Back in the good ole days of yachting

Published on November 11th, 2020

The 1938 12 Metre Nyala has proven to be a popular subject for the 2020 Ultimate Sailing Calendar. We have shared the behind the scenes story of the shoot, background on the yacht’s name, and past recollections by Vic Hoehnebart.

In this submission by Buttons Padin, we go further down memory lane:

When I got out of the Navy in 1972 and started sailing at the Larchmont Yacht Club (Larchmont, NY), I had the opportunity to sail on Nyala for a few tuning sessions. At that time, Nyala was owned by Gerald Ford who was a member of Larchmont, and Nyala was part of our squadron for many years.

Fast forward and I now publish LYC’s MAINSHEET newsletter in which we always include an article about LYC’s history. Last winter, the Club’s Historian, Lucian Leone, helped the Club purchase a life ring from Nyala for display at the Club.

Together, Lucian and I put together two successive articles on Nyala which is still being raced to this day by her Italian owner, Patrizio Bertelli, CEO of Prada and head of the Luna Rossa challenging syndicate for the America’s Cup.

Part I – Historic Artifact Has Homecoming
In the mid-1930s, LYC member F. T. Bedford, president of Standard Oil and a well-known yachtsman, commissioned Olin Stephens to design a 12 Metre (his first). The yacht was built by Nevins Shipyard on City Island and was to be a wedding gift to his daughter, Lucie, who married Briggs Cunningham, racing yachtsman and better known for his car racing.

This stunning racing vessel slid down her ways in 1938 and was named Nyala after a beautiful species of antelope Bedford had seen on safari. Nyala’s home port was Southport, CT, and she started racing immediately after launching.

Following her into the Sound by several weeks was Northern Light, the second 12 Metre designed by Stephens, a gift by the inventor of Loran, Alfred Lee Loomis, to his son. Not to be outdone, Harold (Mike) S. Vanderbilt ordered another 12 Metre from Stephens, Vim, to be launched the next year.

These three yachts would race against each other, not only during Larchmont Race Week, but in countless other regattas for decades to come.

Nyala was formidable competition and, though Bedford was listed as owner on board in the sports pages, it is highly likely he shared the helm with Cunningham.

Nyala was sold in 1942 and relocated to Detroit. After two more changes of Midwest owners, she headed back east in 1951, having been purchased by LYC member Gerald V. Ford, a successful yacht broker. Whereas many think of 12s solely in relationship to the America’s Cup, up until this point they were just large racing yachts.

Then came 1958; the America’s Cup would be raced for the first time since 1937. Because of the enormous costs of organizing a pre-war J Class campaign for the Cup, the New York Yacht Club mandated that the “new” boats to be raced would be built to the International 12 Metre Rule of 1907, resulting in yachts of approximately 70 feet long.

Two new 12s were built to contend for the Defender role, Columbia, designed by Stephens for LYC member Cornelius Shields, and Weatherly, from the drafting table of Philip Rhodes.

With 20 years of design advancements since she was launched, Nyala wasn’t fast enough to compete for the Defender role; but she was more than fast enough to be a trial horse in both the 1958 and 1962 challenges.

In 1962, LYC’s future Commodore Dave Smalley was her skipper and matched up with Columbia, and with a “weekend crew” pushed Columbia to her limits. Although Columbia didn’t repeat as Defender in 1962, having Nyala as a stablemate made the contender a better sailed boat.

Part II – Vineyard Race Memories
Many of our members raced on Nyala, including Joe Fontanella who shared the following:

During the 1960s, I sailed aboard Nyala. She sailed often, but only raced twice a year: in the Queens Cup and the Vineyard Race. Jerry wanted the boat to remain a true 12 Metre, so the lifelines and engine were installed only temporarily for each race.

Sailors in the 1960s recall there was no GPS and no Loran in those days; navigation was dead reckoning using visual and the occasional RDF bearings. Nyala’s navigation instrumentation consisted of a steering compass, a watch, and a Kenyon water speed indicator.

Our depth finder was a lead line that hung on a hook in the forepeak, the running lights were kerosene lanterns hanging in the rigging, our foghorn looked like a big brass tire pump with a trumpet attached, and our bilge pumps were manual. For me, sailing on Nyala conjured up stories from Joshua Slocum, Sir Francis Chichester, and Jack London.

In most of those Vineyard Races, Nyala was scratch boat, expected to be the first to finish, which we were five times. Our nearest competitor and archrival was the venerable schooner Nina owned by DeCoursey Fales. DeCoursey and Jerry always had a standing wager: one bottle of rum.

One Vineyard Race in particular stands out in my mind: the year that Nyala set the course record of 29 hours. In the early morning light, as a strong Northwester blew with the lowering temperatures of a strong cold front, the Vineyard Tower came into sight as we approached it rail down.

To our delight, Nina was behind us. As navigator, I had been awake from the start so once we had a visual on the tower, I finally got some bunk time. No sooner had I settled in when I heard “bang!” Our big balloon spinnaker blew to smithereens. It was all hands-on deck to wrestle down the sail remnants and set a jib. By the way, the sheet and guy were plow steel wire and not to be dealt with casually.

As navigator, I seldom had my hands on the helm, but in this instance the entire crew was summoned on deck, and I was ordered to get out of my bunk and to take the wheel. No time for foul weather gear.

I’ll never forget that very exciting, crystal clear, very cold, and very wet morning, standing there in my wet underwear, steering for the tower, and thinking that I would probably freeze to death before we got there.

Another Vineyard Race was on Jerry’s 80th birthday. As we rounded the tower in daylight, the lightkeeper held up a sign that read “Happy Birthday Jerry.” I don’t know how Bobby Chase arranged that, but it certainly was memorable.

On the five Vineyard races that Nyala was first to finish, she was never able to correct over Nina. As was the custom, Nina and Nyala anchored inside the breakwater after crossing the finish line. Jerry would then reluctantly send a bottle of rum with congratulations over to Fales.

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