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‘Renaissance’ man Tiedemann remembered

Bob Tiedemann is credited with saving the 12 Meters from extinction by putting them into charter

Bob Tiedemann is credited with saving the 12 Meters from extinction by putting them into charter

The arresting summer spectacle of 12 Meter sails slanting over the Newport, R.I., harbor as they slip between acres of moored boats: Bob Tiedemann is responsible for that. And the Museum of Yachting at Fort Adams on the finger of rocky land at the far side of the harbor? Tiedemann’s energy got it started.

The same spark helped ignite a movement across the country to restore all manner of classic yachts. But following his death May 8 at age 56 from pancreatic cancer, Robert Henry Tiedemann is remembered by his best friends not for these achievements but for the way he lived his life. With emotion fogging his voice, George Varga, a yacht yard manager who cared for Tiedemann’s antique boats, calls his skiing buddy simply “a man of life.” And Earl McMillen, a Tiedemann disciple in the classic yacht business, declares: “His greatest accomplishment is he lived the life he wanted to live without any compromise.”

It was helpful that Tiedemann knew at an early age what that life should be: sailing in the summer, skiing in the winter and devoting himself to the rescue of beautiful examples of classic design and construction — be the subject a yacht or timeless architecture or a neat old car. But it was his genius for turning his passions into a profitable enterprise that secured that life for the relatively short time that he had to live. Tiedemann had been married to his wife, Elizabeth — his business partner with whom he had more restoration work planned — for what she remembers as 13 years of a “true love story.”

Tiedemann began early on his chosen path. At age 16 he convinced his father, a naval architect and marine surveyor, to buy a 54-foot wooden Alden yawl named Mariner with the promise that he would support the yacht by starting a charter business on Long Island Sound. At 25 he bought his first 12 Meter, Gleam, and after partial restoration brought it to his hometown, Greenwich, Conn., as a charter boat. At the time of his death, his Newport company — Seascope Yacht Charters, — had a fleet that included Mariner, Gleam and another wooden 12 Meter, Northern Light, along with Pam, a 62-foot 1929 commuter yacht; Fawan, a 40-foot 1911 canoe-stern launch with leaded glass widows; and L’Allegro, a 62-foot 1918 motoryacht awaiting restoration. The company charters all but L’Allegro out of Newport.

“I don’t know anybody else that has bought, owned, managed and done significant amounts of the work themselves that had a collection of boats like this,” says Dana Hewson, vice president in charge of watercraft, preservation and programs at Mystic (Conn.) Seaport. “The boats were just drop-dead gorgeous. They were kept to a very high standard. They were campaigned pretty hard, really actively used. His death is just a terrible loss, certainly to the classic yachting world.”

Barbara Lloyd Baker, a longtime friend, says Tiedemann “realized he could have it all, be around these boats and make a living. Bob very brilliantly tied the two together,” she says. “He was able to have two 12 Meters [Gleam and Northern Light], neither of which sailed in the America’s Cup, and show people what it was like to be in the America’s Cup.” He brought Gleam to Newport, the home of America’s Cup racing, in 1976, when 12 Meters sailed for yachting’s most prestigious trophy.

By itself, serving the Walter Mitty dreams of would-be yachtsmen might have died when the Cup left Newport after the 1983 loss to Australia. But Tiedemann had another piece to his business. He convinced corporations that sailing on his two 12 Meters would be a great team-building exercise for their people.

“These boats are working for a living,” says Clark Poston, program director at Newport’s International Yacht Restoration School. “A corporation will charter ... them and put teams on them and do match races.” Poston, who had known Tiedemann since the 1970s, credits him with the 12 Meter renaissance. “There were other 12 Meters around, and they probably were doing charter work, but Bob took the Twelve and made a business that has just exploded. There’s two firms now [Seascope and America’s Cup Charters, with five Twelves] that manage 12 Meters. … It’s two great businesses that bring business to town, and a great sight on the waterfront: two or three 12 Meters doing match races in the bay.”

If he created a good business, Tiedemann wasn’t simply a sailing entrepreneur. “All of his boats when he found them were either half sunken or about to go under,” says Lloyd Baker, who has written about yachting and skiing for the New York Times. “Even though he came from a family that was fairly well-to-do, he was a person with his hands on, in the muck in the boatyard. He always got the boat in proper enough condition that he could sail them or motor them to where he was going to restore them. He did it by himself. If something happened in the middle of the night where there was a storm and the boats needed to be tied down even more than they were... it was always Bob who would be out in an emergency.”

Tiedemann rescued Gleam from a tidal river in New Jersey, where it had fallen into disrepair, and, with bilge pumps running, he motored it up the Atlantic to City Island, N.Y., for repairs. He found Northern Light nearly sunk in Michigan and brought the yacht back to Newport by water. He employed his crews to sail during the summer and to help him restore and maintain during the winter.

“I credit him with the renaissance of 12 Meters,” says sailing ambassador Gary Jobson. But, he adds, “I think his wife, Elizabeth, gets credit for organizing it into a coherent business. I think Bob would have been happy to be on the boat all day.”

His work was noticed by others, according to industry observers. “He inspired an awful lot of other people to pick up old boats and restore them, and either use them for a charter business or for their own use or both,” says Poston. “Bob was on the cutting edge of that. He was a champion of our small wooden boat world in a big way.”

Tiedemann was driven as much by a fondness for history as by his love of yachts as objects. In the late 1970s he and others began meeting in the Newport studio of yachting artist John Mecray to discuss creating a museum of yachting. “None of us were museum people. We just thought it ought to happen,” recalls Mecray. Classic yachts that weren’t being allowed to rot on boatyard fringes were being shipped off to Europe. “Bob was good in that he would invite friends aboard Gleam for afternoon cocktails, and we’d sit around and talk about it, about how classic yachts ought to be saved. Bob kind of led the charge.” The Museum of Yachting opened in 1980.

“He was single-minded in his love of classic yachts,” Mecray continues. “He certainly was dedicated. He did the work himself. He’d roll up his sleeves and get involved in the really hard work of restoring these boats.”

But it wasn’t all hard work. “When he only had Gleam in the 1970s, Bob would work all summer long on Gleam,” Elizabeth recalls. “He had a van, an old laundry truck that he had converted into an RV. He would finish up the season, put the boat away and drive out west, ski out west all winter long, picking up odd jobs. He taught me how to ski about six years ago.”

As in all other parts of his life, Tiedemann was a disciplined skier, “very old fashioned, legs together. I’ve skied with him when people stopped to watch him ski by. I’ve seen people clap to watch him ski by,” says Elizabeth.

Tiedemann and Elizabeth met July 10, 1991, on board Gleam. A year later, she quit her job booking hotel conferences and went to work on Gleam. “I had no choice,” she says. “He was so devoted and passionate about the boats that it was pretty easy to have it rub off on me.”

He seemed to have that effect on others, as well. “Bob Tiedemann was a great sailor and a superb boatman, but even more important he lived to share his love of sailing with others, and he did so magnificently,” says noted yachting historian Llewellyn Howland III. “He loved getting people on boats, and he loved giving them the thrill of sailing. Bob was a very good competitive sailor, but that wasn’t where his heart lay. If you had never sailed, he would get you on the boat, and by the end of the afternoon, you’d want to buy a boat.”

Tiedemann and Elizabeth were married on the bow of Gleam three years to the day after they met, and about the same time, she took over the business side of Seascope.

“It was the perfect balance,” she says. “Bob was the boss during the winter during the refits, and I am the boss in the summer. The crew was very clear. They would have to work with him in the boatyard in the wintertime and work with me in the summertime in the charter season.” Summers, Tiedemann skippered Gleam’s charters.

Tiedemann’s passing leaves Elizabeth with tangible reminders of a life that she says “was a fairy tale”: the house in Newport that they still were restoring and, in the back yard, L’Allegro, the work in progress. “He started a lot of projects,” she says, laughing. “I’m left with a lot of projects.”

The rest of Newport is left with a fleet of 12 Meters that sail regularly within view. “At any one time there are as many as 12 of these boats sailing together in Newport Harbor,” says friend Lloyd Baker. “For the people who knew Bob, that is one of the hardest things — to look out on the harbor and see especially Gleam, that was his favorite — and know that he is not there.”