STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And let's go from a vintage sport to vintage boats. An Italian fishing village recently hosted a regatta. About 40 vintage sailboats, some of them more than a century old, plied waters known for ideal sailing conditions. So let's set sail with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: We were in Porto Santo Stefano on the Tuscan coast at the welcome party for owners and crew of these vintage yachts. They're known as the Grandes Dames of the Sea, and each has a history of sailing lore. In this world of serious sailing, it's hard to distinguish owners from crew.
ALEX TILLERY: My boat's made of mahogany. It's a 62-foot boat. It weighs 30 tons. These days a modern boat's a 62-foot boat. It would probably weigh 8 tons.
POGGIOLI: Skipper Alex Tillery describes Manitou. Designed by the legendary American yacht designer Olin Stephens and launched in 1937, she was known as the floating White House when her owner was President John F. Kennedy. Sailing vintage boats like Manitou, says Tillery, requires different skills from those built today.
TILLERY: Modern boats have electric winches, everything's hydraulic, electronic. These classics, you know, it's all manpower. And some of these boats don't have winches. It takes 15 people to get a sail up. It's very different. It's very satisfying.
POGGIOLI: Not all contestants are famous.
SIMONA BRIZZI: We have an all wooden boat from Finland from 1936.
POGGIOLI: Simona Brizzi, a professor, and her husband Raul, an economist working for the Swiss government, took three months leave to sail the Mediterranean on their 36-footer Endeavor with their three daughters.
BRIZZI: So in the morning we have a little bit of school and in the afternoon we are sailing. It's a great experience for us and for the children.
POGGIOLI: The Endeavor's upkeep is costly. But Brizzi denies it's a sport solely for the rich. She calls it a passion.
BRIZZI: If you love these old boats, it's like you are addicted to these old boats. And it's like part of our family. Endeavour is like another child. It's very nice to be together.
POGGIOLI: Next morning, crews ready the boats for the 15 mile course to the old Roman port of Talamone and back, with the islands of Elba and Giglio as backdrop. The many wooden beauties have names like to Chinook, Shamrock, Mariquita, Halloween and Javelin. Launched in 1897, she's the oldest participant. The tall masts soar over the sparkling blue waters of Porto Santo Stefano. The winds in the surrounding bay are known for their sunflower effect. The particular configuration of land and sea creates predictable breezes that shift direction with the sun. South, Southwest and by late afternoon, Westerly. Argyll, built in 1948, is more than 50 feet long. Her sleek mahogany deck glistens against the crystal clear blue waters. Skipper Alex Bordessoule orders the crew to tighten the sales as the boat tacks closer to the wind. As the sun starts to dip behind the island of Elba, a school of dolphins appears and plays off the bows of the boats. A foghorn announces the end of the regatta. And judges hover over complicated racing regulations before announcing the winners.
UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: (Italian spoken).
POGGIOLI: Endeavor came in third in its category, and the crowd cheers the winners. Simona Brizzi is thrilled her family got to race along with the Grandes Dames.
BRIZZI: It's like a dream. You see them passing. And before, you saw them in the magazines, and now they're so close. And you can go to their boats and you can talk with them and they tell their stories what happened with their boats and that's also a very important part.
POGGIOLI: Behind each Great Lady are tales and legends from a time when sailing the oceans depended exclusively on the know-how of well-trained crews with little more than a compass and a sextant. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Porto Santo Stefano.