"Ohmygod!" That's what people say when they see the boat for the first time. "I just sit there quietly, waiting for them," says the boat's owner. "Then, sure enough, they say it. Every single one of them."
The boat is Endeavour, one of 10 near legendary J boats built in the U.S. and Great Britain for the America's Cup in the 1930s. The owner is Elizabeth Meyer, a 37-year-old Baltimore-born heiress who spent five years and $10 million to restore Endeavour after finding her rusting away, a forgotten hulk, in the south of England.
The prime of Endeavour's life was the America's Cup summer of 1934. Owned by Sir Thomas Sopwith, developer of the famous Sopwith Camel airplane of World War I, Endeavour was perhaps the most magnificent yacht ever sailed. Her midnight-blue hull measured 130 feet from tapered bow to tapered stern, her flattopped "'Park Avenue" boom—wide enough for two people to stroll arm in arm—was 65 feet long, and her towering mast rose nearly 17 stories above the teak deck and supported 20,000 square feet of canvas. The deck was completely flush, with not even a lifeline to mar its silhouette or separate her 33-member racing crew from the drink. She also had that most elusive of qualities—speed.
In the summer of '34 everyone agreed that Endeavour, the English challenger, surely was faster than Rainbow, the U.S. defender of the Cup. Even Harold S. (Mike) Vanderbilt, Rainbows owner and skipper, said he had never seen anything like the way Endeavour could accelerate out of a tack. With just a bit of racing luck, Endeavour rather than Australia II might have been the first challenger to wrest the America's Cup from the grip of the New York Yacht Club. Endeavour easily won the first two races of the best-of-seven Cup series, but a tactical error cost her the third race. In the fourth race Sopwith, Endeavour's skipper, protested a dangerous maneuver that Rainbow had made while trying to pass. But because Sopwith failed to hoist his protest flag immediately after the incident, the race committee, adhering strictly to the rules, refused to hear Endeavour's protest. With a 2-2 tie in hand, Rainbow took advantage of a demoralized Endeavour crew to go on to win the series 4-2.
The sailing world's fascination with J boats began taking hold in the America's Cup trials of 1930 when the enormous yet graceful new sloops replaced the earlier schooners and cutters. Ten of the new boats were built quickly, six in the U.S. (Rainbow, Ranger, Enterprise, Whirlwind, Yankee and Weetamoe) and four in Great Britain (Endeavour, Endeavour II, Shamrock V and Velsheda). Yet even in their heyday, the J's were as doomed as dinosaurs. Their cost, both in construction and upkeep, was ultimately prohibitive. The J's raced in the America's Cup only three times—in 1930, 1934 and 1937. Another Cup series was anticipated in 1940, but by then World War II was under way in Europe, and within another year all the American J's had been scrapped for their bronze hull plating and lead keels. By 1958 only three J boats remained, all in varied states of disrepair—Sir Thomas Lipton's Shamrock V; Velsheda, which was named for the three daughters (Velma, Sheila and Daphne) of British Woolworth's chairman, W.L. Stephenson; and Endeavour.
Impractical for either racing or cruising, Endeavour had passed from Sop-with to a series of owners, one of whom sold her for $22 to a man who rescued her from the muddy banks of the Medina River on England's Isle of Wight, only to leave her stranded until 1984 on a spit of land near Southampton.
By 1984, Elizabeth Meyer was known in sailing circles for being rich and eccentric. She had inherited from her family a healthy chunk of
The Washington Post
, and in the 1970s she made a fortune of her own, investing in waterfront land on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. After graduating from Bennington College with a degree in English, Meyer, who had long been interested in sailing, began writing free-lance articles for nautical magazines. During that time, she published a very funny one-shot parody of those magazines, titled Yaahting, which sold more than 40,000 copies. Perhaps most of all, she delighted in titillating the gossips in sailing enclaves such as Newport with her antics. For example, her friends once received Christmas cards bearing a photo of Meyer and her boyfriend at the time (Mr. Really Wrong, she calls him now) naked on a hotel balcony in Costa Rica.
Those who know Meyer describe her variously as impatient, determined, witty, stubborn, wild and fun. She has an opinion about everything, and her language, says America's Cup sailor Gary Jobson, is "as salty as anybody's I've ever sailed with."
In the early 1980s several events combined to change the course of Meyer's life. In 1981-82 her parents died of cancer within seven months; in 1985 she was found to have a benign brain tumor. Surgery was performed successfully that year and again last summer, but the operations left Meyer frustrated. "I can't remember numbers anymore now," she says with a grin. "I have to write them all down."
Numbers had suddenly become important to Meyer, because in 1984 while she was in England researching an article on the history of the J class for Nautical Quarterly, she had seen what was left of Endeavour. By this time, mastless, keelless and rusted, the boat sat in a wooden cradle next to an abandoned seaplane hangar on Calshot Spit, on England's south coast. "I grew up worshiping J's just like every other sailor did," Meyer says. "I felt sorry for her, and I felt somebody had to do something. At the same time, I got a sinking feeling because I knew it would be me."