Old boats have old stories

Published on November 10th, 2020

What’s great about classic yachts, beyond their sheer beauty, are the stories that accompany them. Photographer Sharon Green stirred up memories when she featured the 1938 12 Metre Nyala in her 2020 Calendar, from the history of her name to these recollections by Victor Hoehnebart:

I remember Nyala being stored at Minneford’s in City Island, NY when I worked there for a couple of years around 1984-1985. This was after they already ceased building racing yachts and 12 Meters, with the yard in the possession of new owners.

Nyala was owned by an old gentleman named Gerald Ford (no, not the US President) who lived on City Island Avenue a few blocks north of MInneford’s. Gerry also owned an Alden schooner named Windameen, which he converted from a schooner to a ketch for easier handling, which was also being stored at Minneford.

Gerry was quite a character…old school. He would come to the boatyard to check on his boats, always wearing a white shirt, tie, blazer, and straw hat. More about Gerry in this 1970 NY Times report.

I remember that as the new owners of the boatyard were leveling the old buildings and the railway system, Windameen was going to have to be launched after being on the hard for years. Two large pumps were made ready while the boat was launched using the elevator onto which the boat was moved via the railways. Didn’t need the pumps – boat didn’t leak. Gerry had kept water in her bilges, salt water, so the bottom planks were swollen and the seams were tight.

As I got to know Gerry a bit better, I learned that he had been a yacht broker with a brokerage office in the Chrysler Building in New York City at some point in his life. He had told me when he was young, he had sold yachts to many important client, but was able to buy them back during after the Black Tuesday stock market crash for sums that were closer to the commission he had earned for the original sale.

If I remember it correctly, he said he lived on and maintained more than a dozen boats at the Henry Nevins yard next door over the course of the Depression (the Nevins yard had later been razed and a public school stood where it once had been). When the US economy was back on the upswing, he said he sold these yachts for almost the same prices as they brought previous to the Depression.

A friend and I had looked at Nyala with the dream of purchasing her and restoring this old wooden 12 Meter, but that was a dream for us with no finances to back it. I still remember the big bronze strap on the outside of the hull under the mast step area that kept the mast from getting pushed out the bottom of the boat…or opening up the seams.

Gerry had invited us to visit him at his beautiful little white corner house on City Island Avenue and he showed us around – the place was a yachting museum. He showed us all sorts of boat plans and memorabilia for a good part of an afternoon as we shared sailing stories.

He had told us that he took possession of Nyala in Block Island, and had single-handed (!!) her back to City Island. I still marvel at the notion of this old man (albeit younger when he bought her) putting up that huge main and sailing such a boat by himself – a trip of probably over 110-115 miles.

I didn’t know what became of Nyala and Windameen after that. A couple/few years later Gerry was hit by a car crossing City Island Avenue close to his home. I had heard of Nyala resurfacing somewhere later on (before winding up in Italy) and I believe I saw her much more recently at the 12 Metre Worlds in Newport just a couple of summers ago.

Hopefully I’m remembering all this accurately – things get a bit fuzzy with age….

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