"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."
Meyer bought Endeavour from the Englishman who had paid $22 for her, promising as part of the deal never to divulge the amount she gave him. Her next move was to find and talk to the original owner, Sopwith, who was 97 at the time and disinclined to listen to yet another dreamer talk about restoring Endeavour. Not until he had his banker check out her finances did he decide Meyer was worth an interview.
"You're a damn fool," Sopwith bellowed when the two finally faced each other at his home in Hampshire. "These boats were preposterous even in the '30s."
"Then you think I shouldn't do it?" said Meyer.
"I didn't say that," Sopwith said, and until his death in 1989, at 101, he contributed invaluable advice to the reconstruction project.
Returning to Calshot Spit, Meyer set up a makeshift boatyard, erecting a plastic shed over her broken-down prize and hiring six people to work on her full time. She herself oversaw the rebuilding of the steel hull and the new, 70-ton lead keel. But after a promising start, things went less smoothly. Because Endeavour was so big and, literally, one of a kind, most of her hardware had to be custom-made, which proved to be time-consuming as well as costly. The reconstruction fell far behind schedule, and the enormousness of Meyer's task began to dawn on her. "God knows why I'm doing this," she said at a particularly low point. "I'm so scared. Sometimes I wake up at 4 a.m., shaking."
Meyer's difficulties were compounded by British immigration officials who, she says, hassled her; by the local tax man who dogged her footsteps; and by the county council, which, she says, tried to stick her with an exorbitant rent for her yard. In addition, an anonymous malefactor repeatedly cut the power to the yard. Even when, after 18 months of work, Endeavour was finally ready for relaunching, Meyer's old worries were replaced by new ones. "I kept thinking, The boat is going to go in the water and I'm going to sink to my knees with grief. She's going to be ugly and funny-looking and weird."
Then on Aug. 10, 1986, before a crowd of 600 well-wishers, Meyer smashed a magnum of Louis Roederer champagne across Endeavour's bow and the boat slipped gracefully into the English Channel. Meyer's relief was palpable. "O.K.," she said. "The boat looks great. Nobody's going to laugh at me for doing this. I realize the social insignificance of it, but I think in human terms it is significant. To me, it's like restoring the Statue of Liberty."
With Endeavour finally seaworthy but still an empty shell, Meyer had her towed to the Royal Huisman Shipyard in Vollenhove, Holland, reputedly the finest yacht yard in the world. In June 1987, Endeavour moved into Royal Huisman's biggest shed. There, joinery craftsmen slowly created, at a cost of approximately $3 million, an elegant Edwardian-style interior far different from that of the original.
Today Endeavour is as unconventional as her owner, an intriguing mix of historic preservation and modern maxicoat technology. Below decks are five elegant staterooms and, in the main saloon, a marble fireplace surrounded by gleaming cherry cabinetry. On deck are the latest in coffee-grinder winches, as well as a 51-foot spinnaker pole made of carbon fiber. In another departure from tradition, Meyer rejected brass or bronze hardware, which requires constant polishing, in favor of nickel, platinum and stainless steel.
"Elizabeth restored Endeavour in such a grand style that the boat is really a piece of art," says Jobson. "Endeavour is the finest yacht in the world today."
The reconstruction of Endeavour was completed in May 1989. What had taken five months and $165,000 to build in 1933 required five years and $10 million to rebuild 55 years later. Meyer blew a good part of her fortune, but she has no regrets. "I just wanted someone to restore a J, and the fact that it was me is less important than the fact that it's been done." Meyer's reward came last summer when Endeavour made her Newport debut in a much heralded three-race series against Shamrock V. (The restoration of Shamrock V, which is now owned by Newport's Museum of Yachting, was aided by a $1 million gift from Meyer.) Twelve hundred boats turned out to watch the return of the J's. Ted Turner, the 1977 America's Cup winner, and Jobson were the skippers, and a spot in either crew was so highly coveted that not one of the 71 who were invited sent regrets. Endeavour won the series 3-0, but the magic of what Meyer and her money and her obsession had wrought went beyond winning a race and beyond even the gratification of seeing a beautiful object preserved.
"The only analogy I can make," said an Endeavour crewman, Jerry Kirby, "is if I was a baseball player and wanted to play in an All-Star Game, that I could bring back Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige and we could all get together and have a game. It's like that."
Duncan Brantley, an avid sailor who lives in East Hampton, N.Y., is a former SI reporter.