Fiberglass, check; steel, check; carbon fiber, check; wood — uh, no, actually. So went my resume regarding the boats I’ve sailed. Okay, a few wooden Blue Jays and Lightnings as a kid, but for experience on proper wooden displacement boats, I had nothing. “Had” being the operative word. My eyes were opened to this fascinating subset of sailing at the 22nd-annual Panerai Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta.
Stroll the dock before any major regatta and you’ll see sailors preparing to do battle. Stroll the docks before Classics week and you’ll see the same phenomenon in a different version: crews prepping cotton sails, servicing ash-cheeked wooden blocks (not a ball bearing in sight), and putting the final aesthetic touches on boats that appear to be more museum pieces than racecourse warhorses (hint: prizes are given for the best-looking yachts; also fun is an annual “Parade of Sail” yacht inspection). Until the docking lines are slipped and the sails are hoisted, sometimes from two halyards, and from multiple masts. Then, the wind fills their shock-white wings and WHAM — you’re off on a sleigh ride as fantastic as anything a modern production cruiser/racer can deliver.
“She carries little freeboard and a trim beam,” advised Tim Blackman, owner and skipper of Infanta, a Phillip Rhodes-designed 47-foot yawl that was built just after WWII. “She goes like a rocketship.”
As soon as the starting gun fired for our class for the Cannon Race, a twice-around sausage-shaped affair, I realized the truth of Blackman’s words as Infanta clawed her way to weather, ticking past boats as her crew — resplendent in their blazing white buttoned-down, collared cotton shirts — hoisted sails of shapes and cuts that I had never before seen, let alone trimmed. Few things make you feel more foolish than being asked to fiddle with a bit whose name you don’t know, but perhaps an enhanced sailing vocabulary is part of the allure of these magnificent boats.
Take the gollywobbler, a four-cornered sail that’s hoisted between the masts of schooners. Jim and Norie Bregman asked me to help hoist theirs aboard Metani, their meticulously maintained 62-footer that was built to lines evolved from a classic John Alden design. Sensing my ineptitude, Norie graciously explained the sail, how it flies, and the hoisting procedure. I’m not sure what was more thrilling, feeling the gollywobbler add serious horsepower to Metani’s already-powerful sailplan, or watching the immense walls of sailcloth hung from the rigs aboard the two spirit of tradition J-class yachts, Velsheda and Ranger, rocket past us. And while the J-Class boats had their private wars (they became casualties when the two yachts tangled rigs and hulls later the same day). So too did Metani’s crew as we worked to get the Australian-built schooner around the big, triangular (and aptly named) Windward Course. Sadly for us, our gollywobbler succumbed to its years (all 25 of them) as the fresh Caribbean trade winds took their toll during the first takedown. Thus we crossed the finish line shy a horse or two under the hood, but still with massive smiles all around.
Perhaps most interesting was my education in how this niche within a niche of our already-niche sport differentiates itself from everyday sailors who have spent a lifetime aboard fiberglass boats that are nowhere near as graceful looking as these majestic classics. Blackman summed it up. “These boats are like furniture, really,” he said. “They have their own character. There have been times when I haven’t owned a boat and friends with fiberglass boats have asked me to go out sailing, but I’ll pass. If I can’t go sailing on a wooden boat like this, than I’d rather not go sailing at all.”