Although it will be 20 years ago this fall, I remember it like it was yesterday, (of course it helps to have my log sitting here on the desk to jog my aging memory from time to time.) Late November in the English Channel can be exciting and Ty Techera, Gigi’s owner, and I were battling a procession of southwest gales trying to work free of the Channel. We weren’t doing very well either. In two days we had clawed our way all of 100 miles west of Lymington, the port city where Contessas were manufactured and where just a week before we smashed a bottle of champagne against Gigi’s rakish stem. We needed a break and decided to head for Dartmouth, a snug, all-weather harbor near Start Point on the south coast.
The gale intensified as we neared land and several gusts pegged the windspeed meter at 54 knots. It was an analog dial, the old Hercules system by B&G, and I remember with a mixture of horror and fascination as the needle swept clockwise with alarming speed—30 knots, 40 knots, 50 knots, 54 knots. The meter was the conductor and the wind howling through the rig was the orchestra. The symphony was definitely by Wagner. I miss the old analog instruments—digital readouts are too efficient; they don’t deliver as much drama.
Without warning a steeply curled wave crashed over the transom. Just like that we were pooped, water cascaded over the length of the boat. For a fleeting moment the boat was under water, shedding light on how the Contessa acquired its nickname, "a submarine with sails." Once we surfaced, a couple of other wayward waves walloped Gigi and she shook from side to side. A good pooping is as humbling as it is frightening and as I sat in the swamped cockpit I marveled at how effortlessly a single wave could make chaos out of the fragile order of a sailboat. Of course, taking all sail off a boat in the steep nasty seas that accompany an English Channel gale is like challenging Lennox Lewis to a fistfight—a sure way to get rocked.
And yet, despite my inept seamanship, Gigi had taken a hard right to the jaw and pounced back on her feet smiling. In due time the cockpit drained, the bilge was pumped, and as I scrambled forward to hoist the staysail I realized that the Contessa 32 was one tough little boat. It was going to take more than a full gale to ruin her evening and it was time for her skipper to think likewise.
|"Although my far-flung voyages on Gigi consumed me for almost two years, I hadn’t thought of her in a long time and had no idea if she was still sailing. That all changed when I was forced to clean out the backyard shed."|
Tom sent me pictures of the old girl and I was shocked: considering the thousands of difficult ocean miles the boat had logged, she looked terrific. Tom told me what he knew about Gigi’s recent history and put me in contact with another former owner, to fill in 10 years of blanks I knew nothing about. In the meantime, I told Tom about Gigi’s early days and in the process relived the adventures that profoundly influenced me, both as a sailor and as a man.
So Ty and I flew to England and he ordered a boat. Ty made several structural changes to the standard boat. He insisted on coring the deck with Airex foam and also had Rogers add longitudinal Airex stringers to the hull. These stringers not only stiffened the hull but also encapsulated the bulkheads, helping to keep everything in place when the going turned rough. Ty also increased the size of the standing rigging and had a chainplate installed to allow the option of flying a staysail. These changes were certainly helpful, but it is really the graceful design that makes the Contessa such a resilient vessel.
When viewed in profile, the boat almost seems to have a slightly reversed sheer line. The freeboard is low, really low, less than 30 inches and the cabin trunk blends naturally into the linear flow of the deck. The boat is indisputably handsome, and though it was built on license in Canada, it never gained a foothold in the US market. The reason is simple: interiors sell boats and the interior accommodations are cramped and a bit spartan. It is safe to say that there is more room below in a new Catalina 250 than in a Contessa 32.
We eventually made our way out of the English Channel and followed the ‘Ladies Trades’ across the Atlantic, completing the crossing in 19 days. Later that summer we sailed the boat up the coast, through the Erie Canal and across the Lake Erie to Ty’s homeport of Detroit. It didn’t take Ty long to lose interest sailing the shallows of Lake St. Clair and he fell hook, line, and sinker for my crazy idea to retrace the route of the clipper ships, sailing from New York to San Francisco.
We hastily delivered the boat back to New York and on October 15 set off for Bermuda. The 16,000-mile voyage was a struggle. We were hard on the wind for 120 of 160 sailing days, knocked flat in a North Atlantic gale and survived weeks of maddening calms in the Pacific. But there were triumphs too. We doubled Cape Horn in just 11 days [from 50 degrees South to 50 degrees South] and when we finally limped into San Francisco, the media pounced on us. We had our 15 minutes of fame, but unfortunately, most of the acclaim fell my way. I didn’t realize how deeply this insult cut Ty and it put a strain on our friendship.
Ty eventually hired a delivery skipper to sail the boat back to the states via the South Pacific. The skipper and crew wearied of beating to weather and abandoned the boat in Hawaii. Gigi rode piggyback on the deck of a freighter to San Francisco and then once again was transported overland, this time to Ft. Lauderdale. Ty and I had patched up our differences and were working together then. He sold boats and I sailed them. Financial reasons forced Ty to donate the boat, and we sailed her up to Stuart, FL, and handed her over to her new owner, the Chapman School of Seamanship. That was the last time I saw the boat until Tom Tompkins’ recent pictures.
|"Gigi rode piggyback on the deck of a freighter to San Francisco and then once again was transported overland, this time to Ft. Lauderdale."|
"I loved owning a Contessa," Rozacky told me, "it was cool; the boat is so well respected around the world, and the owner’s association is almost like being part of a cult." He said each successive owner always passed on a dog-eared copy of Cape Horn to Starboard whenever the boat was sold. I was delighted to learn that despite all the ownership changes the boat was still called Gigi. "Oh, the boat has too much history; it wouldn’t be right to change the name" Rozacky insisted. I didn’t tell Rozacky that Gigi was named after Ty’s ex-wife, a woman without a sense of humor and a landlubber if there ever was one. She never set foot on the boat and thought Ty’s obsession was a waste of money. It is ironic that her namesake lives on.
Through the Cracks by John Kretschmer
You've Bought the Wrong Boat by John Kretschmer
Choosing the Right Boat by Randy Harman
SailNet Store Section: Pumbling and Pumps
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