Days of Nirvana

Steve in his favorite spot to steer—to leeward—putting Nirvana through its paces in Sydney in 1982.

Steve in his favorite spot to steer—to leeward—putting Nirvana through its paces in Sydney in 1982. (Courtesy Herb McCormick/)

TO SAY THAT STEVE COLGATE enjoyed a varied, distinguished and even singular sailing career is to traffic in serious understatement. The Olympic Games. Twenty-one Newport Bermuda Races. Seven Transatlantic contests. A pair of America’s Cup campaigns. Multiple Admiral Cup’s teams. The infamous, legendary ‘79 Fastnet at the helm of his own ocean racer, Sleuth. And that’s merely scratching the surface of his racing resume. Toss in countless flotilla charters to every corner of the planet. And, as we shall see, even a rounding of Cape Horn.

But to Steve, every bit of that is overshadowed by the globe-girdling years between 1982 and 1986, starting when he was 47 years old, when he served as the principal helmsman on the record-setting IOR maxi Nirvana. Designed by a wunderkind naval architect named David Pedrick, Nirvana was built of aluminum at Wisconsin’s prestigious Palmer Johnson boatyard, and owned by powerhouse businessman Marvin Green, who had a taste for the high life, as well as the high seas.

Nirvana played the high-stakes, no-holds-barred game of maxi racing, competing against a roster of yachting’s major names and most famous boats: Jim Kilroy’s string of maxis called Kialoa; Huey Long’s several iterations of Ondine; Bob Bell’s Condor, often helmed by, oh man, Ted Turner; George Coumantaros’s Boomerang; Helisara, owned by maestro Herbert von Karajan, the longtime conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic; the classic Windward Passage, which arguably launched the rarified class of racers in the first place; and many, many others. It was an era of big yachts, big crews, big egos and big money. And this:

“It was the best sailing of my life,” said Steve, unequivocally. “Frankly, sailing on Nirvana was the culmination of all the sailing I ever did.”

For Steve, spinning the massive 88-inch wheel aboard Nirvana, in far-flung, often-glamorous venues, was a mixture of thrills, enlightenment, joy, glory, pleasure and even paradise. In other words, driving Nirvana was, well, nirvana.

To top it all off, as a member of Nirvana’s vast traveling entourage—the boat raced with upwards of 28 crewmen, most of whom were accompanied by wives or girlfriends—Doris was there nearly every step of the way for all the jet-setting, shore-side adventures and shenanigans, from New England to Europe to Australia to the Far East to Hawaii to California and back. She even wrote about it; her long, full-color feature article, “Life in the Maxi Lane,” appeared in the October 1985 issue of Yachting. In it, she summarized both the unusual boat and the skilled team that sailed it:

“Owner Marvin Green, a fine sailor who enjoys the company of friends aboard as much as winning, reminded us of the qualities he wanted his boat to have: ‘beauty…comfort…and it would be nice if she were fast, too.’ Racing yachts with teak decks, tiled galleys, clothes washers, desalinization plants, VCRs, stereo and disk players, separate cabins, upholstered berths, bookcases, paintings and saloon tables are not supposed to be fast. But Nirvana has all of them and is very fast indeed.”

And then there were the sailors themselves: “Of all the boats Steve has sailed, Nirvana stands out as very special,” her 1985 article continued. “Green is an active sailor who doesn’t seek out racing celebrities to make his boat win, preferring to sail with friends. Nirvana crewmembers are dedicated, loyal, of great strength and fortitude, well-educated, highly respected and very sure of themselves. They are men and women who have reached the top—the biggest and fastest boats around. They go about their tasks with quiet competence. Aboard Nirvana, a loud, boisterous or argumentative crew doesn’t last.”

Like Steve, Green had grown up racing in Long Island Sound; he was a lifelong resident of Stamford, Connecticut, and once served as commodore of the Stamford Yacht Club. He had a lavish 5,300 square-foot home on a peninsula in the city’s ritzy Shippan Point neighborhood; “Saddle Rock House” was designed by society architects Hunt and Hunt, was once owned by William Randolph Hearst, and served as the inspiration for Jay Gatsby’s mansion in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

So, yes, a wealthy guy with fancy digs.

There, Green showcased his growing collection of yachting trophies in a grand room with a piano and threw plenty of lavish parties (Doris broke down and bought a mink coat for the express purpose of “keeping up with the Jones’s” when attending them). Green had made his considerable dough running the business side of his television-production company, Reeves Communications, which produced That’s Incredible! as well as Sesame Street and plenty of other PBS fare. As Doris wrote in her Yachting piece, he also liked sailing with his pals.

But the couple responsible for the broader onboard culture of the Nirvana program—not to mention its complicated day-to-day logistics—was sailing master Michael Keyworth and his wife, Nancy, who was officially titled the “cook” though her actual responsibilities were more akin to vice-president of operations.

The Keyworths were a formidable pair on multiple levels. Both had degrees in psychology, were poised for long careers in education, and met while working at a school for severely handicapped kids in Baltimore, Nancy as a teacher and Michael as a consultant. They were married soon after. Importantly, both were also fine sailors, having grown up in and around boats on Chesapeake Bay. Michael’s consulting gig allowed him free time to sail, and on a delivery trip to the Caribbean, he was offered another job running a charter boat, an ideal opportunity for a skipper and mate. Coincidentally, back north, the school where the Keyworths met was undergoing administrative changes that would require advanced degrees if they continued. The timing was perfect. “We decided it might be fun to take the job in the Caribbean,” said Nancy. “We were 25 at the time. Why not?”

It was, in every way, a life-changing decision.

The Keyworths took to life afloat like, ahem, ducks to water. But after a couple of years, it was actually Nancy who had the greater wanderlust: a wish to sail around the world. She even knew the boat she wanted: a rugged Swan 65. She instructed her husband to find one that needed a captain and stewardess. Perhaps very wisely, the obedient husband did as he was told and put the word out to a well-connected broker friend. And shortly thereafter, he got a phone call and an interview. Some guy with a fancy office on the 32nd floor of a high-rise in Manhattan. Name of Green.

They took the job, the outset of which was one misadventure after another. When Michael first laid eyes on it, Green’s 65-foot Swan was a mess and needed plenty of attention, but once that was sorted, they sailed it across the Atlantic a couple of times (“It’s a remarkable thing for a captain the first time he sees the Rock of Gibraltar,” said Michael) and competed in several international regattas in the Med.

Then came the fateful day in Sardinia when Green approached his skipper and said, “Michael, I’m thinking about getting a maxi.”

Originally, the idea was to buy an existing maxi—maybe one of Kilroy’s old Kialoa’s—and refit it. They called designer Pedrick, a rising star in the America’s Cup arena with an office in Newport, Rhode Island, to see what he thought. Eventually, he took Michael aside and told him an overhauled maxi really wouldn’t be competitive; if Green really wanted to play the game seriously, he’d need a brand-new vessel.

A year passed. The following summer, once again in Sardinia, Green was at the helm driving his Swan under spinnaker when out of the blue, he said to Michael, “Okay, I want you to fly back to Newport and meet with Pedrick. I want the fastest, prettiest boat in the world.”

Michael was nonplussed: “Fine. What’s the budget?”

“I just told you,” said Green. “I want the fastest, prettiest boat in the world.” Much later, Michael recalled, “And that was that. It became this mission from God.”

Pedrick proved to be the right man for the job. He’d launched his career in 1970 by cutting his teeth at the prestigious Sparkman & Stephens naval-architecture firm, under the tutelage of the legendary Olin Stephens. When Jim Kilroy approached S&S a few years later about a new maxi, he specifically asked for the firm’s key designer on their latest Cup boat, which is how Pedrick became the driving force behind Kialoa III. He then spent several years as part of the highly successful yacht’s racing crew. So, when Green commissioned Nirvana from him, Pedrick was an established entity with a lot of personal experience in the rarified maxi wars.

In the realms of both the marine industry and competitive sailboat racing at its highest levels, few if any couples have matched the accomplishments of Steve and Doris Colgate, the longtime proprietors of the world-renowned Offshore Sailing School: With over 160,000 graduates, no one has taught more novices how to sail than Offshore. A scion of the Colgate family of Colgate-Palmolive fame, and the daughter of an award-winning scientist, Steve and Doris seem an unlikely match. Steve honed his skills as a world-class racing sailor on Long Island Sound, and after a stint in the Air Force and a return to New York, almost by happenstance he opened a sailing school… where he met his future wife. Doris was a pioneer in the sailing world, a world dominated by men. She became the founder of the National Women’s Sailing Association, among other yachting-industry initiatives. Their shared story is fascinating on several levels: as an insider’s take on yacht racing at the top levels; as a case study in a truly unique and successful business; and, finally, as a good old-fashioned love story.

In the realms of both the marine industry and competitive sailboat racing at its highest levels, few if any couples have matched the accomplishments of Steve and Doris Colgate, the longtime proprietors of the world-renowned Offshore Sailing School: With over 160,000 graduates, no one has taught more novices how to sail than Offshore. A scion of the Colgate family of Colgate-Palmolive fame, and the daughter of an award-winning scientist, Steve and Doris seem an unlikely match. Steve honed his skills as a world-class racing sailor on Long Island Sound, and after a stint in the Air Force and a return to New York, almost by happenstance he opened a sailing school… where he met his future wife. Doris was a pioneer in the sailing world, a world dominated by men. She became the founder of the National Women’s Sailing Association, among other yachting-industry initiatives. Their shared story is fascinating on several levels: as an insider’s take on yacht racing at the top levels; as a case study in a truly unique and successful business; and, finally, as a good old-fashioned love story. (Courtesy Seapoint Books/)

From the get-go, Pedrick understood that Green wanted a very unusual yacht: not a stripped-out racer, but an all-around racer/cruiser. He said, “Marvin had come from his Swan and he liked that dual-purpose style of boat. Wooden bathtub? Removable accommodations, that you could take out for racing and install for cruising? Sure, we can do that. I came up with a light enough aluminum structure where there was no compromise in the displacement and righting moment and all those kinds of things that were the sweet spot of the maxis.”

Indeed, Nirvana was equipped with the long list of accommodations and amenities that Doris had outlined in her Yachting article. There was literally nothing else on the water that rivaled Nirvana in her unique, sheer diversity and versatility.

Yeah, okay. All well and good. But was she also quick?

That question was answered, with authority, on the boat’s inaugural offshore contest, the 1982 Newport Bermuda Race. Nirvana took line honors in the 635 nautical-mile contest as first-to-finish, in record-setting fashion, with an elapsed time of 2 days 14 hours 29 minutes 16 seconds, and in the process, knocked over five-and-a-half hours off the previous record, a mark that would stand for the next 14 years.

And that was before the fellow Pedrick described as “our rock star” even came aboard. A sailor with an excellent, unparalleled track record, not to mention a sailing school just down I-95.

AS WITH so many other defining moments in his life, that rock star—aka Steve—is hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly how or why he wound up in the cat-bird seat aboard Nirvana. Luck? Fate? In this case, he guesses that Green noticed his prowess when competing against Sleuth on Long Island Sound in light winds—an annoyingly regular feature of those waters, but the ones where Sleuth earned her name—which are easily the trickiest conditions in which to coax a sailboat to perform well. Steve reveled in those zephyrs, where his gift at the helm separated him from the pack, and was also noted for his consistently good, clean starts. In any event, a few months after Nirvana demolished the previous record in the Newport Bermuda bash, Steve got a surprise call from Green with a very specific request: his boat was in Malta, the historic archipelago in the sparkling Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and North Africa, for a series of races including the Middle Sea Race, another offshore contest. Was Steve available to come aboard to help with their starts?

“I’d never been aboard a boat that size in my entire life,” Steve said. Daunting. But it just so happened that the Colgates were scheduled to be in Greece the week before, leading yet another of their flotillas, and right after that Doris’s father, Bernie, was scheduled to receive a prestigious science award in Urbino, Italy. So, once their duties in Greece had concluded, Doris flew to Italy and Steve caught a flight to Malta.

He arrived the afternoon before the next day’s inshore race to discover Nirvana was out practicing. “So, I went to the Royal Malta Yacht Club overlooking the starting line and met some of the wives of the crew,” he wrote. What he saw gave him pause: the starting area for the race was extremely compact, with plenty of recreational boat traffic. “Marvin had told me that he wanted me to ‘start the boat.’ They pointed out the starting line, which ran from the yacht club across the harbor to the point of a little inlet. It was possible, but not likely, to get through the main harbor entrance about two miles upwind on one starboard tack from the start.

“I hardly slept a wink all night,” he continued; already nervous about the yacht’s sheer size, his anxiety grew from missing the practice session and witnessing the short starting line, not to mention that he was still unsure about how fast Nirvana sailed or her handling characteristics. But then he caught his first break. “Arriving at the boat the next morning, Marvin said he didn’t mean for me to steer. He would steer and I would tell him where to go, in other words be the tactician. Whew, what a relief!

“With about four minutes to the start, I had Nirvana heading full tilt towards the line on starboard tack. My god the boat was fast; I could see we would be about two minutes early. I asked our navigator, Peter Bowker, if there was enough water for us in the inlet where a bunch of smaller boats were mulling around. Getting an ‘affirmative,’ we tacked onto port tack. I had another revelation: might makes right, as all the small boats, even those (with right of way) on starboard tack, scattered out of our way! Then, with about 30 seconds to go, we tacked onto starboard and hit the starting line right at the gun. We hardened up on starboard and sailed right out the harbor, mostly on one tack. My job as starting tactician was established.”

Sailing World readers can use the Promo Code: SW10 to receive a 10% discount off the $39.95 retail price. The book is available for purchase at Offshore Sailing and the Colgates will host a book release party during the 2021 United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland.