Bob CullenOne of the driving forces behind the revitalization of Force 5 Fleet 32 at Thames Yacht Club in New London, CT, Bob Cullen also produces beautiful sails for that venerable 14-foot singlehander.

“I started sailing in 1962 through my father’s friend and co-worker Jim Brooks, who owned an 18-foot Harpoon centerboard sloop and gave us our first taste of sailing,” recalls Bob, who lives in the Lake Hayward section of East Haddam, CT with his wife Jeanie. “Shortly thereafter, my father, Bob Cullen, Sr., purchased Lightning #6115 and joined the Thames Yacht Club. Soon, at 11 or 12 years old, I was taking the Lightning off the mooring without permission and sailing in the Thames River…until I was caught. My father was a professional musician, and he conveyed the notion that a sailboat is basically an instrument and should be treated as such.”

“After looking at the active fleets at the TYC and realizing the Blue Jay was unaffordable, I delivered the Hartford Courant for all of 8th grade and with my father matching what I’d saved, I purchased Penguin #6720, built by TYC’s Aborn ‘Denny’ Smith. Racing the summer series against mostly adults proved to be a painful but rewarding learning experience thanks to all of my competitors, several Brouwers amongst them. After two years of taking a beating, I sold 6720 and purchased a brand new Austin Penguin (unfinished, of course) and bought Sandy Van Zandt’s personal, slightly used sail. I began to move to the front of the fleet, and by 1968 had won the TYC summer series and the Eastern Connecticut Yacht Racing Association Regatta. I quit sailing after high school graduation in ’69 to attempt to make a career as a musician, but got back into it when my best friend and crew Tom Oldroyd returned from the Vietnam War, and into the world of International 110s we went.”

“After five years of guitar slinging and travelling with a band my ears were shot, and I was told to find another profession immediately,” says Bob. “Because sailing was my only other real interest, I found myself at AMF Alcort/Paceship Yachts in Waterbury. As the only person with any sailing background in the shop, I found myself working under Paceship project engineer Joe Puccia, learning all phases of the recently acquired PY26 and PY23 lines and subsequently teaching new hires. Joe made it possible for me to purchase an engineering test boat (which would become the Force 5) and it was off to the races!”

“After Alcort’s demise, the F5 was picked up by Weeks Yacht Yard in Patchogue, NY, who built a small number of very pretty boats, relying on the sale of spare parts to recoup their sizable initial investment. It was just before Weeks’ involvement in the class that I started producing sails for the class. I’ve been the sailmaker for the Force 5 Class since ’94, and have served as Class President and Measurer. I work in Aerospace by day, and have kept Cullen Sailworks as a means to support my habit. To date, I’ve owned or sold over 115 Force 5s and still have eight in my yard…I’m trying to get a TV deal with Hoarders or Clean Sweep!”

Bob has won 11 Force 5 National Championships. “Some I feel I earned, some I felt lucky,” he says. “Other times I learned more by not winning, but that’s the way the sport plays out. After #10, I decided to step away for a while, but hopped back in for this summer’s North Americans, hosted by the TYC. I was just hoping to be competitive, but turned out to be just lucky enough!” (He won.)

Thames Yacht Club is blessed with an amazing white sand beach, which makes this friendly club a perfect venue for the Force 5 NAs. “The beach has tripled in size since my early teens,” says Bob, who joined the club in 1974 and served as Rear Commodore and Measurer in recent years. “The devotion of the TYC’s officers and volunteers is equally impressive, and the club has numerous activities besides racing.”

Bob and Jeanie also enjoy sailing their Nonsuch 30 Cat ‘n Mouse. “After a few Dark ‘n Stormies in a very close friend (and longtime F5 sailor) Byron Hicks’ camper at the Western Carolina Sailing Club, somehow the idea of purchasing his ‘79 Nonsuch 30 Classic was planted in my head,” he explains. “Never, ever, had I considered such a boat and virtually ignored them on the water, but after eight years of working on and sailing our ‘79 J/30 the idea of singlehanding a living room was appealing. So, without much delay (or permission), I sent a deposit to Byron to secure the boat, knowing (or at least hoping) I’d be able to sell the J/30 before I was found out. That wasn’t exactly the case, but I sold the J soon enough to prevent banishment to live on the Nonsuch!”

Bob steered Cat ‘n Mouse to victory in the Nonsuch class in the Off Soundings Club Fall Series last year, and topped the 14-boat Nonsuch class in that event again last month. “Our intentions are to start cruising and seeing the sights while we’re still able,” he says. “We mostly do weekend trips to Watch Hill or Napatree, and on occasion to Block Island or Greenport. There’s still more work to be done to Cat ‘n Mouse before venturing too far.”

On the appeal of sailing, Bob relishes “a certain sense of freedom, utilizing and coping with the elements, and using skills gained not only on the racecourse against other like-minded competitors, but the conditions as they present themselves to you. You’re always learning and re-learning…and let’s not forget satisfaction!!! I’m basically proof that a working stiff can compete in a so-called money sport, as long as you put in the effort…and it sure has been a lot of effort, to say the least! How many other sports can you remain competitive for 50+ years?”