Classic sailing yachts are romantic things, equal parts beauty, elegance, wood, metal, and fabric. Some achieve a mythical place in history, but few are as legendary as Dorade. First as a darling of the 1930s and again today thanks to San Francisans Matt Brooks and Pam Rorke Levy.
Dorade captured the imagination of the 1930s generation much like her equestrian counterpart Seabiscuit. With a string of wins including the infamous Fastnet in 1931, upon her return she was rewarded with a New York ticker tape parade down Broadway.
It’s all the more remarkable since Dorade was designed to be a fast family yacht, commissioned by the father and designed and built by his sons. The boat was conceived by the fledging Sparkman & Stephens yacht design firm; Olin Stephens was the designer, and his brother Rod served as production supervisor.
They decided to enter her in the 1931 Transatlantic, a race then dominated by the some of wealthiest families of the day, the likes of the Vanderbilts and the Roosevelts, and sailed by professional sailors.
Dorade was clearly the underdog in this important race. She was one of the smallest boats and the one with the youngest crew—the average age aboard was just 23. Olin as skipper made a risky choice and also served as navigator. That gamble paid off and they won, beating the nearest boats by two days.
She was also a bit of an anomaly. Breaking away from the traditional American schooner rig and wide beam, Dorade was yawl-rigged with a narrow beam and sharp ends. However, she silenced her critics with a string of victories that has never been equaled by any ocean racing yacht.
Dorade has always been lucky with timing, from her early victories, to the purchase by her most recent owners, Matt and Pam.
In their talk “Lessons Learned in Our First 20,000 Miles,” at the St. Francis Yacht Club, Pam points out that if you count all of the places Dorade was sailed, trucked or shipped to, she’s traveled more than 44,000 miles just in the last five years.
Little did they know what an adventure they were embarking upon when they purchased Dorade. Pam said she thought it was going to be about sailing on San Francisco Bay, but it shows how far they’ve come as sailors and as a couple since they’ve owned her.
“When I tell our story at a cocktail party I say, ‘We set out to save a boat and the boat saved us,’” says Pam.
“Six years ago we were a couple of empty-nesters, fresh out of painful divorces. We had five kids between us who were all away at collage, and we were looking for a project to bring us together as a couple. We tried mountain climbing, as Matt is an avid climber, but I’m afraid of heights. We tried concerts, and Matt fell asleep when the lights went down.”
That all changed when they tried sailing. Although Pam’s only experience with sailing was in a Sunfish as a child and Matt hadn’t sailed competitively in 30 years, when they joined friends for a sail one day, they both really enjoyed it.
The next week friends Chris and Paul Kaplan of City Yachts invited them aboard their legendary classic yacht Santana, which was once owned by Humphrey Bogart and has since been purchased and refit by Wendy Schmidt.
“A classic would be nice”. Pam and Matt decided, and asked Chris to pull together a big stack of yacht listings. Only one yacht got five stars. That was Dorade.
“We didn’t know about classic yachts. We started digging and found out about the two brothers and how famous she was, how the boat revolutionized yacht design. We went to Newport, and the moment we laid eyes on her we fell in love,” Pam says.
They soon learned they weren’t the only ones in love with Dorade. Other beautiful classics were for sale, many in much better condition, but it was the Dorade sailing gear they saw everyone wearing wherever they went in Newport. It was her sailing swag that the crew keeps and wears. There was clearly something special about her.
Matt and Pam made an offer almost immediately, and technically owned Dorade even before they sailed her for the first time. Once they did, they quickly realized she wasn’t really the San Francisco Bay day sailor they’d envisioned; she was a born and bred an ocean racer.
Dorade in the 2013 Transpac. Photo: Sharon Green
“So Matt, who has had many record-breaking exploits of all kinds, right away put together a program to restore her and came up with this idea—‘Matt’s crazy idea’—which was to redo her four big races, the Transatlantic, Transpac, Newport to Bermuda, and Rolex Fastnet,” says Pam.
Adventures began at an early age for Matt—13 to be exact, the year he got his private pilot’s license. He explained that he was big for his age and passed all the tests. He was a good pilot although he couldn’t drive a car.
At some point his age was discovered and his license was tabled for a year until he was old enough. “I didn’t mind,” he says, “It just meant I got to go flying with my Dad.” Matt’s passion for aviation lead to a series of prop planes and later a jet.
The twin-engine jet inspired Matt to ask General Electric to sponsor a round-the-world flight. “That’s how they advertise things and we came to an agreement,” he says simply. “They thought it would be great if I could try to set some records.” And he did—at age 50.
Matt thought it would be interesting to fly ‘the wrong way’ around the world—west instead of east. Consequently, he holds no less than 62 world records in flying. This is in addition to his original claim to fame, mountain climbing.
“I like being outside and like the physical and mental challenges of climbing and establishing new routes,” he says.
“Matt describes it as problem solving,” adds Pam. That may just be what his endeavors are all about. His mountain climbing gear company, Brooks-Range, grew out of that passion.
“It’s a company that started out in my garage. I was taking a course and they didn’t have the equipment I thought they should have. So I went into my garage and made it myself,” Matt says. “The other guys in the class wanted it and eventually I realized they were willing pay for it so I started this company.”
Brooks Range now makes outdoor apparel in addition to technical equipment.
“I’m pleasantly surprised; people like it. The company grows double digits each year. I think it’s doing well,” Matt says with characteristic understatement.
The couple shares a passion for art. “Matt is an inveterate collector. It’s not surprising he collected a classic yacht. He loves antiquities, everything from Tibetan Bronzes, artifacts, to totem poles from Papua New Guinea,” Pam says. “Matt is very goal oriented. Everything he does is with purpose in mind. It’s not surprising he went this direction with Dorade, coming up with a campaign that had very specific goals.”
Pam’s background is in television, writing, and the arts. Both are pillars of the arts in San Francisco. Matt is trustee of the Asian Arts Museum and Pam is on the board of the San Francisco Art Institute.
A Berkeley graduate with degree in journalism, Pam began producing documentaries upon graduation. Then she went into television and was head of local programing for KRON when it was an NBC affiliate. As an independent, Pam started several programs, including the arts program Spark on KQED as well as Curb Appeal for HGTV.
Her proud husband says she has a dozen Emmys. Indeed, she is an amazing storyteller. The crowd at the St. Francis Yacht Club was captivated during their talk.
When not working hard on their respective careers, they travel. Collecting orchids in Mexico and diving with Conservation International scientists among other adventures. They recently returned from New Caledonia where were on an expedition to tag manta rays. They’ve also tagged whale sharks.
Matt is committed to supporting additional scientific surveys in remote areas, like one already planned this spring to Papua New Guinea. “I’m only interested in going on trips where there is a high degree of failure,” he says. “Because no one has been there, there are no guarantees. It can be a total bust or great, or something in between, but why do something someone has already done?”
Pam adds that they share a willingness to be unreasonable in pursuit of an ambitious goal.
“It may be insane, but not fool hardy,” says Matt.
There have been a number of firsts during their many travels. Matt discovered a new species of fish on the Indonesian island of Aru and named it after Pam. He is also an avid orchid collector, and has an earlier orchid discovery under his belt.
Classic boats are their newest passion. One or both has raced in all of Dorade’s recent races. Matt was on all the major ocean passages, and Pam has sailed in all the coastal races. The Rolex Fastnet last summer was her first ocean race.
Together with their Newport partners, they campaign Lucie every year. This summer she’ll go to Lake Lucerne in Switzerland for the European championship and Vancouver for the 2017 World Cup. “Basically Lucie lives in Newport all year and then goes to Europe for two weeks. She always wins, she has lots of trophies, they reside inside the St. Francis Yacht Club,” says Matt.
Matt and Pam have been talking about adding a third classic to their boat collection, a motor yacht, which would serve as mother ship to their other boats.
Having been built for speed, Dorade’s galley is quite modest. It hasn’t allowed Pam to integrate her renowned culinary talents. While racing, the crew eat freeze-dried or frozen food most of the time, but Dorade also has a wonderful new tradition, which is quite civilized for ocean racing. At 6 p.m., the crew takes some time out to enjoy wine and cheese and crackers. Since the crew races in shifts, it’s the one time of day when everyone is together and awake in the cockpit.
Pam said they started with one bottle of wine but are now are up to four bottles of wine per day for the crew of seven. She laughs when she says, “It’s not a dry boat.” The wine served depends on who is stocking it, but it’s worth noting that many of the crewmembers are South African.
Wine is actually another of Matt’s interests. He’s been making Figure 8, a Knight’s Valley cabernet, with a partner for 10 years. It’s very boutique though; they don’t make enough to sell, only to give it as gifts.
Matt and Pam’s greatest gift however—at least to the world of sailing and history buffs—has been Dorade’s amazing restoration and campaign. After 70 years, she continues to win races with an enviable record, reaching the podium in almost every race.
Next up on the schedule is the Classic Series in Maine this summer, and then on to racing the oceans in the Capetown-Rio race in 2017, followed by the Rolex Sydney-Hobart later that year. Follow Dorade’s continuing adventures on her website, or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.