America's Cup icon breathes life back into a classic 40-foot schooner that had seen better days
It's clear Dennis Conner knows something about celebrations. That's a given considering the man has collected an impressive array of sailing victories ranging from four America's Cup titles to an Olympic medal and a boatload of world championships.
So it comes as little surprise that when he decided to stage a centennial birthday bash July 11 for his newest acquisition - the B.B. Crowninshield-designed gaff-rigged schooner Fame - the event was another Conner success story.
A throng of friends, family members, associates, dignitaries and well-wishers arrived at the San Diego Yacht Club and were invited aboard Conner's 139-foot yacht America, a replica of the schooner that raced around the Isle of Wight in 1851 and collected what was to become the first America's Cup.
Guests were treated to ample refreshments, hors d'oeuvres served by women in early 20th century period outfits, music from a jazz combo, slices of a cake equal to any served at upscale weddings, and comments by Conner. But more important, they got their first look at the newly refurbished daysailer, which was anchored off America's port side.
Beyond celebrating Fame's 100th birthday, Conner had another reason for staging the event. "I thought, Well this is a good excuse to have a party, and plus I know enough about the boatyards that if you have a deadline, the boat doesn't stay in the boatyard any longer than it has to," he says.
Conner bought the 40-footer sight unseen for a reported $17,000 after reading about it in the March issue of a national magazine under the heading, "Save a Classic." He was familiar with the quality of Crowninshield's work, having sailed against Fame's sister, the schooner Fortune, years earlier in New York. Also, Conner was under no illusion that the purchase price paid to the previous Chicago owner would be the end of his investment.
Still, when Fame arrived at the Koehler Kraft boatyard on San Diego's Shelter Island in mid-March, Conner and his associates were less than pleased with what they saw. "It looked like a piece of junk," Conner says. "It wasn't very attractive."
Patrick Langley, who now serves as Fame's captain and is well-known for his varnishing and finishing skills, had an even more colorful description. He recalled a scene from the 1965 movie "Cat Ballou" in which a drunken Lee Marvin and an equally inebriated horse are leaning against a wall. "The boat reminded me of that horse when it was all bent over," he says. It was obvious Fame, which Crowninshield designed for his personal use, had been neglected.
Conner was optimistic about setting and meeting a July deadline because he had people such as Langley, who helps maintain his growing fleet, and boatyard owner CF Koehler involved in the project. "I wasn't too worried about that," Conner says. "CF says you can fix anything. But then I was a little discouraged to see that you could stick your whole head through the sides of the cabin and the termites hardly flew away.
Basically, he says, "time and money solve a lot of problems."
After a soda-blasting, some real problems came to light. A ruptured keel was discovered as the cause of a sinking bow and it became obvious that previous efforts to put an engine in the boat had led to issues with the stern. "So there were some reasons that she looked old and tired," Conner says. "She was old and tired."
Koehler says it was several weeks before the scope of the project was clearly defined. And while efforts were made to maintain the original intent of the designer and builder, modern techniques were employed when classic methods were "going to severely affect the functionality of the boat," he says.
"With this type of boat, no one knows what as-built was," Koehler says. "There are a set of plans, but there are no notes on the plans as to what as-built was. So we don't know what it really was 100 years ago when it went down the hill. ... Someone like me has enough experience to know that the drawings aren't the gospel."
Koehler continues: "We have all the technology and all the old tradition. We have that at our boatyard and it's not knowing when to use it - it's when not to use it."
As Fame headed off on a short sail with its freshly painted and varnished black hull glistening in the late-day San Diego sun, it became apparent to those aboard America that the bulk of the heavy lifting had been completed. And Conner, who developed an appreciation for the classics when he sailed the Yacht Club de Monaco's flagship yacht Tuiga, has some immediate plans for Fame.
"I'm going to go sailing on it," he says. "That's my first step, [to see] if I like the way she sails. Then we're going to go from there."
Eventually, Fame will be entered in classic-boat regattas. No matter how she performs in competition, Conner can be proud that he truly did save a classic.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.