1967 Maxi Yacht Atalanta Sails On

74′ Atalanta: a NW Favorite Since 1990 – copyright Peter Marsh

With its unmistakable flush deck and transom rudder, the 74′ ketch-rigged Atalanta has been a familiar site on Puget Sound since it arrived her in 1990 under the ownership of Richard C. Hedreen, a Seattle developer. It has successfully completed three Vic-Mauis, and several Mexico races including the Los Angeles-Puerto Vallarta, and most recently the Newport-Cabo San Lucas race in 2005 that was followed by two months cruising in the Sea of Cortez.

Atalanta--ex Ondine III of Huey Long--once a famous maxi racer.

Atalanta–ex Ondine III of Huey Long–once a famous maxi racer.

That is quite an impressive record for a local boat, and especially for one that is almost 40 years old, but it’s no surprise to those who know the yacht’s history! When it was launched in 1967 as the Ondine III, it was dubbed “the world’s fastest ocean racer” and had a world-girdling career before it arrived in NW waters. The original owner was Sumner “Huey” Long, a wealthy ship broker who was already famous for his exploits in his two previous Ondines, including his first victory in the Australian classic the Sydney-Hobart in 1962 in the Ondine II, a smaller Tripp ketch.

Long’s next goal was a bigger boat that could win line honors in any ocean race on the planet, so designer Bill Tripp had used every trick he could think of. The most visible were the elimination of overhangs, the small bowsprit, and the massive transom-hung dinghy-style rudder. But under the water, the Ondine also sported a second rudder attached to the fin keel. Fiberglass was still in its infancy in those days, so the construction was to be in aluminum. No expense was spared, and the work was entrusted to one of the finest yards in the world–Abeking & Rasmussen in Germany.

Even though he was in the shipping business, Long was a yachtsman of the old school who had no intention of transporting his yachts as deck cargo. And since one of his goals was to win the Sydney-Hobart Race again, he needed a boat that could safely withstand a delivery voyage via the Cape of Good Hope and the Roaring Forties. So it was fitted with a watertight door into the foc’sle and commercial-grade ports that could withstand submersion.

Atalanta under spinnaker on an evening cruise in the NW.

Atalanta under spinnaker on an evening cruise in the NW.

The Ondine III cost the unprecedented sum of a half-million dollars, and when it was unveiled in the US, it was hailed by the press as “the half million dollar boat” or “the world’s fastest ocean racer.” Boating journalists considered the new Ondine very radical-surely the last word in speed under sail. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that it was basically a conservative heavy-displacement hull. The slack-bilged underbody had a huge displacement of 59 tons and a narrow beam of 16′. Freeboard forward was 6′ and draft 11.’

Ondine III had a comfortable interior with such luxuries as three air-conditioning units, an all-electric galley, and a sauna that was found to be useful for warming up the off-watch! It was not a boat that was intended to plane or surf except in extreme downwind conditions – but the heavy displacement meant it could easily handle all the stores and fuel a delivery crew needed to sail halfway around the world. (Within a few years, reducing weight would become a consuming obsession with racing sailors. On the newest round-the-word racers, the stripped-out Volvo 70s, the crew must subsist on freeze-dried food for a month at a time to save weight.)

Design-wise, Long was conservative, but competitively, he led American big boat sailing into a new era-the international “maxi racing circuit.” And while today’s line honor boats may be bigger and faster, they are certainly not as sturdy as the Ondine, as shown by recent Sydney-Hobarts. In 2005 the two Australian 100 footers vying for the lead suffered disastrous breakdowns, and both crews had to be taken off! In 2006, two maxis lost their rigs. Indeed, the owners more often have them shipped as deck cargo or on specialized yacht carrying ships to the prestigious events, to preserve their towering spars and expensive deck gear.

By contrast, the Ondine’s rig was intended to be bullet-proof with the aluminum main mast a moderate 99′ long and the mizzen 41′, carrying a working sail area of 2,670 square feet. (Although, as you will learn, there is no such thing as an unbreakable rig!) In the summer of 1968, the Ondine was in the Mediterranean after having competed in the Bermuda and the Trans-Atlantic races. A young Australian named Des Kearnes heard that the boat was heading down under, and signed on for the 13,000-mile voyage to Sydney. Like most of the pick-up crew, he was not entirely aware how tight the timetable was to complete the delivery. (I learned this from his book “World Wanderer” that is part of the Atalanta’s library. Kearnes spent six years hitchhiking his way around the world via the great capes,)

When they arrived in the Cape Verde Islands, Long’s Finnish delivery captain, Sven Joffs had the new stores and fuel on board in 18 hours and they were off again! In Capetown, according to the book, they were in and out in just one hour! This was at a time when sailing in the Southern Ocean was considered a perilous adventure and the first race through these waters was still a decade away. Ondine was making good time, with the crew instructed not to unduly stress the gear, and were 2,000 miles from Fremantle, Western Australia when the mainmast broke, leaving a 28′ stump.

The Ondine may have had the finest gear money can buy, but at the time, the only way this calamity could be reported to the owner was to hope a ship would come within the short range of the “radio telephone.” They were in one of the most remote locations on earth, with little shipping traffic, but luckily, the P&0 liner Canberra happened by (carrying English emmigrants) soon after. The ship’s radio officer was able to relay the message to shore, where it was turned into a brief telegram to Long. With only 30 days to go until the cut-off day for the race just before Christmas, the entire purpose of the long voyage was in jeopardy.

Under jury rig, the yacht arrived in Albany, Western Australia on December 10, for another pit stop. The stump was cleaned up, a few wires spliced, and they were off again. With the usual brisk winds in the Australian Bight and Captain Joffs driving them on, the crew still reached Sydney on December 21, 80 days from the Mediteranean! Meanwhile, Long had been attempting to do the impossible: get a mast prefabricated and flown around the world before Christmas.

The spar, in three 41′ sections, finally left the US on December 21 after Qantas airlines had agreed to remove a bulkhead in one of its cargo planes. By Christmas Day, it had arrived, gone through customs, been delivered and assembled. The crew celebrated by stepping their new mast and adjusting the rigging. There was no time for a test sail. On the holiday the Brits and Aussies call “Boxing Day” (December 26), the Ondine motored out for the start of the 628-mile classic, watched by thousands of spectators packing all the vantage points around Sydney Harbour. When the mainsail was hoisted, the new spar (or just the mast track) was found to be 18″ too short. Luckily, this was a time when the roller-reefing boom was standard, so this was no problem–Long ordered a few turns of the boom until the sail fit and they were good to go!

The all-star racing crew included Ted Turner and other America’s Cup veterans. Under Long’s command, they flew down the coast and across the Bass Strait in the lead. As they sailed up the Derwent River to Hobart and crossed the line first, Turner was reported to have said: “Well Huey, no matter what it cost, it was worth it,” When the celebration was over, the celebrities flew home, another pick-up crew was assembled, and the Ondine then sailed back to Panama non-stop.

Long and Bruynzeel had really galvanized the yachting world with their victories in the southern hemisphere. French hero Eric Tabarly was next on the scene, arriving in 1967 in his schooner Pen Duick III and taking first-to-finish. For a decade, the Hobart race continued to fascinate American maxi-boat owners: Jim Kilroy took his Kialoa to the first of three wins in 1971 and Ted Turner returned with his own maxi, the converted 12 meter American Eagle, and put his name on the line honors list in 1972. From 1968 to 1977, the US notched up six wins.

The Whitbread round-the-world race made its debut in 1973 and the production Swan 65 that won weighed about half as much as the Atalanta. Designers began re-thinking the shape of ocean-racing yachts, and Long figured he needed a new boat to stay in the running. For the fourth Ondine, he turned to Britton Chance, who produced a very different type of yacht. It was built in the US in aluminum by Derektor to a design that pushed the limits to keep the weight down for a competitive edge. Word soon spread that when the backstay was tensioned, the hull flexed so much it jammed the prop shaft! Nonetheless, Long sent it back Down Under and won the Sydney-Hobart a third time in 1974.

The Ondine III was sold and re-named Falcon. It was based in Florida and was well maintained by the new owners, who began the process of re-designing the interior to suit a more relaxed style of sailing. Richard Hedreen found the boat for sale in Fort Lauderdale in 1989. He liked its pedigree and thought it would suit his goals of family cruising and local racing in the northwest, and an occasional foray into low-key ocean racing.

His fascination with the boat has never waivered. Once it was delivered to Seattle, he began a program of restoration and general maintenance that continues to this day. Upgrades to the interior and the mechanical systems have modernized the boat without compromising its character. The result of his long-term investment is now considered a “modern classic” – one of the very few big racing yachts of the 60s to merit this tribute.

That distinctive transom-hung rudder was showing its age, so a new rudder was designed by Bob Perry with a substantial bumpkin supported by large-diameter tubing supports. Perry was given a set of Tripp’s original lines to work from and emphasized to me how full the hull shape is. There is virtually no turn to the bilge at all, he explained. It’s a very directionally-stable shape, so turning it needs a powerful hydraulic steering system.

Stuart Lochner has been Atalanta’s full-time captain since 2001. He is a commander in the naval reserve who had been a professional delivery skipper and yacht master for the previous 16 years. (His own boat is a modest J-22 that he keeps on Lake Union. When the Atalanta is back in its berth in Shilshole, he can often be found racing in the Duck Dodge.) He invited me down to Shilshole Marina to visit the big ketch–and generously answered all my questions over several visits.

The first impression I had was of the height of Atalanta’s topsides. This is a yacht that you climb up and into–the bulwark capped by a mahogany toe rail is about chest-high amidships and the freeboard at the bow put it well above my head! There is an impressive array of winches around the mast, with more hardware on the cockpit coamings. Stuart pointed out that the deck equipment has been steadily upgraded without compromising the boat’s essential look. The winches around the cockpit that handle the sheets can be operated manually or electrically, but all the halyard winches around the mast, and the coffee grinders used for the spinnaker sheets, are manual. It’s quite an effort to hoist the mainsail and takes a couple of men several minutes.

“Although we’re only 74′ on deck, we need gear that would be recommended for a typical modern 100 footer,” Stuart emphasized. Harnessing the 4500-square foot spinnaker to 60-tons of yacht in a strong breeze puts a huge strain on the running rigging when the wind picks up. When the spinnaker is stretched out below decks for yarning, it actually stretches from the foc’sle all the way to the back of the aft cabin! He has seen the heaviest standard snap shackle explode under the load: so all replacements for deck gear have to be special ordered or custom built.

His first season on the boat, he had a lot of questions about the correct technique for handling the sails. There weren’t many local experts he could consult, but he found a book named “Bluewater Racing” published in the 1970s that provided some useful ideas. The reward for mastering Atalanta has been some unforgettable experiences. “On a reach on the ocean doing 12 knots, this is a great boat. It takes twelve men on deck to gybe the spinnaker, but it’s a joy with a good crew working together,” he told me. “On the Vic-Maui, gybing the spinnaker in the moonlight was a real team event-a true accomplishment.”

“We had a fantastic race from Newport Beach to Cabo San Lucas in 2005,” he recalled. “I saw 21 knots on the log and we finished in front of the lightweight Santa Cruz 50s that we rate with.” Atalanta then carried on into the Sea of Cortez for two months of comfortable cruising far from marinas-a good indication of the versatility of a real cruiser-racer. Stuart’s wife Bonny flew down to join him for two weeks and they especially enjoyed some quiet anchorages with uninhabited islands to explore and fabulous snorkeling.

In the superb interior, fitted by John Guzzwell, white gloss on the overhead is balanced with varnished wood furnishings accented by hardwood inlay. There is an owner’s cabin aft, but the big salon in the center of the boat is wide open-including the nav station, which gives a great feeling of space. The galley is forward of the salon to port with the mast providing a useful handhold. There’s plenty of room here for a freezer and a real stove, but ironically, the boat is probably a little lighter than it was in its racing days. In its original trim, the Ondine was carrying a lot of heavy 60s-stye domestic appliances, genset and engine that have all been replaced my modern, lighter equivalents. The engine is a 250 Hp Cummins located under the salon floor.

When Stuart isn’t actually sailing the boat, he always has plenty of maintenance to do, but last winter, he told me, the Atalanta went to Platypus Marine for a complete external paint job. The hull was stripped down to bare metal and the plating, 5/16″ in the topsides and 1/2″ in the keel area, checked for corrosion. That can be a very serious issue with aluminum boats from the 60s and 70s, since simple measures to prevent galvanic corrosion were often overlooked, even by top-class builders. But fortunately, they got it right with Atalanta, which has never had any problems.

The time had come to replace the original commercial-grade ports with a more modern design, but they were still bonded so tight that after much effort, it was decided that all 15 had to be cut out! Additional metal was welded back and ground smooth until there was no sign of this surgery, and new ports installed with Sikaflex sealant. Since the ports are at eye-height for dockside gazers, the interior lacked privacy–so Atalanta was given its only “high-tech” item. “Smart Screen” ports that turn opaque at the flick of a switch were installed in the owner’s cabin aft.

The previous paint job, done a decade ago, had stood up well on the topsides, but had deteriorated around the ports and all along the deck edge, so the owner wanted to eliminate this problem and do a first-class job this time. The varnished toe rail and the first strip of teak decking were removed around the entire boat, and the underlying aluminum ground clean, prepped and primed. The Awlgrip paint was applied, and only then was the woodwork replaced.

It was not corrosion but fatigue that had caused a crack in the aluminum mast where it passed through the deck. (This is the same spar that had been flown around the world back in the yacht’s glory days.) Now it was Stuart’s task to repair it! Atalanta’s 100′ stick is one of the biggest and heaviest masts in the northwest, he pointed out, so he enlisted the help of all the experienced riggers he could find to make sure the operation went smoothly.

The mast was removed using a dock crane in Port Angeles, and rolled under a roof so that it could be stripped for examination and later the painting. An aluminum doubler plate 8′ high and 3/8″ thick was shaped in a press break to match the curve of the mast section. The fit was tested and holes drilled to through-bolt the mast and doubler. Then the inside of the mast and the outside of the doubler were liberally smeared with Sikalfex, it was mated up, and the bolts tightened. Very carefully, the reinforced, re-painted mast was lowered down through the deck and the standing rigging connected.

Atalanta was back in action this summer with a schedule that included the Swiftsure and the Downtown Sailing Series, I missed my chance to join the crew on a Thursday race, but on my latest visit to Shilshole, I was in luck and was invited to be the sole crew on a casual sunset cruise for some of the owner’s clients. The guests seemed happy to stay in the cockpit, so I cast off the lines while Stuart expertly motored Atalanta away from the dock. Outside the breakwater, we unfurled the new (maker??) genoa-by far the biggest headsail I had ever handled. I had my first encounter with electric self-tailing winches, and fairly quickly figured out when to switch from handwork to power as the ??” sheet loaded up.

Although the breeze was light, the sheet was bar-taut before the sail had stopped luffing. That was all the sail we set, but on the way back across the sound a dark cloud darkened the sky, the breeze picked up a little and with my “expert” helming (Ted Turner has nothing to fear from me!) we managed to put 10 knots on the dial with a very slight wake showing. A second lesson about big-boat sailing came when we reached the dock: As Stuart cautiously worked to within a yard of the dock, I decided it was my job to jump ashore with a line and get it around a cleat.

Of course, I wasn’t thinking about the huge freeboard at that moment, so hit the dock as if I had jumped off a six-foot wall! With all the passengers watching, I managed to stay on my feet and bring 60 tons of boat to a halt in a seaman-like manner by surging the line around a dock cleat. When the boat was made fast, we set up the ladder and attended the passengers as they disembarked. (If I hadn’t jumped into nautical writing, I might have tried working on yachts as a full-time occupation….but preferably in a better climate!)

It is refreshing to see a yacht of this size with an owner who can see the value of a boat regardless of the vagaries of the current rating rule. Compared to the modern style of line honors boat that is discarded after a couple of seasons, the Atalanta has sailed through the CCA era in the 60s, the IOR in the 70s and 80s, and the IMS in the 90s. Today, it is often the only yacht built before the 1990s competing, and is rewarded with an old-age bonus by some committees.

Atalanta’s last outing of the year was the Round the Island Race in November. When the wind picked up during the afternoon, she showed a fine burst of speed and placed second in the big-boat class. I hope you get the chance to see Atalanta under full sail: she is a magnificent sight.

Stormvogel

The first modern “maxi yacht” and the boat to beat for line honors in the 1960s was the 72′ Stormvogel, owned by the Dutch man whose name is still synonymous with top-quality plywood-Bruynzeel. So determined was Bruynzeel to have the world’s fastest passage maker, that he persuaded three designers to share the project! The hull was by the Dutchman Van de Stadt, the deck and interior by the Laurent Giles and the rig by John Illingworth-both English. Stormvogel was considered a lightweight at the time–although it weighed in at 40 tons. Launched in South Africa in 1961, Stormvogel soon found a worthy rival in the first Ondine, which won the Sydeny-Hobart in 1962. The Dutch boat was first across the line in Hobart in 1965 and sailed back to Europe via Cape Horn. In 1967, it won the famous Transpac duel with Ticonderoga, and by the end of the decade this globe-trotting yacht had logged over 200,000 miles. It has also been well-kept and today charters around Thailand.

 

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2 Responses to 1967 Maxi Yacht Atalanta Sails On

  1. Bjorn Terje Thorsen says:

    I have been following this incredible ship for years after it came for sale. But I finally lost track of her. Anyone know where she currently is located and who is the owner?

    Kind regards
    B.T.Thorsen

    • Harley says:

      Atalanta is still in Seattle and just last week completed her 5th Vic – Maui in 10 days, 16 1/2 hrs. It was quite a ride!

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