How one owner resurrected an 80-year-old classic racing yacht.
Olin Stephens was just 30 years old when Blitzen was launched in 1938, following in the wake of the prodigiously talented designer’s yachts such as Dorade (1929) and Stormy Weather (1934).
Like Stormy Weather, Blitzen was constructed at the Henry Nevins yard in New York. Unlike those famous predecessors, however, design no 221, Blitzen, was sloop-rigged and designed as a pure racer from the outset.
She was built for RJ Reynolds, heir to a tobacco fortune of the same name. ‘Dick’ Reynolds Jnr had a colourful life that included four marriages – one to a Hollywood starlet. He also owned a series of yachts.
Legend has it, Reynolds named Blitzen after his first wife, Elizabeth ‘Blitz’ McCaw Dillard to persuade her to take up sailing.
‘Blitzen’ also means lightning in German, and lightning fast she proved, winning her class in the Newport-Bermuda Race in her first season. “It was the Grand Prix boat of the day,” explains Peter Morton, whose company Shemara Refit restored Blitzen for new owner, Sir Charles Dunstone.
“It is a little bit different to the other boats because they were built as cruiser-racers, this thing is the stripped-out boat of its time. And it was very successful.”
Naval architect Paul Spooner, who designed plans for the refit, comments that she is finer than many of Stephens’s designs of the same era (with the exception of Dorade): “Her length-to-beam ratio is a little bit narrower than the yawls. She’s a powerful boat for sure.”
Blitzen and Reynolds powered to victory in the 2,000-mile San Francisco-Honolulu Race in 1939, also winning offshore between Florida and Havana, then heading to Europe where she finished 3rd in the Fastnet. She continued winning for subsequent owners for the next three decades.
A regular on the classic yacht racing circuit throughout the 1980s, Blitzen had fallen into disrepair by the time Morton found her. After Dunstone’s 1938 65m motoryacht Shemara was launched in 2014 following a three-year refit, the hunt had begun for a new project.
“Charles had sold his Wally yacht, and was looking to do less grand prix racing and a bit more fun racing,” Morton explains. “We talked about finding a boat of the same sort of vintage as Shemara and doing a bit of classic racing. It’s a growing fleet, so we looked for a boat that had some heritage.”
As a companion to Shemara, the pedigree of the 1938 Sparkman & Stephens design was impeccable, but Blitzen was discovered declining in a scrapyard in New England. “It was a massive restoration job,” recalls Morton.
“She was in a plastic tent in Massachusetts so she was in a pretty poor state, but the basic boat was there – the keel was good, a lot of the frames were good. But the planking and the decks were rotten.
“A lot of the structural woodwork inside is original – the carlings, the beam shelf, the main hog, the main keel of the boat – so the skeleton of the boat is pretty original. But the planking had gone because it was double diagonal planking and I think moisture had got between the two skins. We actually found woodworm.”
Oliver Ophaus of Shemara Refit, who managed the restoration, says her construction was typical S&S, in the form of double fore and aft planking, with Alaskan yellow cedar on the inner face and an outer skin of African mahogany.
“She had 50 pairs of steamed oak frames which were in a state of bad repair, so we replaced 80 per cent [of them] with laminated oak,” he adds.
Back to the original
Blitzen’s complete overhaul saw her restored to original wherever possible. “The CIM rule in the Med basically rewards authenticity and punishes changes, so we got a set of plans from Sparkman & Stephens office,” explains Morton.
“She had been modified during her life, but we restored back to exactly how she was in 1938. We put a wooden rig in – she’d had an aluminium rig – and went back to the original layout. So we’ve got a very good authenticity number in the rating.”
A few minor tweaks have adjusted Blitzen to her new life as a Mediterranean inshore racer, including a marginally increased mast section, and lower boom height. She was designed to be tiller steered, but had been changed to wheel early in her lifetime, and still has a large racing wheel. Orphaus describes her balance as ‘perfect’.
The original sailplan gave Blitzen a famously large overlapping genoa. “By then Olin Stephens had realised that sloop rigs were probably better for racing so therefore she has got a tall rig, she hasn’t got a mizzen, and she’s got a big genoa and a big spinnaker, but we rate higher,” says Morton.
To control her giant headsails, Blitzen was one of the earliest yachts to be fitted with a pedestal winch, placed abaft the wheel. The original is still on deck, with some new working parts from Lewmar.
The long-keeled Blitzen also had a bronze centreplate that can, in theory, be wound up and down, although the crew tend to leave it lowered.
The newly restored Blitzen took part in her first competitive regatta at Les Voiles de St Tropez last September, where she finished 2nd in class, taking two race wins ahead of a star-studded fleet of classic yachts that included German Frers’s Fjord III and Stormy Weather.
Stephens’s 221st design looks set to score more wins in the 21st century.