Keepers of the Flame

Anyone with a passion for yachts and yachting owes these three residents of Newport, Rhode Island, a debt of gratitude. Their commitment to rescuing, restoring and preserving classic yachts is keeping alive the legacy we all share.

Earl McMillen III

Rotting wood and varnish have always been elixirs to Earl McMillen III. Growing up in Georgia, his family owned a 68-foot, 1927 Densmore-built cruiser named Mahogany Lady, which they kept in the Florida Keys and used for vacations and on weekends. Later, they had a house on a mountain lake with a large concentration of classic runabouts. He'd hang out at the boathouse where many of the old-timers were restored and watch the craftsmen. In the mid-1980s, McMillen and his father restored a 39-foot, 1939 Elco as a project following the death of his little brother in a car accident. As he moved into his 30s, the experiences congealed into a career and a deep commitment to preserving classic yachts. Today, Newport-based McMillen Yachts, Inc., restores, maintains and manages a fleet of about a half-dozen classic powerboats and sailing yachts. Through a pioneering fractional ownership program, the company acquires and operates the boats for the pleasure of its partners and the posterity of the yachting community at large.

"I've always had a fascination with history and boating, and this has just been an offshoot of that, McMillen said.

The McMillens bought the Elco in 1986 and started her restoration. The elder McMillen wanted to sell the yacht and move on to other things when the project was finished, but the younger man set out to cruise from their base in Georgia to Maine, by way of a wooden boat show in Newport. He never made it to Maine. He fell in love with the Rhode Island city and spent the summer connecting with kindred spirits.

Later, on a trip to the Chesapeake, he found a pair of old ACF motoryachts, one swamped and one movable. He salvaged the wreck and took her to Georgia, where he later sold her to a friend who restored her. He took the other to Newport and began a casual summer charter business while he finished his undergraduate degree in history at Columbia.

Another classic charter boat came and went over several years in Newport, but the seasonal cash flow made the operation more a hobby than a viable money-making venture.

"I always thought of it as a business, he said, "but it was never one that made any sense financially. I was always having to supplement the budgets for the boats. I've always been primarily interested in the classic motoryachts of the 1920s and '30s. I was hoping to do with the powerboats something along the lines of what Bob Tiedemann was doing with the 12-Meters.

After graduation, McMillen moved back to Atlanta and decided he wanted to make a living working with classic yachts. On one of his trips to the Chesapeake in the late '80s, he paid $2,000 for a 47-foot day boat. The yacht had been moved to Massachusetts, where she sat for five or six years. He'd made some friends in Georgia who were intrigued by what he'd done with some of the boats he had restored on his own.

Through one of those friends, representatives of the Cloister hotel on Sea Island approached him about restoring a boat for guest use. The hotel didn't want to fund a restoration, but McMillen and friends developed a plan to sell shares to raise the money. The restored yacht ended up spending several years at the Cloister under McMillen management. The group then sold the boat, called Zapala, to a private owner who continues to operate her out of the hotel.

"The idea of building a fleet of fractionally owned boats came later, McMillen said. "My objective, having owned that boat for five or six years, was to see her restored. Once we did that and it worked well, we realized we could go out and save more boats doing it the same way. It looked like there was more demand for boats with cruising accommodations.

Most of the original partners joined to buy and restore a larger cruising yacht, the 77-foot, 1929-vintage motoryacht Belle ("Fore and After, September 2000), which was restored by a McMillen crew at the International Yacht Restoration School, founded by Newporter Elizabeth Meyer.

Under McMillen's fractional ownership programs, each yacht is set up as a limited liability corporation with the primary mission being charter by the partners at a preferred rate. Most are available for one-time charters to non-partners who may be interested in investing. Partners put up, say, $70,000 for a 5 percent share of the latest restoration, Scout. Investors are then offered charters at half the standard rate. Upon availability, and after they have fulfilled their usage allotment on Scout, they have access to the other McMillen yachts at the preferred rate. In addition, investors receive some depreciation and the prospect of their shares increasing in value over time. The company does limited advertising, preferring to network.

"We operate it like a private club, McMillen said. "The primary selling point is the ability to participate in the restoration of these fine boats and use them in the ways they were originally intended. These are people who wouldn't necessarily have the time to devote to owning their own boats, or really wouldn't have the interest. For their investment they can enjoy the boats and be part of this restoration movement.

McMillen Yachts takes a fee for the restorations and ongoing management, and retains shares in all the boats. McMillen himself uses them as much as he can. The company employs a full-time crew of shipwrights during restorations and prefers to finish projects fast.

McMillen's current fleet includes Belle, Scout, two Starling Burgess-designed 12-Meters built at Abeking & Rasmussen in the late '20s-one restored for the America's Cup Jubilee and another awaiting restoration-and the company's most recent acquisition, a 104-foot, Trumpy-designed, Mathis-built, 1926 cruiser called Freedom. Next on the restoration docket, though, is Alondra, the former Mahogany Lady and McMillen family yacht, which Tiedemann helped locate.

McMillen, 38, loves what he does, but senses an urgency to the broader mission.

"We're in the very early stages of trying to grab the last of these boats and make sure they wind up in the right hands, he said. "Within the next 10 years, the classic yachts will have either been restored or lost. McMillen Yachts, Inc., (401) 846-5557; www.woodenyachts.com.

Bob Tiedemann

Bob Tiedemann has always hated seeing wooden boats die. As a kid in Connecticut, he found great pleasure sneaking into boat yards and crawling around the old-timers.

"Then I'd come back to see my favorite derelict and it would be in the back 40, a pile of timber, and they'd be hauling the keel off to the scrap yard, he lamented.

Cruising the New England coast aboard his family's 54-foot yawl in his teens and 20s, he saw more grand old ladies meet ignominious ends. Among the wrecks and ruins, he found a career and a lifelong commitment to yacht preservation.

"There's something very romantic about them, he said of wooden yachts. "They have a personality, a character, a warmth you don't find in newer boats.

In 1976, Tiedemann founded Seascope Yacht Charters to restore, maintain and manage Gleam, a 1937-vintage 12-Meter sailing yacht. The Seascope fleet now includes the Tiedemann family's 54-foot mahogany Alden yawl, Mariner, built in 1950; the 12-Meter Northern Light, built in 1938; the 62-foot, 1921-vintage commuter and rum runner Pam; and another commuter and rum runner called L'Allegro, built in 1918, which is in Tiedemann's back yard awaiting restoration. In partnership with his wife, Elizabeth, he has built a charter business in Newport that caters primarily to corporate clients who charter the Twelves. Pam is available for charter around Newport or as a tender for the Twelves.

The foundation of the 52-year-old Tiedemann's love of old boats and preservation was built in the cockpit of Mariner. At 15, he persuaded his father, a naval architect, to buy the yawl, which the family used for cruising. Tiedemann earned an engineering degree in college, intending to follow in his father's footsteps. He worked for his father part time in school, but summers were focused on doing charters with Mariner. After a few years, he decided to try to make a living chartering full time.

"I thought it would be great fun to have a classic boat, sail it around, make enough to survive and save boats in the process, he said.

His father helped him borrow the money to buy Gleam, which needed work, but was not a derelict. He brought her back to Newport, and his formal career in classic yacht charter was born.

Tiedemann found Northern Light under water in Michigan in the mid-1980s. Her owner had abandoned her, and she had sunk in a marina in Holland. He spent two winters traveling between Newport and Holland raising her and getting her in shape. Then he sailed her through the Great Lakes and down the canals into the Hudson just in time to make a charter commitment for the Statue of Liberty centennial.

He acquired Pam in Florida in 1989, as a tender to complement the Twelves. She was built for Herrington Walker, son of Hiram Walker, the distiller. She was built at Great Lakes Boatbuilding, which built many commuters for automotive industry leaders.

Along the way, he bought and sold several classic yachts and helped found the Museum of Yachting. Part of the inspiration for the museum was the disturbing number of boats he saw being cut up.

Tiedemann is a hands-on preservationist. He has participated personally in all the Seascope restorations. He tries to keep the restorations true to original. The charter business funds the restoration and maintenance of the yachts and puts food on the table.

"Every cent I've ever made has come out of these boats, he said. "I never thought I'd be able to make a living, but it's been even more successful than I expected it to be.

The sight of Gleam and Northern Light sailing in and out of Newport on summer evenings evokes the decades when that city hosted the America's Cup regattas and when yacht racing was the province of gentlemen whose pride and competitive spirit outweighed commercial concerns. Nowadays, Tiedemann's company channels that competitive spirit into team-building and corporate bonding. Companies can send top executives out for a 12-Meter match race on Gleam and Northern Light for about $5,000. By arranging the charter of additional power and sailing yachts, Seascope has handled groups of up to 500.

Tiedemann's preservation of the 12-Meters is generally acknowledged to have been what spawned the recent resurgence of the class, especially in Europe. Thirty-seven 12-Meters, many freshly restored and refurbished, including Northern Light and Gleam, competed at the America's Cup Jubilee regatta in 2001. The sight was responsible for many moist eyes.

Tiedemann is proud of the impact he's had on the 12-Meter class and the broader yacht preservation movement, but he's concerned America is lagging behind Europe in preservation efforts. He'd like to see more American classics remain on these shores, and he's committed for the duration.

"It's an all-consuming passion, he said. "I can't imagine doing anything else.

Seascope Yacht Charters, (401) 847-5007; www.seascopenewport.com.

Elizabeth Meyer

Elizabeth Meyer isn't the type to let a little challenge get in the way of a big idea. She built a successful home design and construction business on Martha's Vineyard in the 1970s with no experience in the field. When she stared into the vast, empty hull of the 130-foot J-Class yacht Endeavour on the hard on the south coast of England in 1984 and announced to a companion that she was going to buy the yacht and restore her, the companion responded with a skeptical, "What? Meyer was prompted to invoke her favorite response to that question: "What do you mean 'What?' Why not?

Fifteen years after its completion, the resurrection of Endeavour is widely regarded as the most significant classic yacht restoration ever, and Meyer is viewed by many as a key player in the classic yacht renaissance in America. Through her company, J-Class Management, and the not-for-profit International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS) in Newport, which she founded and serves as chairman, she has been directly or indirectly responsible for the restoration and preservation of dozens of classic vessels, from the magnificent Endeavour and her J-Class cousin Shamrock V to Beetle Cats and prams.

The roots of Meyer's commitment lie in the sandpaper and varnish brushes she used to help her parents commission their small daysailers and powerboats during summers in Massachusetts and Maine. Her first significant exposure to boat restoration was in Maine during her teens, when she witnessed the restoration of an 80-foot schooner.

From age 10 or 11, Meyer and a close friend wrote companies such as Hinckley, Alberg and Concordia in search of the perfect sailing yacht to buy together someday. By the time Meyer graduated from high school, the pair had decided they'd own a Concordia yawl. Meyer went to college and left the dream behind, but her friend persisted and the two women ended up owning a 1960-vintage Concordia yawl shortly after Meyer graduated.

Like so many boat partnerships, theirs didn't last. Meyer ended up owning the boat and sailing it to Annapolis, where she lived aboard while running the small Hood Sailmakers loft. After a year there, she set sail with a friend for New England.

She landed on Martha's Vineyard. During the next six or seven years, she bought land and designed, built and restored more than 80 homes, including the Jacqueline Onassis compound, learning the business as she went. She also wrote for yachting magazines and penned a book commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Concordia yawl. She wrote the book in part to promulgate the Concordia legacy with an eye toward maintaining the value of her own boat, but also to make sure the world recognized the value of the yachts and the brand.

"It's not creating charisma where there is none, but making people remember the yachts and why they're wonderful, she said. "A big part of maintaining these boats is getting owners or potential owners excited and getting them to see how wonderful it is to own a wooden boat.

Her investments in land left her with a healthy nest egg, and she set off for Europe in search of a yacht to restore on spec to get her new business off the ground. It was on a second trip a year later, on assignment for Nautical Quarterly, that she found Endeavour and fell in love at first sight.

J-Class yachts sailed in the America's Cup regattas of the 1930s. Only two survived in sailable shape, Shamrock V and Velsheda, which Meyer sailed just before she found Endeavour. Some years earlier, Endeavour had been rescued from the mud on the Isle of Wight. Her hull was partly restored before the owners ran out of money. Meyer bought the yacht and began, at a seaplane base on the south coast of England, what would become the most highly regarded yacht restoration the world has seen.

With the assistance of designer John Munford and naval architect Gerard Dijkstra, she fully restored the hull and deck structure and assembled much of the machinery and parts. Later, she moved the project to a professional yacht yard: Royal Huisman in Holland, where the restoration was completed in 1989. Endeavour sailed into Newport and a new life.

Many stories at the time portrayed Meyer using inherited money for the project, but she says the $10 million she spent came from land transactions on Martha's Vineyard. Shamrock V, meanwhile, had been donated to Newport's Museum of Yachting, and Meyer oversaw a major refit. She founded J-Class Management in 1988 to promote Endeavour and Shamrock and to manage, broker and restore classic and neo-classic yachts.

After spearheading the creation of restoration classes at the Museum of Yachting, upon whose board she served, Meyer founded IYRS in 1993 to teach the skills, history, science and art of restoring, maintaining and building classic yachts. The accredited school offers a two-year diploma program, participates in vocational partnership programs with state and local schools, and hosts classes and lectures open to the public. Students work on power and sailing yachts donated to the school. Its most ambitious project is the archival restoration of the historic schooner Coronet, for which it has raised $2.5 million of the $7.5 million needed.

Meyer, who turns 50 this year, plans to step down as chairwoman of the IYRS board this summer and devote her efforts to J-Class Management projects, although she'll continue to manage the Coronet project. Still thinking big, she has a proposal out to build a replica of Reliance, the 200-foot sloop that defended the America's Cup in 1903, and she's looking for clients to build a matched pair of J-Class yachts from a Swedish design.

Strained by the high cost of upkeep, she sold Endeavour in 2000 to former Tyco chairman L. Dennis Kozlowski, who has been engulfed in legal problems. Kozlowski's predicament has caused concern about the fate of Endeavour, but Meyer believes the yacht is in good hands. A short-term benefit of Kozlowski's troubles, Meyer says, is that the big, blue J is available for charter again-with J-Class Management serving as central agent.

"I really enjoy what I do every day, she said. "I wish there were six of me so I could do six times as much. But again, she sees the key to preservation as fostering enthusiasm among others.

"An individual can restore a lot of boats. If you can influence other people, you can be more effective at saving more boats.

J-Class Management, (401) 849-3060; www.jclass.com. IYRS, (401) 848-5777; www.iyrs.org.