Saga’s ‘six’ appeal justifies her gender

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Without wishing to diss English grammar, a boat is a she. Why? It sounds good, and it feels right, especially if she struts her stuff like the slender and shapely Saga, a classic Six Meter.

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While bare-chested figureheads have no part in contemporary yacht design, there’s still a place for the roving eye to linger on those voluptuous overhangs and, of course, the buttock. Oh boy, does Saga ever set the standard in that department. It’s the epitome of tasteful boat porn, exhibited by an octogenarian seductress who counts among her victims Cornelius Shields, the founder of an investment banking firm, a connoisseur of beauty and one of the finest sailors the United States has ever known.

I gladly followed in Corny’s wake on a soft day last summer and let Saga woo me as I tagged along with her current owner, Kimo Mackey, who took her for a spin off Port Madison, Wash. Despite the light breeze, she danced across the sapphire blue of Puget Sound with her pale-green hull, gently cleaving the wavelets as she made her way upwind under moderate heel. The rudder was feather light with just the bare minimum of feedback, and the sightlines into the giant Mylar genoa and across the clean and uncluttered deck were a dream for anyone who likes to get lost in the fantasy of gentleman sailing.

She is a classic yacht, all right, but with lots of modern hardware and cordage, which Mackey installed with the precision and attention to detail of a Swiss watchmaker. But let’s turn back the clock first.

An inspiration for a new class

Saga was designed and built in 1935 in Norway by Bjarne Aas for Sir Eldon and Kenneth Trimingham of Bermuda. She was to be sailed in local waters against local competition but also against visiting U.S. Six Meter sailors who brought their boats over in April 1936 to contest a couple of important regattas at Hamilton Harbor. Among them was Shields, who was stunned. “The minute I saw Saga, I fell in love with her,” he later wrote. “I thought she was the most beautiful boat I’d ever seen. I loved her shape, her sheer, her dainty transom, and her long, straight counter. It was terrible. All I could think about on the way back to the States were the lines of that darned boat. She literally haunted me.”

That “darned boat” cleaned up in both regattas, though the American squad ended up winning the team race. But Saga was the revelation Shields was looking for on his quest for a new boat that should be built by a single yard and to a one-design rule to ensure tight racing and to control costs. A secondary goal was to replace the Interclubs and to consolidate the hodgepodge of other classes that were racing on Long Island Sound at the time.

Owner Kimo Mackey (front) and Tom Delius focus on the proper trim while sailing Saga on Puget Sound.

Saga’s early racing record also helped Shields convince his fellow sailors at home that Aas — unknown in the U.S. at the time — indeed was the right man for the job. Besides, a boat that was inspired by a yacht built to the International Rule promised to be both elegant and seaworthy. Aas came up with drawings for a vessel that looked like Saga’s smaller sister — a little shorter, a little wider but also lighter and with a little less sail area. It had a short cabin trunk and became known as the International One Design (www.internationalonedesign.org).

Shields also knew how to sell, utilizing the persuasive powers of fine liquor on occasion. He forwarded 25 orders and down payments to the boatyard in Fredrikstad, Norway, which made Aas a happy man. Aas hired more shipwrights and started an efficient production operation, which is why the first boats that came to the United States were offered at the ridiculous sum of $2,670 (about $50,000 today). That included sails, shipping and insurance charges, and beat local yards by a mile and a half. The rest, as they say, is history. The IOD, “the big little class,” took off, with fleets forming up and down the New England coast, in San Francisco and in Europe.

And that contributed to a demise of the Sixes, which lost many sailors to the IOD because the new boats were exciting to sail but easier to maintain and cheaper to campaign. The Triminghams sold Saga, and she was sailed on Long Island Sound, where a boat designed for Bermuda’s breezes struggled in light air and got beaten by more radical designs such as those of Sparkman & Stephens — Goose, Djinn, Lulu.

Soon she found herself on the move again, to windy San Francisco, where she was sailed by Myron Spaulding for two seasons before she was sold to to someone in the Pacific Northwest in 1941, where she became a star of the nascent Six Meter Class and remains a beloved icon to this day.

The Gucci factor

Before Saga was acquired by Mackey in 1990, she went through several owners in Seattle, among them the Six Meter fanatics Ray Elliott and Bill Buursma, who did a lot of work. She also called Victoria, British Columbia, home, and was successfully campaigned there by Paul Longridge. In general, the boat lucked out with owners who took good care of her, winning the North American championship in 1961 and placing high in other regattas, including the World Cup in Newport Beach, Calif., in 1983, where she won the Djinn Trophy for the best “Senior Six.”

“The reason Saga has lasted so long with very little degradation is entirely due to the unusually high quality materials used in her construction,” says Mackey. “She is probably the only Six Meter that has an original backbone and floors of teak and bronze.” The other reason, he suggests is her active racing career that required a high and constant level of care and maintenance, which other famous boats did not enjoy when they were idle for long periods of time.

In 2002, Jespersen Boat Builders in North Saanich, British Columbia, replaced the lower half of all the frames between the mast and rudder post with sections of laminated oak that are epoxied and scarfed to the upper halves, thus adding strength and stiffness to better carry the 7,000-pound lead ballast. And the boat continued to perform, even in light wind. “Kimo is a very good sailor and accumulated excellent crew,” says Matt Cockburn of the local Six Meter fleet. “He also experimented with the rig and sails. By moving the mast aft and the forestay forward by small amounts, he … increased the headsail size slightly without radically changing the balance of the boat. In light air this makes a difference.”

But Saga needed a new deck and some work on the hull. Before Mackey could go to town, he bought out his two partners “to keep everyone happy,” as he says. The new deck consists of two layers of glassed-over quarter-inch plywood. Mackey is especially proud of the deck beams, which all have a slightly different camber and required deft work with a longboard to get the joints flush. He chose a mast and a main cockpit to divvy up the workstations and a curvaceously laminated coaming that is capped with an unvarnished teak rail. He also added a rumble seat aft, covered by a butterfly hatch. “It’s the best spot in the house,” he beams. “Kids love it.”

To tighten the hull seams, he used West System G/flex epoxy, which has more elongation than regular resin. And that hull color was inspired by Campari, not the red liqueur but the pale green label on its bottle.

However, the true artistry shows in the quality of workmanship and attention to detail that’s borderline compulsive. There’s no creaking, no squeaking and no chafing because blocks and sheaves run precisely at their proper angles. Risers and backing plates are custom made from Tufnol, an industrial laminate that’s dipped in resin and bonded under high pressure and temperature. It resembles very hard wood and stands up well to frequent load changes (i.e. on winches) and shear stress in chain plates. The maximum Gucci rating is reserved for the little tubes that are inserted into the drill holes of the turn blocks to prevent water from seeping in and the genoa track that has no visible screws on top because he tapped the bolts in “blindly” from below. “That’s how you rack up 3,000 hours on such a project,” says Mackey. “A professional yard would have charged $200,000 for this kind of work.”

Dual purpose but one gender

And this much effort doesn’t get lost on Tom Delius, who’s crewed for Mackey for a number of years. “You have to appreciate what Kimo’s done,” says Delius. “It’s his legacy. He always checked out other boats and took notes. Saga is comfortable for racing and cruising. He really nailed it.”

To sail her to the marvelous San Juan and the Gulf Islands, Mackey plans to fit Saga with a custom dodger and a transparent skylight that covers the forward cockpit. Converting Saga from racer to cruiser is something Mackey has been working on since his kids were young, and he wants to continue doing it. “Air mattresses, a cooler, sleeping bags and a Porta-Potti is all you need,” he says.

Returning to her dock at Port Madison, Saga proudly cruises past other older hotties like Llanoria and Goose, two S&S Six Meters that are a tad younger and have won impressive amounts of silver between them. But the green-hulled Saga, with her lavish overhangs and that stunning buttock, remains a queen among other royalty. With a hull that is still largely original and a whole boat class that was inspired by her lines, she’s in a league of her own. She’s nearly 80, yet she looks and sails better than new. Gazing at her for an afternoon it’s obvious to this old salt why Corny Shields fell in love with Saga, and why a boat like her can only be considered female.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

February 2014 issue