Over several days and nights during the summer of 1973, the first Opera House Cup was born. The gathering spot and watering hole to an eclectic group of Summer Swells, well-heeled older clientele and vagabond sailors and skippers, was the Opera House Restaurant just around the corner from the Nobby Shop on South Water Street. Its owner who held court every night at Table One, was Gwen Gaillard.
The Opera House was the restaurant of the Island at the time, and Gwen was its queen. Her favorite characters were the young and wild and off-beat members of Nantucket's sailing world who spiced up the evenings with ribald tails of their adventures. Gwen was the mother to them all. These sailors all had an interest in classic wooden boats whether they chartered or sailed for pleasure, and, in many cases, lived aboard in the Nantucket Boat Basin or out in the harbor. The captain/owners of Pursuit (Jack Sullivan), Stiletto (Will Buchan), Mya (Jeffery Hugret) and Saphronia (Torpey) were among the many liveaboards.
It was on a sultry night in late July that a group of these sailors decided to do something special for Gwen. "How ‘bout we have a wooden boat race?', one suggested. A unanimous agreement and raising of glasses confirmed the deal and thus was born the germ that became the dream of a great classic wooden boat race on Nantucket Sound that henceforth was known as the Opera House Cup.
Gwen Gaillard was not only the founder and sponsor of the OHC, but she was a friend and confident to the majority of these young sailors. Her restaurant manager, Charles "Chick" Walsh, was instrumental in launching and organizing the first race, the dinner the night before the race, and the party following the competition. The rag-tag organizational committee worked on logistics.
Chick called on one of the restaurant's best customers and a Nantucket Yacht Club member, and later commodore, Dick Deutsch, and his friend, Tony Topping to be race organizers. Dick and Tony along with Chick, drew up rules, starts, and courses with the sailing skippers' approval.
The first committee boat, a "renovated "Navy work boat called Ocean Repair was owned and lived on by Captain Joe Homer, who did salvage, distress and engine repair. The race logistics boat, Sea Otter, was a 40' wooden motorsailer from the 50's that had been unmasted and turned boatyard workboat up in Newburyport, and had been home on the harbor for Captain Prentice Claflin. Prenny was in charge of the Queen and her retinue, and took them out to enjoy and monitor the race that this ragamuffin gang had put together the third Sunday of August.
The Nine Boats of the Original 1973 Race:
Image of Gwen Gaillard by Terry Pommett
The 1973 winner was Mariner sailed by Henry Tiedemann and his son Bob. The Tiedemanns who were from Greenwich, Connecticut sailed out of the Indian Harbor Yacht Club. They had friends on Nantucket, and they had heard about the race through the wooden boat grapevine. Bob had an experienced crew that out-sailed the local Nantucket boats. It was a magnificent and wondrous day, and best of all, Gwen was utterly delighted.
The first Opera House party was held at the restaurant after the race. Gwen had closed the restaurant for this "private party.' It was highlighted by Gwen's hospitality and her donation of her antique silver champagne bucket, the "OPERA HOUSE CUP".
According to Opera House bar manager, David White, "At the last minute we decided to use this antique silver champagne bucket as the trophy. It was Chick's idea to have the OHC bucket engraved."
Chick spent his next 28 years at the helm of the race and guided the OHC from its humble origins to its prominent present status as one of the premiere events for classic wooden sailboats.
Many of the early day participants continue to race aboard one of the many beautiful wooden vessels that grace us each August for this special and historic event. We thank them and you for joining us to celebrate the heritage of these magnificent wooden boats at the Opera House Cup.
(Compiled from OHC Heritage Committee archives and 1973 participants)