Rescuing vintage yachts - and putting them
by Bill Mayher
Photographs by Benjamin Mendlowitz
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
& Rasmussen built the 53' 8" yawl MARINER in 1950; she's
been in the Tiedemann family for over 35 years.
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.
LIGHT, as Bob Tiedemann acquired her in Holland, Michigan.
Tiedemann years earlier after hauling GLEAM in 1976 - and apparently
unfazed by the task ahead.
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.