It was a common enough exchange, a hail from one boat to another: "Hey, is that a New York 30?" But there was one telling difference.
With one hand on the tiller of Alera, David Stimson smiled and raised a thumb in affirmation. "Sure is!" he called out. "Hull number one!"
"Wow! That's the prettiest thing I've seen all summer!" Our admirer's enthusiasm highlighted the fact that the people of this famous Rhode Island seaport know their sailboats. What made it special? He was none other than the operator of the Newport Harbor pumpout vessel.
The exchange also served as a reminder of just how lucky I was to be a guest aboard this particular sailboat - the first NY 30 ever built. Not that I needed much reminding, as the last three hours had basically served as a running, hands-on tutorial from Stimson on just how special Alera is.
The 43-foot, gaff-rigged sloop, the first of 18 commissioned by the New York Yacht Club from 1904 to 1905 and designed by legendary naval architect Nathanael G. Herreshoff, had been lovingly restored by Stimson and his fellow workers at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, which specializes in traditional wooden boatbuilding and restoration. Now serving as a floating showpiece for the shipyard, Alera (her original name) was one of six NY 30s participating in the 2005 International Yacht Restoration Society (IYRS) Cruise, which, not coincidentally, preceded an IYRS celebration in Newport marking the 100th anniversary of the NY 30 class.
"The opportunity for IYRS to host these extraordinary yachts during their centennial was an honor, and also shows the seat at the restoration table that IYRS is earning," said IYRS president Terry Nathan. "We are honored by the recognition and awed by the historically important yachts in America's maritime history."
As part of its mission to preserve the art of maritime skills and wooden boatbuilding, the Newport-based IYRS offers a two-year accredited curriculum in yacht restoration and traditional boatbuilding techniques. The annual cruise, which began in 2000 and precedes the organization's major fundraising event, has attracted classic yachts from all over the world. During the four-day event, participants race and cruise to various destinations in southern New England, taking time out for lectures, historic tours and evening parties. This year's event saw a fleet of 40 classic wooden sailboats and power yachts - including Trumpys, Concordias and various Hunt and Herreshoff designs -make the run from Nantucket to Newport, with stops in Martha's Vineyard and Buzzards Bay, before wrapping up the party on July 14.
I caught up with the fleet as it prepared to begin the final leg of the cruise. The boats were anchored just off Third Beach in Newport, which had been the scene of a festive clambake the night before. After a short history lesson by NY 30 expert Bill Doyle, a NY 30 owner himself, I was greeted by IYRS Public Relations Director Susan Daly and ferried out to the Alera in a RIB. Ready to welcome me aboard were Stimson and his wife, Tamora, along with soft-spoken sons Nathaniel, 18, and Abraham, 21. I couldn't have asked for a more congenial crew.
It didn't take a seasoned sailor to see that the Stimsons are purists when it comes to sailing in general and legendary wooden sloops in particular. While the rest of the fleet fired up their internal combustion engines and joined the pre-departure conga line amid a raucous blasting of cannon, banging of pots and merry strains of kazoo and concertina, the Stimsons raised the mainsail. Yes, we would actually be sailing to Newport!
At the mouth of the Sakonnet River, the fleet was swallowed up by fog, and we found ourselves sailing alone in silence as the motor-powered sailing vessels took the lead. As we tacked toward Newport, picking our way through the gauntlet of fish traps that lie between Sakonnet Point and Brenton Reef, I learned the full story behind the venerable vessel on which I was traveling.
Shortly after signing on as general manager of the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard (formerly known as Samples Shipyard), Stimson, a lifelong wooden-boat enthusiast, was given the task of finding a suitable showpiece for the company. A broker specializing in historic yachts eventually turned up a listing for Alera, which had been resting beneath a tarp in Hamilton, Ontario, for the past 17 years, its owner never having quite gotten around to restoring the boat. She was in rough shape; in fact, the boat was nothing more than a stripped-down hull. But most of the original yellow pine planking was salvageable, as was the keel, stem, deadwood, bilge stringers and sheer clamps, so Stimson purchased Alera on behalf of the boatyard and brought her to Boothbay for a makeover.
Over the next six months, he and his core crew of wooden-boat experts worked feverishly to restore Alera to her former glory in time for the 100th anniversary celebration and IYRS cruise. It was no easy task, especially since Stimson was determined to re-create every feature of the original boat, right down to the smallest fitting. In order to complete the project on schedule, outside craftsmen were contracted to fashion key parts, such as the mast and boom, the deckhouse, the sails and bronze hardware. Meanwhile, Stimson and crew referred to copies of the original Herreshoff design drawings, courtesy of MIT's Hart Collection, and hired a yacht historian, Maynard Bray, to make sure every detail was faithfully reproduced.
The restoration project was completed just a few days before the cruise rendezvous in Nantucket, and Stimson was given the honor of sailing Alera to the event. Naturally, he brought his family, which has logged its share of time aboard sailboats, including a seven-month voyage from Maine to the Bahamas via the Intracoastal Waterway.
So that's how the Stimsons found themselves entering Newport Harbor aboard Alera, with David being hailed as a hero for his efforts in restoring one of the world's most classic racing sloops. The ever-humble Stimson pere wants none of the glory. He considers it an honor to have worked on the boat, never mind get the chance to sail her back to her home state. Best of all, the trip was only halfway over by the time I stepped off the boat at the IYRS docks in Newport. Following the NY 30 100th anniversary celebration, the Stimsons would sail the Alera back to Maine to await a buyer. Asking price: $450,000.
Naturally, David Stimson and his crew at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard will be sad to see her go. "Everyone here has fallen in love with the boat," he says, adding that most of the boatyard employees have had the opportunity to sail her off Boothbay. "There will be a lot of broken hearts in Boothbay when she's sold."
On the bright side, the Shipyard plans to use the money from the sale to finance the acquisition of at least one more NY 30 in need of restoration. What better way to take one's mind off a lost love?