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Back to my roots to sail a Six Meter

Growing up, I had ambitious dreams. Now, at an age when my knees are getting creaky — and my mind perhaps a little leaky — I still dream, but I also return to places I left for larger, greener and more exciting pastures. Touching home base on one of those trips recently added a chapter to my sailing experience that had eluded me for five decades.

Four's Company (from left): Ingo Hopfgartner (co-owner), Michael Kopezky, Wolfgang Jobstl (co-owner) and Otto Stornig

I stepped off the train in the still-sleepy vacation resort of Velden in southern Austria to greetings from my friend Ingo Hopfgartner, who was on a mission to show me a good time and something new that was actually old — the latest addition to his fleet of classic yachts.

I had sailed on the local lake as a child, or at least tried to do so between long spells of flat calm. But Hopfgartner wasn’t worried. “You’ll see — we’ll get some breeze later,” he says. “But first you’ll meet some people and Margaux.”

She’s a classic Six Meter designed and built, most likely, in 1914 by Bjarne Aas, one of Norway’s most famous yacht designers. Her name matches her elegant and sultry looks and harkens back to the previous station in her life, in the wine region of Bordeaux, France. She was restored there by a classic-yacht aficionado who turned her from a hulk into a stunning vessel that is exemplary of the elegance of yacht design in the early 20th century.

First Rule and the good life

“It’s the Fibonacci sequence,” says Matt Cockburn, a Six Meter sailor and class historian from Seattle, whom I phoned for some background. “If you look at the pleasant proportions of these boats, you will find that the ratio of overall length to waterline length or mast height to hull length is about 1.6-to-1. It’s just right. It’s a kindergartner’s dream when he wants to draw the perfect sailboat.”

Fibonacci or no, Margaux indeed has a double dose of sex appeal: long, slender and styled to the nines with mahogany planking on oak frames, a Douglas fir deck, a gaff rig with hollow spruce spars, cream-colored Dacron sails, leather-clad wooden blocks, brass fittings and three-strand rope. “If you go classic, there’s no point in doing it half-assed,” Hopfgartner proclaims.

It was my first encounter with a Six Meter, a construction class that has existed for more than 100 years. Boats in the class must comply with the measurement formula of the International Rule. Generally the trade-off is more sail area against shorter waterline and vice versa.

There were several rule changes to close loopholes and improve safety, but over time the boats also became tricked out. They attracted top sailors such as Briggs Cunningham, Tom Blackaller, Pelle Petterson, Dennis Conner and John Kostecki, along with such designers as Aas, Johan Anker, Olin Stephens and Clinton Crane.

From 1908 to 1952, the Six Meter was an Olympic class dominated by Scandinavians. Even royalty got into the act. In 1928, Crown Prince Olav V of Norway won an Olympic gold medal with Johan and Erik Anker on his team.

Margaux was built to the First Rule, with 39 feet, 9 inches of length overall; 5 feet, 9 inches of beam; 4 feet, 5 inches of draft; 616 square feet of sail; and a 3-ton displacement. These numbers betray the boat as a antiquity, but that’s the way Hopfgartner wants it; he’s a connoisseur of old stuff — whiskey, cars, bikes and boats. His mantra is simple: “Back to the roots.” But before there was any sailing, I received a lesson in lifestyle from him and his partner in the Margaux venture, Wolfgang Jöbstl, an engineer who got the taste after he crewed on Hopfgartner’s 1957-built 5.5 Meter, which also was on display at the dock.

A light breeze is all it takes to heel a classic Six Meter like Margaux, flying full colors during her first official outing this year.

“During the week, I travel a lot for business. But when I get home on Thursday night and I see Margaux tugging at her mooring, I instantly remember why I go through all this trouble,” Jöbstl says.

The trouble Hopfgartner and Jöbstl went through on this day included a feast of prosecco, prosciutto and formaggio, an Italophile’s version of the good life. Crew, I was told, is chosen by sailing ability and their respect for the formula of V&V&V, which stands for Vela & Vento & Vino. Translation: sailing, wind and wine. And that doesn’t even include the V for vintage.

In addition to owning a 1928 Pontiac and a 1947 Harley-Davidson, Hopfgartner rescued Annie, which was built in 1895 as a scaled-down version of Herreshoff’s revolutionary Dilemma. It cost him exactly one euro. “That was the most expensive purchase I ever made,” Hopfgartner later joked. It was a wreck that he had completely rebuilt to original plans by a German yard. Now he campaigns her at classic regattas in Austria and Germany.

Part of the kit is a sea chest with Annie-branded dock furniture, a non-skid drink tablet for passing libations to other boats and a sounding lead with thermometer to gauge the water temperature for cooling a good bottle in a couple of fathoms.

Tradition requires toughness

I don’t know whether San Diego yacht designer Greg Stewart is quite as invested in the gastronomic aspect of sailing, but he also owns and campaigns a classic Six Meter, Sprig, built in the 1930s. He likes to optimize these boats for competitive reasons. “I love classics I can race,” he says.
He also travels to join the vibrant Six Meter fleet in the Pacific Northwest and made the cross-country trek last year for the world championship in Newport, R.I., where 24 vintage Sixes competed. But he also likes the social aspect. “Classic owners are outgoing. They love talking about their boats,” Stewart notes. “They like the beauty as much as good results.”

And that’s exactly up the alley of Hopfgartner and Jöbstl, who finally got under way after all of the food was gone. In true fashion, they were flying full colors from the top of the gaff. Even in a next-to-nothing breeze, Margaux’s slender hull slipped through the water effortlessly and started to heel as soon as the slightest puff hit, revealing the shiny varnish that covers her dark mahogany planks, her white boot stripe and the light-green bottom paint. Sixes sail on their ear, no matter whether it’s in 5 or 20 knots. It’s typical for narrow hulls that derive their stability from the weight in the keel.

Later I was to find out what it takes to sail a First Rule Six that eschews all modern cordage and hardware: muscles and a good pair of gloves. The giant 460-square-foot main is trimmed with a double-ended sheet of skin-ripping three-strand line. The main trimmer is the throttle man, who hauls and eases the sheet constantly, which is done by hand and a half-turn around the cleat.
He can’t wear heavy boots, lest he get tangled in the mounds of tailed line, and must share the cramped aft cockpit with the helmsman and the backstay trimmer, who operates the two ancient winch wheels under the side deck. Now if that guy messes up, the boat won’t just sail slow. It won’t sail at all if the stick goes by the board.

During my trick at the helm, I noticed how Margaux feels at home at heel while staying balanced and trucking along in a straight line without requiring a hand on the tiller. It’s a function of the wineglass-shaped hull, the narrow beam and the long keel, which has lots of wetted surface area. Upwind, the inner jib was sheeted hard inside the shrouds, and the outer one was trimmed more often to optimize the airflow between both headsails.

Hopfgartner says four is a magic number for Margaux. It’s the minimum size of the crew and the maximum wind speed in Beaufort before the first reef has to be tucked in. In windier and lumpier venues, he will add a floater whose job will be to keep her afloat by manning the bilge pump. That most helpful accessory sprang into action several times during our sail, which had the owners concerned. It took a few days for the seams to close up after launch, but the hull seemed tight. Nothing groaned, and there was no indication of plank separation. Yet somewhere she took on water. Eventually the culprit was identified. Whenever she dragged her leeward rail, water seeped into the bilge via the deck holes through which the backstay cables pass.

“That’s an easy fix,” Hopfgartner says with relief.

Back to my roots

Docking this 3-ton jewel, sans engine, was the final act, and it required all hands and two paddles to get it done without putting a scratch into the hull. And that was in near-zero wind. I imagined the same maneuver with a fresh breeze across the bow and in tight quarters, and concluded that taking a Valium or two beforehand wouldn’t hurt.

After the boat was put away, I was given a tour of the large boat shed at the head of Margaux’s dock. It was a dark, cavernous and slightly musty-smelling space that housed, among others, a World War II launch that still serves as the committee boat of the local club, a couple of old Stars and two Six Meters. “You have to come by more often,” Hopfgartner says as we walk back to the car. “If you do, you might be surprised what else you’ll find.”

I have to admit I was blown away, not just by the good times and the gentrified experience of sailing a First Rule Six Meter but also by the fact that after all these years away I learned something new by coming back to my roots. Hopfgartner can consider his mission accomplished.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue.