Classics make converts with looks, performance

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We interrupt our regular programming for breaking news: Canada invades France! R-boats conquer new territory!

From California to the Cote d'Azur via Canada, Aloha still dazzles at age 90.

Peaceful, laid-back Canada sends an expedition corps to the Cote d’Azur to tease the French at their own game of sailing pretty old boats? Mon Dieu! What’s up with that?

The Mediterranean rites of late summer bring out the big guns of classic-boat culture. It’s the triple-crown of varnish, teak and polished brass: Vele d’Epoca di Imperia in Italy, Regates Royales de Cannes and Le Voiles Saint Tropez in France. To some this might be pageantry of the 1 percent. To others it is the nirvana of classic yacht gatherings with the likes of Cambria, Elena, Mariquita, Moonbeam and Stormy Weather — often giant but always exquisitely restored, rebuilt or replicated vessels that harken back to the early 20th century, when sailboat racing was a highly gentrified affair.

Last summer, two notable boats joined the party. Both are rather small compared to the headliners. Both are R-Class boats from the 1920s. Both fly the Canadian flag on the stern, and both are prettier than the law allows. They have a long history on the U.S. West Coast and were noticed by the jaded Europeans for their smart looks that reflect the aesthetic prowess of their designers and builders, with their slender hulls, voluptuous overhangs, low freeboard, petite cabin tops and big Marconi rigs.

The 39-foot Lady Van was designed by Charles Nicholson and launched for E.F. Cribb in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1928. The slightly smaller Aloha was designed by Edson B. Schock in 1923 and built by the San Diego Marine Construction Co. for George Day, a Kiwi who had lived in Hawaii at one time. Day was the commodore of San Diego Yacht Club and used Aloha as his flagship. Lady Van, the iconic Canadian boat that broke Seattle’s dominance in R-Class racing, underwent a complete refit in 2009-10 (www.ladyvan.com).

Aloha hasn’t required quite as much work, with her mahogany planks still in very good shape (www.r-boat-aloha.ca). “I made the commitment to buy the boat sight unseen,” says Alex Foley, a contractor from Sidney on Vancouver Island. He signed up his friend Findlay Gibbons, also a contractor and an engineer, as a partner and later added Gustav Klimach, a hotel owner who immigrated to Canada from northern Germany in the 1980s. Details about Foley’s recruiting tactics remain a bit sketchy, but it’s safe to assume that the decisive talks were held in close proximity to the bar at the Sidney North Saanich Yacht Club.

They rolled up their sleeves and got down to work, guided by the desire “to turn this into a piano,” as Foley puts it. “The boat was practically in original condition, never modified, never neglected.” While this was a nice discovery, they still put in 2,500 hours of work and buckets of sweat, removing the deck to replace 76 oak ribs, which were bent in a custom-built steam box. Afterward, the old deck planks were swapped out for new red cedar ones. To top it off, Aloha received new deck hardware that was manufactured in the original style, a new sail wardrobe and dark blue hull paint, which delayed the relaunch because it required “approximately 18 rounds of sanding,” Klimach recalls. Only then was the surface deemed ready for paint. Aloha looked her Gucci best at her recommissioning in July 2010 and won the top award at the Victoria Classic Boat Festival.

“R” also stood for for rivalries

With all due respect to their work and the exquisite restorations of other local R-Class boats in the Northwest, these vessels are worthwhile projects by design. The harmonious proportions of freeboard, cabin and overhangs are a function of the Universal Rule measurement developed by Nathanael Herreshoff at the outset of the 20th century.

Nicknamed “Little Js,” R-boats resemble scaled-down versions of the giant 130-foot J-Class America’s Cup yachts that were designed to a different formula of the Universal Rule. By contrast, R-Class boats ranged from 36 to 42 feet LOA and could measure anywhere from 20 to 25 feet on the waterline. Capt. Nat also supplied scantling rules so builders would follow construction standards to ensure the quality and longevity of the product. In the late 1920s, R-boats were hip on both coasts and on the Great Lakes, with such top designers as John Alden, Starling Burgess, Ted Geary, L. Francis Herreshoff, Charles Mower, Nicholson and Schock advancing performance and technical development.

It was this fortuitous combination of factors that attracted good sailors who knew how to push these boats to their limits. Unlike today’s professional rock stars, however, the best sailors of the day were pure amateurs, representing their clubs in regattas that often had the character of local and regional rivalries — for example, Seattle vs. Vancouver or San Francisco vs. Los Angeles.

The R-Class also contended for the Lipton Cup, which was bequeathed to the Seattle Yacht Club in 1912 by Sir Thomas Lipton, the British tea baron. From 1914 on, the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club challenged its cross-border rivals but was turned back time and again by the legendary Seattle R-boat Sir Tom, which was skippered by Ted Geary, the boat’s designer and a formidable helmsman. But Vancouver persisted and finally prevailed: In 1929, after 15 years of futility, its new secret weapon, Lady Van, got the better of Sir Tom and Geary on the waters of English Bay.

Farther down the coast in San Francisco, two Mower-designs, Ace and Lady Gay, both owned by Arthur Rousseau, were setting the pace in R-Class racing, which included the San Francisco Perpetual Cup, contested from 1923 to 1932 between boats from the Bay and representatives from Southern California clubs. When the boats had to go “on the road,” they frequently did so in style, in their shipping cradles, which were strapped to the decks of coastal steamers, rig up and sails bent on.

The races were hard-fought, and a win ensured bragging rights, though not at the expense of a disabled opponent. Racing for the 1927 Lipton Cup in Vancouver, the main halyard on Sir Tom parted after the warning gun for the second race. The skippers of the other boats, Lady Pat and Riowna, asked to postpone the start until Geary and his crew were able to fix the problem. About a half-hour later the contest got under way, with Sir Tom winning the race and the series.

As vibrant as the scene might have been, there were dark clouds on the horizon. The boats had become more sophisticated and expensive, so growth of the class stalled before the stock market crash in 1929 brought proceedings to a screeching halt.

An old boat, a new address

In the belly of the beast: a worker removes Aloha's ribs during the restoration.

While many R-boats did not survive — Sir Tom was broken up in the ’50s — Aloha was blessed with caring owners who used and maintained her in Southern California’s mild climate. She was docked in Balboa when the truck arrived to take her to Seattle in 2008, where she waited for her new owners. When Foley picked up the boat for the tow to Canada, her planks were dry and leaky. “We damn near sank her on the way north,” he says, recounting some tense moments during the passage to Sidney. “The seas were rough, and the waves were crashing over her for a while, but luckily the pump kept working.”

After the restoration, Aloha was making the rounds in the Pacific Northwest, sparring with the other R-boats in the area. But Foley, who’d already tasted the classic-yacht scene in Southern France in 2006, wanted to find out how Aloha would fare at the big dance. “We spent a lot of time and money to restore her, so the idea was to take her to Europe and see what happens,” he says.

He admits that the thought of selling her had crossed the minds of her owners, but that was before Aloha cleaved the waves of the Med on her way to prominent finishes in Imperia and Cannes.

“These regattas were immensely gratifying and brought out emotions,” Klimach says. “Even Findlay, the rational engineer, was showing his soft side.”

To Gibbons it was an eye opener. “Every time you get passed by one of these big guys, you lose your wind for about 5 minutes,” he recalls. It’s a big challenge to race a small boat like ours against these giants, but it is the epitome of classic-boat sailing. There’s nothing quite like it.”

Being among peers and drawing attention from the gallery, Aloha’s three owners ditched the idea of putting her on the market and left her in Cogolin, near Saint-Tropez, to sail her at the signature regattas on the Cote d’Azur. Lady Van, under owner Don Martin, was scheduled to return to Canada after taking third in her class at Les Voiles.

“We are looking to add one or two individuals to our group of owners,” says Klimach, who now spends the majority of his time in Croatia. “The goal is to spread the operating cost but also to ensure she’s being used continually.” In other words, Aloha has changed addresses but will continue on the path that has sustained her for nine decades.

So the Canadian R-Class invasion of France was a soft but successful one. Flying the Maple Leaf, they came, saw and conquered with looks and performance. And quite a few of their new French friends might have been surprised to learn that pretty boats with colorful histories aren’t just fixtures in New England, the Med or the Caribbean, and that quite a few of them originated across the pond on the Left Coast, too.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

January 2013 issue