11 Oct 2010

Lake Ontario's 8-Metre Fleet

Several 8-Metres lined up at the dock of RCYC, Toronto.
It is the last day of racing at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club’s Royal Week Regatta coinciding with the Labour Day weekend. Out on Lake Ontario, it is warm and sunny, but the light and variable winds are causing trouble for the crews of more than 30 racing yachts as their crews jockey for the favoured end of the start line. The yachts are divided into several fleets based on their sizes and ratings. The staggered starts of the fleets have various groups of boats step up to the starting line while others hang back awaiting their turns. The boats criss-crossing behind the line makes for an impressive spectacle. Finally, the first fleet, consisting of the largest IMS boats, is off. These boats are slab-sided and blunt-bowed fibreglass hulls, the latest in high-tech sailing.

A few minutes later the second fleet starts. In contrast, this fleet consists of wooden hulls with low, sleek sheerlines and profiles with elegant long overhangs. The manner in which the boats of this fleet cut and shoulder through the water it is obvious that they have very heavy displacement hulls. This fleet is made up of some of the most beautiful sailboats anywhere and is also one of the oldest fleets of racing yachts in the world. These yachts make up the unique Lake Ontario 8-Metre fleet. Several of the boats are more than 70 years old. Two of them first raced each other 69 years ago. Thisbe and Quest met in August 1930 across the lake on the waters off Rochester in New York state. During that long-ago summer, 10,000 spectators watched as the two boats duelled for the Canada’s Cup and sailing supremacy of the Great Lakes.

The unique pre-WW II fleet of 8-Metres consists of ten boats at two Toronto area clubs-RCYC and Etobicoke Yacht Club. Although over the years other eights have come and gone. Another pair of more modern Eights sail out of the American side of Lake Ontario. The pedigrees of these Eights represent unique aspects of Canadian and international yacht design and history. For example, the rivalry between Iskareen and Venture II dates back to the 1954 edition of the Canada’s Cup. Conewego, currently under restoration, was design number nine off the drafting table of Olin Stephens and the beautiful lines of Norseman came off the board of William Roue, designer of the famous Nova Scotia schooner Bluenose.

The 8-Metre class, which was based on the International Rule, is not a one-design but represents an early 20th century effort to allow designers some leeway in the design of boats that race without time penalties. Not as well known as the 12-Metres which were used for past America’s Cup racing, the Eights are handier and more suited to the shallower harbours of Lake Ontario. Nevertheless 8-Metres are powerful and fast with superb up-wind capabilities. “You can feel the power of an Eight by the way it rides through the water,” says Bart Meuring, co-owner of Bangalore, a 1928 Norwegian-built Eight. With their full keels they sit deep in the water and are designed to heel 15 or 20 degrees. Most 8-Metres were built strictly for racing and there are few compromises for cruising. “The old Eights were built by craftsmen who put life into those boats,” says Meuring.

Cedric Gyles, who owns and races Norseman, represents the typical 8-metre fanatic. “I’ve been messing about 8-Metres for about 25 years,” say Gyles, “and I’ve had a lot of fun in them.” He first sailed in Eights as a youngster growing up in Vancouver with his father. Later living in the Prairies Gyles did not sail for many years. Moving to Toronto he got back into sailing and he started looking for a boat to buy. He was not impressed with most of the modern boats. “Then I saw the two Eights at RCYC,” he says. “So I went looking for an Eight to buy. I looked in Europe and found nothing, but in 1973 I found Norseman in a boatyard in Sodus Bay (New York) across the lake. It was love at first sight.

Various 8.metres at RCYC with the Toronto skyline in the distance.

Sitting next to Norseman in Sodus Bay boatyard was another 8-Metre, Thisbe. “When I came back to Toronto I told Dick Mitchele about her,” says Gyles. “Dick bought Thisbe and then there were four 8-Metres at RCYC." Gyles has a personal connection with two other Lake Ontario Eights. His son is a co-owner of the Scottish-built Severn II and a number of years ago Gyles found Bangalore in Martha’s Vineyard and restored her before selling her to Meuring and his partners.

The origins of the Lake Ontario 8-Metre fleet are tied to the Canada’s Cup, inaugurated in 1896 when the Lincoln Park Club of Chicago challenged RCYC for supremacy of Great Lakes match racing. The Toronto club won the first series with a boat named Canada, hence the name of the trophy. The Chicago Yacht Club won the cup in 1899. It went back to RCYC in 1901. The Rochester Yacht Club won it in 1903 and successfully defended in 1905 and 1907 before the series went into dormancy until RCYC issued a challenge in 1929.

With the 1929 challenge, consideration had to be given as to the type of boat to race the series. In 1928, Commodore George H. Gooderham acquired the first International Rule yacht on the Great Lakes, the Finnish-built Six-Metre Merenneito. It was Merenneito’s impressive performance that led RCYC to suggest using 10-Metres for the Canada’s Cup. Rochester balked at the expense of building a 10-Metre to defend but agreed to go with the 8-Metre class. In fact, both clubs built three Eights each. The first American boat Conewago, was one of Olin Stephen’s earliest designs years before making his mark with a long line of America’s Cup winners. The second Rochester boat, Cayuga, was designed by Frank Paine and financed by public subscription. The final Rochester boat, Thisbe, a Clinton Crane design built in New York City, was simply intended to be a trial horse for the other two. It was Thisbe, however, that won the defender trials.

Meanwhile across the lake, RCYC, had approached the designer of the famous Nova Scotia schooner Bluenose, William Roue to draw up the lines of Norseman. The club built her in the club’s own yard on Toronto Island. The next RCYC boat, Quest was from the design offices of William Fife of Scotland. Fife had been responsible for the design of Canada the first winner of the Canada’s Cup. Quest was built by a yard in Oakville, a few miles west of Toronto, partly from pieces shipped out from the Fife shops. George Gooderham commissioned the final RCYC boat, Vision, designed and built by Camper & Nicholson in the United Kingdom. Quest won the challenger trials.

The 1930 Canada’s Cup between Thisbe and Quest drew tremendous crowds, upwards of 5,000 people in boats and on shore for the first four races. With the series tied at two races each, the fifth and final race was watched by an estimated 10,000. So exciting was the series that RCYC issued another challenge for 1932. RCYC again commissioned Fife to design a challenger, Invader II. Rochester selected Conewego as defender. The two boats met for the Canada’s Cup in 1932 and 1934 with the Americans winning both series. With the continuing depression and the onset of the Second World War the Canada’s Cup went into a 20-year-long hibernation.
Quest after her refurbishment. On the left is Venture II.
In 1954, under the impetus of Norman Walsh, RCYC again issued a challenge for the Canada’s Cup, which had been held by Rochester Yacht Club for more than 50 years. The two clubs agreed to use existing boats but the only 8-Metres then at Rochester and Toronto were considered too outdated and there was a scramble to acquire suitable boats. Both clubs set their hopes acquiring the Olin Stephens-designed and Swedish-built Iskareen. Walsh sent a young engineering student, George Cuthbertson, to Scotland to chase up Iskareen. Cuthbertson, who later went on to establish C&C Yachts, found that Iskareen had been bought hours before his arrival via cable from a Rochester member. “We later found out that they had picked up word of my excursion,” says Cuthbertson, “had acted sight unseen.”

“I reported to Norm by telephone and he asked me what I thought we should do,” recalls Cuthbertson. “I replied that several of the Eights in Sweden perhaps merited a look.” Walsh told Cuthbertson to go ahead and have a look at the Swedish Eights. Unfortunately, there were none that, in Cuthbertson’s opinion, could match Iskareen. Back in Toronto, Walsh and Cuthbertson conferred on what to do. Cuthbertson studied all of the available data and suggested that the next best boat Venture II, an E. Arthur Shuman design, then in Detroit should be investigated. Both Iskareen and Venture II had built in 1938 and were considerably advanced technically over the older Eights used in the Canada’s Cup.

After Walsh had acquired Venture II, he set Cuthbertson to design and implement upgrades to her. They replaced the heavy wooden mast and lightened the hull. “She was ruthlessly stripped of anything that could be eliminated,” says Cuthbertson. Venture II was outfitted with one of the first suits of Dacron synthetic sails on the Great Lakes, although, a fine set of cotton sails was obtained as a hedge. Venture II dominated the challenger trails, winning eight straight races against Vision and Invader II. In the 1954 Canada’s Cup series, Iskareen won the first race. “In the next race, Venture II evened the series which saw the lead change five times,” says Cuthbertson. Eventually, the Canadian boat won the series and brought the Canada’s Cup back to the north shore of Lake Ontario for the first time in 53 years. There was another hiatus, this time 15 years long, before the Cup was again contested in 1969.

The break did not do much for the 8-Metre fleet, but in anticipation of the 1969 series, Eugene Van Voorhis of the Rochester Yacht Club commissioned Olin Stephens to design Iroquois. This new Eight was essentially a scaled-down version of Stephens’ revolutionary 12-Metre Intrepid. Unfortunately for Van Voorhis, RCYC pulled the rug out from under him and changed the deed of gift for the Canada's Cup dropping the 8-Metre class. On the other hand Iroquois was the forerunner of a number of  “modern” Eights that appeared on the American side of Lake Ontario. The Van Voorhis family raced Iroquois for several seasons before selling her to Finnish owners.

In the late 1960s, without the impetus of the Canada’s Cup, the Lake Ontario 8-Metre fleet floundered. Some of the boats were sold to European owners while others were left neglected in boatyards. By 1971 there were only two Eights in racing condition on the lake, although Joe Balogh was in the process of restoring the venerable Quest and it was just about that time that Cedric Gyles found Norseman and Thisbe in Sodus Bay. Since then, Lake Ontario has again become one of the most active 8-Metre venues in the world.

So important is the Lake Ontario fleet that the 8-Metre World Cup regattas alternate between the lake and a European venue. The last Lake Ontario World Cup was hosted by the Rochester Yacht Club in 1999. At the World Cup Regattas, two trophies are contested, the Sira Cup for vintage boats built before World War II, and the World Cup itself for the fastest overall Eight regardless of age. All the boats race together and occasionally the older heavier boats beat some of the newer. Last year’s World Cup regatta at Porto St. Stefano had more than two dozen Eights show up.

The Lake Ontario fleet is centered in Toronto, but there are several modern Eights on the American side of the lake. These modern Eights of either fibre-glass or cold-moulded wood construction are of lighter displacement and easily leave the vintage Eights behind. Unfortunately, the state of the American 8-Metre fleet is not at all promising. “The only boat that was out sailing last summer was The Natural out of Sodus Bay,” says Joel Roemer, North American Secretary of the International 8-Metre Association. In 1998, Roemer organized a match race series at the Rochester Yacht Club that saw Ted Turner take the helm of several vintage and modern Eights. The event’s special guest was Olin Stephens, who was able to inspect his two designs, Conewego and Iskareen. It was the first time that Stephens had seen Iskareen.

Two modern American Eights were lost to Lake Onatrio last summer. The Rochester boat Octavia–a Bruce Kirby design built in Canada–was sold to owners on Lake Michigan. “Ron Palm of Oswego sold Sarissa at dockside at the World Cup in St. Stefano,” says Roemer, “but on the other hand Palm also recently bought Mystery (formerly Triage) and has refurbished her.” The only other American Eight on Lake Ontario is Golden Feather and she did not race last summer.

There had been some talk of using 8-Metres to contest the next Canada’s Cup series set for this summer. “We tried to push for Eights in the Canada’s Cup but it did not work out,” says Gyles, who is involved in negotiations with the current holders of the Cup, the Bayview Yacht Club of Detroit. From his prospective on the American side of the border, Joel Roemer thinks that using the Eights for the Canada’s Cup would be great. “If the Canada’s Cup went with 8-Metres it would really revive the 8-Metre scene on this side of the lake,” says Roemer. The most likely boat to be chosen for the Cup is the Farr 40.

In any case, Cedric Gyles remains enthusiastic about the future of 8-Metres on Lake Ontario, especially the Canadian fleet of vintage boats. “We could well have nine or 10 boats on the start line next summer,” he says. “The future looks promising with so many young people coming into the fleet.” Gyles’ crew bank of a dozen or so includes some of his grandchildren. Gyles was pleased to see Venture II back racing last summer after many years of being used as a family day sailor. Although Etobicoke Yacht Club’s Jackeen was not raced, her owners have recently acquired a sister ship, Ace, and are restoring her. With dedicated owners and crew, the Lake Ontario 8-Meter fleet will continue to flourish.
Norseman and Severn at the RCYC dock.
(I wrote this article for Canadian Yachting magazine in 2001.)


K. Leonard said...

Video of Iskareen racing Venture II:

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Barbara C. P. von Schilcher said...

My grandfather, Wilmot (Rooney) V. Castle, of Rochester, NY was the owner and skipper of Conewego in 1932 and 1934 when he won the Canada’s Cup! I have a photo of him with the cup along with his family.