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The International Contender By Dave Ellis

It was in 1980 that I was up on a roof cleaning a chimney in my then-business in northeast Georgia. I happened to look down in the neighbor’s yard near Lake Hartwell. Upside down—looking forlorn— was what looked like a Flying Dutchman with a hormone problem. I just had to find out what it was.

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44 November 2010


Just after rounding the leeward mark in excellent winds, at the second day of the worlds at Lake Garda in 2004. Ginge Lincoln, UK, to leeward and Gil Woolley, USA, battling up the last beat. Photo by Ann Seidel.


he lady who answered the door bristled when I asked about the boat. “You want it?” she almost shouted. “Take it. It’s yours for a hundred bucks.” What about the mast and sails? “The ex-husband has them, but he’ll never get the boat!” was her reply. It turned out it was one of the early Contenders to make it to the States. I used a Windmill rig to terrorize the Portsmouth fleet on Lake Keowee in South Carolina and Lanier in Georgia for a year or so before the wood rot got too bad and it ended up as a day sailer on a mountain lake for a family. Well, there was a good reason that the boat looked like a Flying Dutchman. The designer fashioned the boat after the FD that he enjoyed racing in Australia in the 1960s. Bob Miller, later known as Ben Lexcen, may sound like a familiar name to some. Remember the Australian 12-meter with the upside-down keel that removed the America’s Cup from the New York Yacht Club? Same designer. The original goal of the boat was to win a contest in 1965 to replace the venerable Finn for the Olympics. Lexcen needed funds to get his new design to Europe for the trials, and an Australian company had just introduced a sailcloth they called Contender. Hence the name of the boat. Eventually, three trials were held, with the final one having decent wind. The Contender ran away with the title. However, at that time it was felt that one person sailing a boat from the trapeze was not good seamanship. The powerful Finn lobby prevailed. The Finn was, and still is, the Olympic boat. But the concept of speed alone from the trapeze struck a vibe with many sailors; first Down Under, and then in the UK. In the early 1970s a few boats were imported into the States, and others were built from detailed plans. The first Contenders were wood. Later, well-built fiberglass boats were produced with the restriction that no epoxy or carbon was to be used in the hull to keep costs down. Today there are boats of both materials winning events, and the Italian Bonezzi wood boats are like fine furniture. A carbon mast and boom is now allowed, along with carbon foils. At just over 16-feet long and just under 5-feet wide, it is