The Tiedemann Collection
Rescuing vintage yachts - and putting them to work

by Bill Mayher
Photographs by Benjamin Mendlowitz

The 12-Meters NORTHERN LIGHT and GLEAM are the centerpieces of their fleet, which now has six boats.

If Newport, Rhode Island, is the crown of American yachting, then the pre­World War II 12-Meter yachts GLEAM and NORTHERN LIGHT are the jewels in that crown. Stroll down harborside Thames Street, and you’ll see their silky splendors reproduced on poster after poster of Morris Rosenfeld’s immortal photograph, “Flying Spinnakers.” Pick up a tourist brochure, and these two beauties are sure to be pictured dancing cheek-to-cheek across the waters of Narragansett Bay, still celebrating in their seventh decade together. GLEAM and NORTHERN LIGHT are such a part of the Newport scene, so emblematic of what we think of as yachting or sailboat racing or the rich life, it’s hard to consider the city without them. But nothing is inevitable about their presence in Newport—or anywhere else, for that matter. The fact is that they sail today not because of the clairvoyance of some group of Newport yachtsmen or the brilliant idea of a Newport publicist, but because of the dreams of a teenage boy named Bob Tiedemann.

Like a lot of kids years ago, Tiedemann haunted boatyards. But rather than being drawn to modern plastic racing machines manufactured under the auspices of the newly drawn-up International Offshore Rule (IOR) that minted a decade’s worth of pretty ugly and none-too-seaworthy boats, Bob had an eye for classics. By the late 1960s, these boats rarely enjoyed front-row billing at boatyards, and, more often than not, owners with the dough to keep them in style had let them go to owners more noteworthy for their antiquarian inclinations than for their bank accounts. Once the toasts of the yachting world, by this time they were the sad sacks out back: shedding paint, draped across their poppets, waiting for a chainsaw or a backhoe to bid them an unceremonious adieu.

Bob and Elizabeth Tiedemann have made a business - and a life - of rescuing and restoring vintage wooden yachts and putting them to work in the Newport, Rhode Island, charter trade.

Despite the poor condition he found them in, Bob couldn’t dream about classic boats enough. In the spring, when the yards were busy, he had to content himself with the real basket cases out next to the 55-gallon drums and the brush piles. Come winter, he was free to crawl around on wooden boats just short of the brink, boats that still had owners willing to keep them, if not in Bristol condition, at least operational. Thirty years later he can still list them by name: GOOD NEWS, CARA MIA, NERIS, the Alden O-Boat GEORGIA. They were boats whose final acts, short of a miracle, were also drawing near.

Bob Tiedemann’s sailing career began when, at age 12, he convinced his father to buy a wooden 19' Lightning-class sloop. At the time this represented no great feat of salesmanship. When four years later, however, he convinced his father that the family’s next boat should be a 54' Alden yawl built by the German yard Abeking & Rasmussen in 1950 for Bethlehem Steel CEO Arthur B. Homer—now that was a piece of talking. But it was not the hare-brained scheme it might appear to be on the surface. Mr. Tiedemann, a trained naval architect in the shipping business and an all-around no-nonsense guy, was already impressed by young Bob’s sailing skills and boat keeping abilities. All Bob had to do was convince his father that he could care for MARINER and pay her bills by taking charter parties around Long Island Sound. Clearly there were risks, but these were soon dispelled as charterers signed on for both day trips and overnights. The new business had found a life, or as Bob puts it, “I didn’t know anything, but at least I never hurt anybody.”

Abeking & Rasmussen built the 53' 8" yawl MARINER in 1950; she's been in the Tiedemann family for over 35 years.

One group of fortyish men on a weekend charter to Block Island was memorable for the quantity of bottled stores it loaded aboard. Bob wasn’t too concerned by what this cargo might mean until one of the passengers fell dead asleep in the bow pulpit. With night coming on, Bob feared the guy might slip overboard and be lost, so he lugged him to safety in a bunk below. Little was made of this act of kindness until a year later when Bob, at the wheel of his car, driving along a beach road, became distracted by an attractive pedestrian wearing a skimpy bikini. He rear-ended the car ahead and was subsequently hauled into court. Well aware that his carelessness had caused the accident, he approached the bench in a state of full-blown contrition to enter a guilty plea, only to be instructed by the judge to immediately withdraw it. Again he tried to explain the error of his ways, again the judge looked down and said, “Withdraw your plea.” It wasn’t until the judge repeated this admonition a third time and then added, “And next time, stick to sailing,” that he recognized his honor was the very gentleman he had carried out of harm’s way—returning, as it were, a favor done a year earlier.

NORTHERN LIGHT, as Bob Tiedemann acquired her in Holland, Michigan.

Young Tiedemann years earlier after hauling GLEAM in 1976 - and apparently unfazed by the task ahead.

It is this young man, hardworking, accustomed to the responsibilities of command, and above all single-minded, who went on to purchase yet another boat for his own charter business: the 68' Clinton Crane­designed 12-Meter sloop, GLEAM. He found her tied up to an ancient Herreshoff motoryacht in New Jersey’s Maurice River. At the time, GLEAM was owned by a pleasantly eccentric university physics professor from Philadelphia named C.W. Ufford, who along with an assortment of equally eccentric sidekicks had kept GLEAM glimmering, but barely. By the winter of 1974 Ufford felt the chore of maintaining and sailing an antique 12-Meter racing yacht might be a bit much for a retired professor. Thanks to a considerable error in navigation several summers earlier, he and the lads had put GLEAM on a shoal—the professor barely escaping with his life. By the time Ufford awoke in his bunk, he discovered the rest of the crew had swum ashore. After the incident, he maintained that he could have jibed the boat and sailed her off the rocks—had he had his crew aboard to do so. As it turned, GLEAM was sunk and her mast destroyed.

During the winter of 1975, he began negotiations with Tiedemann when another calamity struck. Professor Ufford got a call from neighbors along the Maurice informing him that ice had torn GLEAM loose from her berth and that she was careering downstream toward Delaware Bay. By the time the agitated owner arrived, the tide had turned and GLEAM was sluicing upriver toward a low fixed bridge. Miraculously she came to rest in the mud exactly where she had started from. All he had to do was throw a line aboard and retie her. But he knew it was time to sell. Not surprisingly, potential customers with certified checks in hand did not line the banks of the Maurice River when news broke that GLEAM was up for sale. This left Bob Tiedemann pretty much on his own to strike a deal with the grateful Ufford.

At first glance GLEAM, for all her storied past, was no beauty. Perhaps in the spirit of some holiday occasion, her decks had been painted Christmas green, all bronze hardware Santa Claus red. To deliver the boat along the Jersey Shore to New York, Tiedemann was obliged to rig a gas-powered generator on deck to force sufficient juice through her ancient circuitry to run her bilge pumps. It wasn’t until GLEAM arrived at City Island for serious hull work that he discovered the problem with her wiring: her 32-volt system was made up of a virtually infinite chain of 3' lengths of used wire that the thrifty professor had harvested from the lab benches of his Physics 101 students. Additionally—because of Ufford’s practice of renewing worn-out bronze screws by jamming a bit of bronze wool into the hole, and then setting the old screw back with a daub of white glue—some serious refastening using brand-new screws would be required. Yet for all of these problems, after replacing a few planks and giving her a thorough cosmetic going-over, GLEAM was good enough for charter service by the midsummer of 1976.

NORTHERN LIGHT, 70' LOA and the largest of the Tiedemann Collection, off Newport, Rhode Island, last autumn. Designed by Sparkman & Stephens and built by Nevins in 1938, she has amenities lacking in a modern "Twelve."

Over Tiedemann’s first summer she sailed out of Greenwich, Connecticut. But with the AMERICA’s Cup in full swing off Newport in that and subsequent summers, customers wanted to observe Cup goings-on as defending and challenging Twelves went about their business, and it soon made sense to relocate full-time to Newport and the waters of Narragansett Bay.

At this point, your typical young entrepreneur with a vintage 12-Meter yacht up-and-sailing for profit along Newport’s mansion-studded shore would have called it good enough, but Bob kept pushing. Over his first couple of years of skippering GLEAM, he had noticed that most of the passengers aboard didn’t have a clue what the boat they were aboard actually looked like under sail. He thought that if he could get another Twelve to sail in company with GLEAM, the mirroring effect of two nearly identical yachts sailing in close company would more than double the visual magic.

These thoughts led him back to GLEAM’s old partner from the Rosenfeld photograph, NORTHERN LIGHT. Research revealed that she was lying at the bottom of a backwater slip in the waters of Lake Macatawa in Holland, Michigan. Rather than think “basket-case,” or “financial ruin,” or “mental hospital,” he thought, “gotta be a bargain,” and headed west without further ado.

What he saw when he arrived must have exceeded his grimmest imaginings. For years NORTHERN LIGHT had been kept afloat by the steady churning of not one but three sump pumps. This chancy state of affairs had turned further south when, in rapid-fire order, NORTHERN LIGHT’s owner was sent to jail for financial irregularities and the level of Lake Macatawa had dropped low enough so that a submerged piling had punched through her hull. Undaunted, Bob raised NORTHERN LIGHT to the surface and put her on the bank for a closer look. It was not a pretty sight.

To sop up any dampness missed by the three sump pumps and a constantly running hard-wired dehumidifier NORTHERN LIGHT’s owner had swaddled the boat’s interior with orange and green shag carpeting. Ice, grinding along her waterline, had scarred her planking. In the stern, a small tree grew out of the covering board. Furthermore, there was the stuff that wasn’t there, like the steering wheel, compass and binnacle top, and wooden boom—plus the priceless custom-made Nevins sheet winches Tiedemann discovered doing duty as ashtrays atop the bar of a local tavern. Finally, when he went to pull the mast, because the previous owner had used bath towels as a boot, the mast had rotted clear through at the partners, causing the bottom seven feet to drop off of its own weight as a crane lifted the stick free.

To a veteran of the trials and tribulations of the GLEAM restoration, however, the challenges represented by NORTHERN LIGHT’s forlorn condition were a mere bump in the road. A thorough interior sandblasting would eliminate the shag carpet problem. Newport’s intrepid shipwright Louis Sauzedde, whom Bob enticed to Michigan to help out, soon would put NORTHERN LIGHT’s structural problems to right. After managing to ransom her deck hardware from its barroom bondage, in less than two years Bob had her up and beautiful and free at last to travel on her own bottom through the lakes, canals, and rivers connecting Michigan to the Atlantic Ocean and her old home, Newport.

The 62' commuter yacht PAM was built by Great Lakes Boat Building Company of Milwaukee in 1921; in 1990, Bob Tiedemann found her swamped and derelict in a Florida canal. Twin Chryslers drive her over 30 knots.

With two vintage 12-Meter yachts in harness and generating revenue for Seascope Yacht Charters (the corporate entity Bob Tiedemann had created back when MARINER was his only boat for hire), once again a lot of young men in his position would have called it good enough. “Good enough,” it seems, never came up as a concept. For one thing, Bob could never forget that classic yachts were moldering away in need of energetic angels such as himself.

In this regard he had been thinking his business might benefit from the presence of a large powerboat to serve as a tender to the Twelves so that non-sailing charter guests could enjoy the spectacle of GLEAM and NORTHERN LIGHT sailing side-by-side. In hopes of bringing this thought to fruition, he had followed the fortunes of a 1921, 62' commuter yacht named PAM that had been originally built to the highest standards by the Great Lakes Boatbuilding Company for the Hiram Walker Distillery. By the time Bob caught up with PAM she was lying in a canal slip near Fort Lauderdale and way past her glory days: engines awash, brightwork gone to fuzz, belowdecks a frightful cocktail brewing in the heat of the Florida sun: the full catastrophe.

With characteristic energy and smarts (we know the drill by now), Bob pumped her bilges and managed to free her engines. Then, by running nearly as much oil through them as he did gasoline, he managed to steam PAM the length of the East Coast to Newport and a new life as a burnished classic in The Tiedemann Collection. Featuring Frank Sinatra and the Big Bands on the stereo and Dom Perignon in the fridge, PAM became everything Bob had hoped for: charterers in deck chairs observing the Twelves on a summer morning, lunching in shady splendor with GLEAM and NORTHERN LIGHT tied up along each side at noon and then, come evening, dancing their way into the moonlight.

“First you get the boats, then you invent the business,” is the way Bob and his wife, Elizabeth, define their enterprise. The 1911 harbor launch FAWAN is a case in point. With her graceful double-ended hull and oval leaded-glass windows with their spider-web designs, this 40' launch is a boat of such refined good looks that she might seem more at home in the fleet of a Venetian Doge than running around in Newport Harbor.

FAWAN, a 40' launch built in 1911, is the latest addition to the Tiedemann fleet. Built for John Jacob Astor IV (who died in the TITANIC sinking) for use at his Hudson River estate, the boat went through a succession of owners in Maine and Massachusetts before the Tiedemanns acquired her in 2003.

When they first picked up FAWAN on their need-to-save radar, she had fallen on hard times, with crumpled wads of tinfoil used as filler in her rot-softened hood ends. Given the work involved, her rebuilding would be a long and drawn-out process. Only after replacing her keel and floor timbers with new ones of angelique, renewing her planking with white cedar, and shining her back to the glamorous standards of the Roaring Twenties, would Bob and Elizabeth have the pleasure of figuring out how she might live up to their investment and pay her way.

A high-end livery service seemed to be the ideal solution, so these days FAWAN is busy as a venue for elaborately staged wedding proposals. She ferries brides and proud fathers to the heads of aisles. She sweeps happy couples away to honeymoons. She stands at-the-ready for the celebration of anniversaries with sunset cruises featuring champagne and caviar. In an era in which luxury can be ordered á la carte, FAWAN provides high-income celebrants with the fizz of elegance without a whiff of drudgery.

Looking at Seascope purely as a business enterprise, one thing stands clear: this is an outfit that sticks close to the mission statement they have printed on their business cards. “For nearly three decades Bob and Elizabeth Tiedemann and the Seascope crew have been dedicated to the rescue, restoration, and preservation of fine antique and vintage wooden yachts of pedigree. This mission is supported by chartering, which enables others the opportunity to enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of each of their designs. Our sincerest thanks to our charterers for supporting our passion.”

Nothing about the success of Seascope Yacht Charters would be the same if Elizabeth had not joined Bob in the early 1990s and agreed to marry him in 1994. Already familiar with the intricacies of scheduling complex events in her previous job booking conferences for the Sheraton Hotel in Newport, Elizabeth brought gifts of empathy, humor, style, and organizational flair to the job. In an industry known for long hours, her work ethic in combination with Bob’s is amazing. But more impressive than the stuff they get accomplished in a day is the fun they have doing it and the spirit of teamwork they generate within the large group of employees responsible for maintaining and sailing Seascope’s fleet of vintage treasures that measure in at something like 356 linear feet.

This brings us to the pleasure of sailing aboard the boats. Without question, the chance to watch Bob at the helm of GLEAM while a dozen chartering Caterpillar tractor sales managers man the winches on a day of “Team Building” is a rare privilege. Probably no skipper has spent more time sailing a Twelve than he has. This experience—something over 13,500 hours, by his quick reckoning—lets him drive GLEAM with a particular economy of motion.

Designed by yachtsman and naval architect Clinton Crane, the 12-Meter GLEAM (67' 11"), like her sparring partner NORTHERN LIGHT (trailing at right), was built by Henry B. Nevins. Launched in 1937, she still carries her original interior and harware. The Tiedemanns have created a program called "Your Own AMERICA's Cup Regatta," a team-building program sailed aboard their vintage Twelves.

The result is that instead of being about the skipper, the sailing experience aboard GLEAM is all about the boat. At the same time (in spite of a succinct and highly effective training program that has each participant performing a specific set of tasks on each tack), Bob remains acutely aware that (like most of his team-building charterers) the Caterpillar guys are new to sailing. With 120 rookie fingers at risk, Bob scans the deck continuously, looking for trouble, anticipating and correcting problems before they can even think of happening. If good sailors are expert noticers, Bob is a master noticer.

His ability to drive fast and come close to other boats in the scores of mini-AMERICA’s Cup regattas that Seascope sponsors with as many as ten or a dozen other Twelves over the course of a summer is enhanced by the continuity of the crew they have assembled at Seascope.

When Elizabeth puts out a call to scramble the troops to cover an event or fill in for each other or do something totally (and inevitably) unexpected, everyone in the outfit pulls together because each has been made to feel that he or she has a crucial stake in keeping the boats well.

MARINER, the overnight charter member of the fleet, is a terrific boat to sail to the Vineyard, Nantucket, or Block Island. FAWAN brings her own special charms to the Newport Harbor scene. PAM at 30 knots stirs up a unique blend of elegance and performance. Yet for all of these, I won’t soon forget the experience of sailing GLEAM and NORTHERN LIGHT in company over the course of a couple of sparkling fall afternoons with the spray flying and the breeze regularly gusting over 30 knots.

First we had the mirroring effect of Twelve-on-Twelve as the boats exchanged tacks and then bore off to fly up the bay under the Newport Bridge, pushing hull speed with every puff—massive quarter waves humping and surging alongside, everything but those mythic spinnakers flying. Then there was the fun of seeing the nervous smiles of the Caterpillar salesmen breaking into broad grins as they realized they were sailing aboard boats that could go to the edge without exploding into smithereens.

On the second day out, when Elizabeth invited students of the International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS) to come along to help crew the boats, we saw these same kinds of smiles, this time made all the broader, as the students realized that it was exactly this sort of experience that their two-year apprenticeships were designed to perpetuate.

Finally we saw the simple joy Bob and Elizabeth took in the experience. It was the last day of a season that had stretched from May through October. Hurricane Wilma was stalking Newport from the south. In the face of this threat there were those 356' of yachts needing to get safely tucked away. After that there would be the truckloads of laundry including slipcovers, cushions, pillows and linens, and portlight curtains to clean and store; engines to winterize; winter covers to fit right; plus all the various end-of-season work to schedule and get checked off on a list before the snow flies. Facing these tasks (and a lot more), no one could blame Bob and Elizabeth for just grinding through their paces with a visiting reporter and photographer aboard. Instead, here they were, grinning ear-to-ear at each other and the world around them and just enjoying the hell out of the ride.

At the end of the second day of sailing, I ask them if there will ever be an end to the taking-on of new project boats. They still smile, but this time there’s an impish, slightly embarrassed quality to their expressions as if, down deep, each knows the treadmill of acquisition and restoration they have ridden for decades may be a permanent state of affairs.

Surely each of them has tried to call it quits. Being the somewhat more reasonable person in the couple, Elizabeth has often found herself falling back on the old standby, “What don’t you understand about ‘no new boats’?” in her attempts to hold the line. For a man battling the responsibilities of maintaining a virtual bowling alley’s worth of varnish every year, such a reminder might be good enough to do the trick. But to Bob Tiedemann, who has spent most of a lifetime sniffing around in the backwaters and the boneyard lots of boatyards in search of classic yachts to save, the act of giving up the hunt might seem a lot like giving up life itself, so Elizabeth mostly contents herself with keeping him under light surveillance.

It doesn’t always work. Several years ago, for example, Bob kept hearing about a 62' Lawley power launch named L’ALLEGRO that, in rare fashion, had all of her interior joinerwork intact but was in otherwise poor condition up some creek in Chelsea, the gritty industrial port city just north of Boston. Opening up clandestine talks with her desperate owner, it was some weeks later that he mentioned L’ALLEGRO’s existence to Elizabeth—just as the couple exited the highway after crossing the Mystic River Bridge on his way to the Chelsea piers.

Anticipating such an eventuality, he had arranged that the owner be present to show them the boat. It was this man who pointed to L’ALLEGRO in the distance, one boat in a wad of hulks lashed together in the wistful hope that such an arrangement might provide collective buoyancy. To make things even less alluring, the soggy flotilla was accessible only via a floating bridge composed of half-submerged pilings chained together.

As Bob and Elizabeth and L’ALLEGRO’s owner wobbled out along the logs, one might, at this point in the narrative, expect tears of betrayal and rage on Elizabeth’s part. But Elizabeth is nothing if not a game girl. She looked over L’ALLEGRO, she heard Bob explain his dreams for her, and then she drew herself up and said, “But Bob, we’ve got to save her.”

Never, one suspects, have the right man and the right woman and the right boats come together to produce such a series of glorious outcomes. L’ALLEGRO is now safely under wraps on a specially poured slab in the Tiedemanns’ backyard. It will take time and money to put her right. But the skill is there, and the will, and the dream, not to mention the hopes of a lot of the rest of us.

Bill Mayher is a frequent contributor to WoodenBoat.