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Gigi—One Boat's Story

The venerable Contessa 32 enjoys a quiet moment under sail.
I know exactly when I came to trust  Gigi, the diminutive Contessa 32 that carried me to the bottom of the world and back. It was the proverbial dark and stormy night, and I was cold, soaked like a dirty dishrag, and thoroughly frightened. I was a young, inexperienced captain, questioning whether I had the moxie to deliver Gigi back to Florida, and I confess, on that miserable night Florida seemed farther away than the moon.

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.

A sistership battles gale-force conditions in the English Channel, a scenario similar to what the author encountered during his first days aboard Gigi.
With the sheets eased, we were flying toward the coast under triple-reefed main and staysail; indeed, we were approaching the coast too quickly or so I thought. The truth is I was scared and needed to collect myself before landfall. I decided to drop all sail and ease along under bare poles until I could, in those pre GPS days, update the DR and take bearings on the Start Point Light—what a dumb idea.

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."
One of the drawbacks to my life as an itinerant delivery skipper and part-time adventurer is that I often loose contact with the boats I sail. 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. I discovered a box from McGraw Hill with original copies of my book, Cape Horn to Starboard. I had purchased these "unappreciated classics" from the publisher for pennies on the dollar just before they were remaindered, the ignominious fate of books that don’t sell and usually are not all that terrific to begin with. When I mentioned this discovery to an acquaintance with a Contessa 32, he suggested I put a notice on the Contessa 32 owner’s association web page. Presto. Contessa 32 owners from around the world were interested in the book and the final 50 copies disappeared quickly. One of the people who contacted me was Tom Tompkins, who briefly mentioned that he was the current owner of Gigi and that she was in good shape and still sailing on Galveston Bay.

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.

Gigi's present owner, Tom Tompkins, savors the time he can spend aboard his trusty sloop.
Ty Techera was a restless businessman in his early 40s when he enrolled in a celestial navigation course I was teaching in Ft. Lauderdale. He wanted to take advantage of the strong US dollar in the early ‘80s, buy a boat in England and sail it back to the US. I told him about my favorite boat, a boat I had only sailed a few times, but instinctually knew had the right stuff, the Contessa 32. The Contessa 32 was designed by David Sadler in 1972 for Jeremy Rogers’ Contessa Yachts and introduced at the London Boat Show in 1973. The boat was an instant success and quickly became known for its heavy weather prowess. Its reputation was cemented during the infamous 1979 Fastnet Race, the deadliest yachting disaster ever. Of the 58 Class Five boats (28 to 32 feet LOA) that began the race, only one finished, Assent, a Contessa 32.

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.

Displaying her trademark tumblehome, fine bow, and low freeboard, Gigi awaits another season of sailing.
The rig is typical of many IOR sloops from that period with a moderately high mast and a short boom. The fine entry is raked and the stern is lifted and pinched, the overhang ratio is around 25 percent—an unholy high figure by today’s blunt-nosed, long-waterline-at-any-cost standards. Below the waterline the leading edge of the powerful fin keel sweeps aft and the rudder is hung on a full skeg. The ballast represents nearly 50 percent of the displacement, which helps account for the boat’s surefootedness under sail.

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.

Fifty-eight boats in Class Five of the ill-fated 1979 Fastnet Race crossed the starting line. Only one finished, a Contessa 32 (above). That same boat, is still sailing today, along with the same owner, who is now 75.
We finished our voyage in May, and by September Ty had shipped the boat to Newport, RI, and set off for the Horn again, this time alone. Ostensibly he was on a mission for the Smithsonian Institute to measure salinity levels in the Southern Ocean, but he was really on a mission for himself. He eventually doubled the Horn and continued westward, beating against the relentless westerlies of the Roaring Forties. Seventy-five days out of the Falkland Islands he made landfall in New Zealand. After pausing to catch his breath, he continued onto Hobart Tasmania before personal problems scuttled his voyage. After this remarkable voyage, Gigi, the little two-year-old production boat from England had logged 40,000 miles, including two windward passages around Cape Horn!

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."
Rudy Rozacky, Gigi’s former owner who sold her to Tompkins, took up the story line from there. The Chapman School kept her just the required two years and then hastily sold her for a pittance. I did hear along the way that one of their survey classes accidentally sank the boat. According to Rozacky, a research scientist who sailed her back to his homeport of Galveston purchased the boat. For the next five years Gigi was raced hard and put away wet. She took second one year in the Galveston to Vera Cruz offshore race. The next owner was an inexperienced sailor who, according to Rozacky, let the boat fall into disrepair. Rozacky found the nearly derelict Gigi in a Galveston boatyard and spent two and half years refitting the boat. He updated all the systems including the sails, many of which were original. After three years of cruising and racing all along the Texas coast, Rozacky sold the boat to Tompkins.

"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.

Suggested Reading:

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

John Kretschmer is offline  
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