The year preceding the beginning of the deadliest conflict in human history, the windswept waters of Long Island Sound provided a tranquil diversion for yachtsmen of the day.
By Mark Keegan
The year preceding the beginning of the deadliest conflict in human history, the windswept waters of Long Island Sound provided a tranquil diversion for yachtsmen of the day. The sabers rattling across Europe during the summer of 1938 did little to dampen the great enthusiasm shown for sailing competitions across our familiar chop. This was to be the last great yachting season before World War II put a quick end to the merriment.
The big winner that summer was the newly launched and majestic Northern Light, a 12 Meter, double-planked, mahogany-over-cedar 70’ beauty. Designed by the venerable naval architecture firm of Sparkman & Stevens and built by master yacht builder Henry B. Nevins, her pedigree was peerless. Alfred Lee Loomis commissioned the Northern Light after riding on Gleam, a 12 Meter also built by Nevins. The senior Alfred gifted the great yacht to his 25-year-old son Lee, an aspiring sailor.
American Yacht Club’s annual regatta was an important stop on the racing circuit in 1938. The chased sterling silver, Boelen-style two-handled cup pictured here was to be awarded by the Club to the captain of the fastest boat in the International 12 Meter Class.
Twelve Meter Class boats became the preferred racer at this time, overtaking the massive J class sloops that Harold S. Vanderbilt used to defend the America’s Cup in the prior three challenges, lastly in 1937.
The 12 Meter has been described as one of the most striking racing sailboats ever built. These classic boats defined racing for three decades, as they were used in America’s Cup racing up until 1988. Designed to do one thing — go fast — their massive sail area could bring the sloops to speeds of 12 knots.
The fleet gathered, a dance was held, and the following morning on August 4, 1938, fifty-nine entries began the opening 26-mile leg of the AYC regatta from Milton Harbor to Port Jefferson. Northern Light won the first and third squadron runs, and after four days of port-to-port racing Lee Loomis was awarded the prized cup for the 12 Meter Class with 14½ points to runner-up Nyala’s 12½.
Lee and his blue-hulled Northern Light went on to win the NYYC regatta that followed and, after a summer crisscrossing the Sound, won the prestigious 1938 Long Island Sound Yacht Racing Association championship for her class, a remarkable achievement. Northern Light became the one to beat and held considerable interest among boaters around the world. Her speed and Lee’s skilled racing contributed to the adoption of the 12 Meter Class for the America’s Cup.
Alfred Loomis’s accomplishments, in addition to bringing us the Northern Light, are too numerous to list here. Although his modesty kept him out of the headlines and, mostly, the history books, suffice it to say you’ve benefited from his existence. A complete Renaissance man, picture the Dos Equis advertising character known as The Most Interesting Man in the World and you are close to an accurate depiction of Alfred.
A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Alfred was instrumental in the development of radar during World War II and was recognized by President Roosevelt as one of the most important civilians contributing to the Allied victory. The state-of-the-art laboratory he set up in his Tuxedo Park, New York mansion was hailed by Albert Einstein as “a palace of science”. Those sailing before they had a cell phone will recognize him as the inventor of LORAN (Loomis Radio Navigation), the most used navigation system on the water until GPS took over.
In Alfred’s early career as a successful investment banker, he foresaw the 1929 stock market crash and had most of his firm’s investments parked in cash. This allowed him to pursue his interests in the 1930s while many of his colleagues were financially distressed.
Alfred retired from public life after World War II and lived out his days sailing and tinkering in East Hampton until his passing in 1975 at age 87. His son continued sailing, won a gold medal in the 1948 Summer Olympics, and was part of the syndicate that successfully defended the America’s Cup in 1977. Lee passed in 1994 at age 81.
The Northern Light took a more circuitous path. She did not race in 1939, probably due to Alfred and Lee’s war efforts. Before the 1940 summer season, with Alfred now busy setting up the celebrated “Rad Lab” at MIT to develop radar, the Northern Light was sold to a new owner and raced with great success that season. During much of the 12 Meter era in America’s cup racing, she was put into service as a trial horse for newer 12 Meters being developed.
The next phase of her existence was not as glorious. The “go-go” 1980s resulted in the then-owner spending more time trying to get out of jail for “financial irregularities” than worrying about his race boat, and she ended up at the bottom of a slip on the Western shores of Lake Michigan with a piling driven through her submerged hull.
Fortunately, a yachtsman running a 12 Meter charter service in Newport, Rhode Island, had previously rescued Gleam, a boat the Northern Light raced against in 1938, and restored her to past glory. Through a considerable two-year effort, including repurchasing the original coffee grinder sheet winches from a local tavern where they had been used as ashtrays, the Northern Light was miraculously reunited with Gleam and can be chartered today.
The 1938 AYC Regatta 12 Meter Class Winner’s Cup, hoisted by Lee Loomis Jr., is currently on display in the Square House Museum. This unique piece of Rye history has been donated for the live auction being held at the Rye Historical Society’s Annual Gala, appropriately titled “A Soiree by the Sea.” Auction bidding is open to all attendees.
Fred and Barbara Cummings are hosting this year’s event on June 7. All proceeds benefit the mission of the Rye Historical Society. Tickets may be purchased at the Square House, at www.ryehistory.org, or by calling 967-7588.