea: pushing the design envelope in search of better performance. In today’s technology-driven world, we’ve learned to expect the extreme; consider the AC72 catamarans that will be used in the next America’s Cup. But back in the late 1930s, the pace of scientific development was much more ponderous, so radical ideas often were met with radical skepticism.

The potential benefit of a slippery boat above and below the water wasn’t difficult to grasp for Aera’s first owner, Manfred Curry, a German-born American. He was a doctor of internal medicine by training, an inventor and scientist by habit, and a sailor by passion. He revolutionized the sport by explaining the pressure differential between the windward and leeward side of the sails and laid out his thoughts in a landmark book, “The Aerodynamics of Sails and Racing Tactics.” It was Curry’s genius and relentless drive to optimize boats that helped form Aera’s shape and character.

Her time in the limelight was short, however, a little over a year at most before he sold her and she disappeared from the international racing scene for decades. Some feared she might have been lost, but she endured and survived, finally emerging from a shed on a hill, covered in bird droppings that had ruined her deck. Last summer she was restored and returned to service — curvaceous, shiny and beautiful, just as she was the day she was launched. The world is richer for it, no doubt, but so is the family of her present owner, whose parents had sailed the boat as teenagers more than 70 years ago.

Aera II was built to a construction rule for J dinghies that gave designers room to play. Overall length plus beam was limited to 25 feet, 7 inches, with a minimum beam of 4 feet, 7 inches. Sail area was 22 square meters (237 square feet) measured at 100 percent of the foretriangle. This rule was developed in 1909 to consolidate the dazzling diversity of sailboat classes in Germany. Her lines were drawn by the Hungarian designer Jenö Benaczek, who was an air force pilot in World War I. Benaczek knew aerodynamics, so he was on the same page as Curry, which is why this boat got its sexy shape and its bespoke name.

Genius and controversy

Curry dedicated much time to the study of bird flight, airflow and sail shapes, and he used down feathers and a wind tunnel to test his ideas in the 1920s. “I attribute speed to the aerodynamic shape of the hull above the water,” he wrote. “The low bow is designed to take up the wind from the water’s surface without disturbance, bending and accelerating it upwards into the sails.” And, Benaczek pointed out, the rounded shape adds stiffness to the hull and makes hiking less painful than hanging the cheeks over a sharp edge.

Despite her slippery shape and innovations — a lever mechanism to adjust the rudder blade from the cockpit, cam cleats (also known as Curry cleats), mechanical systems to adjust peak and throat halyards — Aera II never ran a miracle mile. But with Curry at the helm, that didn’t matter. He’d raced in approximately 2,000 regattas during his lifetime and posted a winning percentage that would make New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady blush.

He wasn’t universally liked, because he was different and could appear arrogant and standoffish. He didn’t drink, he was blunt, he didn’t like awards ceremonies, and above all, he didn’t like to lose. In search of an edge, he constantly developed new ideas for extreme boats. In the process, he sometimes pushed the rules, which is why Curry often was surrounded by controversy.

Although he was born in Munich in 1899, he retained his parents’ U.S. passport, which enabled him to sail the 12-foot dinghy for the United States at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. While there are no Curry statues in Germany, he was inducted into the US Sailing Hall of Fame in 1993. In addition to writing books on sailing, bird flight, bioclimatics, the beauty of skating or what attracts people to each other, he lectured at universities in the United States and England. As a prolific author of sailing articles, he wasn’t one to mince words. ”Malevolence in sailing often borders on the ridiculous. Why can’t we simply delight in the wins of others?” Sailing, he continued, “primarily is a cerebral sport [and] nothing is more aggravating than intellectual defeat.”

Built for light air

These thoughts went through my head when I hopped from the RIB onto Aera on Lake Constance to experience first-hand what Curry had conceived, even though the boat now is in a decidedly modern getup, with Harken hardware and Spectra lines. “It’s only a pile of planks,” I told myself. A nice pile, for sure, but still, it’s just organic matter shaped into boards that were bent to their purpose.

Running a hand along the smoothly rounded hull-deck joint was a tactile delight that distracted from the task at hand. But that lasted no more than a second, as Aera took flight in next to no wind. She felt like a feather; there wasn’t a shred of weather helm, so steering took focus and a steady hand. Whatever line I fancied to pull, it felt smooth as silk. The befuddling array of trim adjustments serves a greater purpose because these dinghies, with their steep gaff and square-top mainsail, are super-sensitive. An inch off the proper setting is the difference between stop and go.

It also didn’t escape my notice that the bow is invisible from the helm because the foredeck slopes downward like the hood of a Bugatti sports car. It’s part of the boat’s distinctive, non-conformist look. And it also brought up a nagging question: What if it blows 15 with a steep chop? “Sails wet” wouldn’t begin to describe it. The two Elvstrom bailers are nice, but they can only handle so much. And what’s there to grab to avoid getting washed off the deck? Well, a clean look comes at a price, and it is obvious that J dinghies were conceived for light-air venues with flat water.

Coming full circle

Gerti (left) and Hubert Kern, who sailed Aera II as teenagers in the late 1930s, took a spin with their grandson after the boat's official relaunch last summer.

The hero who resurrected Aera II is Harald Kern, an engineer from Klagenfurt, Austria, whose grandfather owned the boat in the late ’30s, soon after Curry had sold her. Kern’s parents, Gerti 89, and Hubert, 91, sailed it as teenagers when the world was spiraling toward another war. “Aera II was very different,” Gerti says, “very elegant with her white hull, her rounded edges and her smooth, clean deck. Her looks interested me because I always appreciated style.”

And when she tells the anecdote of a bowl of punch getting knocked over because the boat heeled in a sudden gust, she’s 16 again. “That was a bummer, but we removed the floorboards and found a way to salvage some from the bilge.”

Getting the boat back into the family was an odyssey for Harald, who’d seen the tiny black-and-white photos with serrated white edges that showed the carefree times his parents spent on the boat before they got married. “Dad always told me about sailing on Aera when he was young,” Kern says. It was a distant dream that turned into an obsession. “Aera II, not Carrera 4,” he quips, referring to the Porsche model and his midlife crisis.

He’d chased false leads that dead-ended in Germany, France, Italy and Great Britain, and he was about to call it quits when someone tipped him off: The boat was in his back yard, less than an hour’s drive from his house. Once he knew that, it still took 10 years of haggling with the family who had hung on to her for nearly 40 years.

When he finally landed the deal and turned her over to Wolfgang Friedl, aka the Dinghy Doctor in Vienna, work could start in earnest. “Round is Gucci, and Gucci is expensive,” Friedl says. Steam-bent and curved oak frames, a planed ceiling plank that changes angle every few inches, some new okoumé hull planks, new floor timbers, a new centerboard case with a profiled centerboard, a fresh stern plate cover, and about 5,500 new rivets — it went into the boat, not to mention 100 pounds of paint stripper plus some epoxy to keep her seams from opening. All told, it amounted to 1,600 hours of toil. Even at mates rates, that’s the cost of a car. Maybe not a Porsche Carrera but a fun ride nevertheless.

Last August, Aera II was officially relaunched at the Kern family’s lakeside summer home, with Hubert and Gerti in attendance. Of course, they got to take a spin with their grandson at the helm. All went well — the wind was benign, no sudden heel and no spilled booze. Both of them beamed with joy and pride, knowing that not many people get to travel back in time seven decades to reunite with the boat that had shaped their teenage years — let alone one that is as pretty, as famous and as legendary as this one.

Looking at Aera II in old pictures and in her current state, I have no doubt that pretty boats, indeed, have female qualities. But as with humans, the true values lie beneath the surface, round and smooth as it might be.

May 2013 issue