A ROYAL RE­VIVAL: THE 12 ME­TRE CLASS

Soundings - - Contents - by Jonathan Russo

When the Amer­ica’s Cup was lost in 1983, it looked like the days of the 12 Me­tre class might be num­bered. 35 years later, these clas­sics are still thriv­ing.

If a class of boats could be like a dy­nas­tic royal fam­ily, the 12 Me­tre Class would qual­ify. These leg­endary sailboats have a pedi­greed set of de­sign­ers: Olin Stephens in­di­vid­u­ally and with Drew Spark­man ( un­der the ban­ner S& S), Ray Hunt, and Philip Rhodes. The 12s were helmed by an all-star lineup of skip­pers: Ted Hood, Emil “Bus” Mos­bacher Jr. and Den­nis Con­ner. The builders — Nevins, Camper & Ni­chol­sons, Dereck­tor — were the roy­alty of yacht yards. And the hon­orary chair­man of the In­ter­na­tional 12 Me­tre As­so­ci­a­tion (ITMA) for most of its his­tory was His High­ness the Aga Khan.

The 12 me­tres were the Amer­ica’s Cup yacht of choice from 1958 to 1987, with 10 Cup chal­lenges in all. To­day, the boats are as vi­brant and vi­tal as ever.

“The 12s are en­joy­ing a world­wide level of en­thu­si­asm from both sailors and own­ers that is im­pres­sive,” says Peter Ger­ard, vice pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­cas fleet. “Mil­lion-dol­lar restora­tions are the norm.”

On the third floor of the Clarke Cooke House restau­rant on Ban­nis­ter’s Wharf in New­port, the 12s have a club­house with one of the coolest yacht-sat­u­rated in­te­ri­ors in the United States. In the ‘70s, the restau­rant was the hang­out for Ted Turner and the Coura­geous crew. David Ray, the Cooke House’s owner, en­cour­aged the group to use the third floor as its per­ma­nent meet­ing place. The room is redo­lent of smoke-filled vic­tory nights, dark wood and his­tory. Light re­flects off the hand-hewn beams. Think 17th-cen­tury pub on the Lon­don docks.

Moved from the Mu­seum of Yacht­ing shortly af­ter the club was com­mis­sioned in 2012, the tro­phies and half-hulls lin­ing the walls speak to the ef­fort and bril­liance that went into these yachts’ rac­ing cam­paigns.

“The in­ter­est in the fleet is at an all- time high,” says James Gubel­mann, club com­modore since 2010. “The class is com­pet­i­tive again, with boats from abroad par­tic­i­pat­ing in our re­gat­tas.”

The 12s were born in 1907. Ap­prox­i­mately 70 feet long, they have al­ways been built to the In­ter­na­tional Rule, which al­lows for vari­a­tions in length, hull de­sign, rig­ging and sail plan, as long the over­all de­sign com­plies with the 12 Me­tre Class Rule.

Be­cause of the 100-plus year his­tory, they race in di­vi­sions based pri­mar­ily on age: Grand Prix, Mod­ern, Tra­di­tional, Vin­tage and Antique. These di­vi­sions ac­com­mo­date more than a cen­tury of de­vel­op­ments in de­sign, fab­ri­ca­tion tech­niques and ma­te­ri­als.

About 200 of the 12s have been built. The 12 Me­tre Class As­so­ci­a­tion main­tains an on­line data­base cre­ated by his­to­rian Luigi Lang, who is also ITMA’s vice pres­i­dent for the South Europe fleet. For ex­am­ple, the list­ing for Wes­tra, built by Camper & Ni­chol­sons in 1934, reads, “Dam­aged by air raid and bro­ken up.”

Many of the 12s are iconic for their suc­cesses in Amer­ica’s Cup cam­paigns. Yachts such as Columbia, Weatherly, Vim, In­trepid,

Coura­geous, Free­dom and Stars and Stripes are known world­wide. The 12s in­her­ited the Cup man­tle from the di­nosaur-sized, crew

of 30, J-Class boats. The Js be­came fi­nan­cially im­prac­ti­cal in the post­war era, and the much smaller 12s took their place.

Con­struc­tion of the 12s fol­lowed boat­build­ing evo­lu­tion in gen­eral. The first were made of wood, then metal cores (knees and frames) with wood plank­ing, then all alu­minum like Coura­geous, and fi­nally, fiber­glass. It is still pos­si­ble to sail on boats con­structed of all these ma­te­ri­als. The lat­est one built is the retro, wooden Si­esta, launched in 2015 and based on a 1938 Third Rule de­sign by Jo­han Anker.

Ger­ard says peo­ple keep build­ing the 12s be­cause of their style and more.

“The 12s are some of the most beau­ti­ful boats afloat,” he says. “Their lines are grace­ful, and they sail like a proper yacht. They were built to a rule that has proved its worth for more than 100 years.”

The class is one year into a three- year World Cham­pi­onship cam­paign. There are three fleets: Amer­i­cas, North­ern Europe and South­ern Europe. Each has held 16 re­gional re­gat­tas known as Way­points, with 12 more to go. The fi­nale, in July 2019, is sched­uled to be in New­port, Rhode Is­land, the same wa­ters that hosted past Amer­ica’s Cup races. It is timed to co­in­cide with the New York Yacht Club’s 175th An­niver­sary Regatta.

“This year in Amer­ica, five re­gat­tas will be held in and around New­port and Martha’s Vine­yard,” Ger­ard says. “We an­tic­i­pate that 10 to 12 boats will race.”

Some own­ers are se­ri­ously ded­i­cated to pre­serv­ing the class’s his­tory. Den­nis Wil­liams owns three 12s: De­fender, Vic­tory 83 and USA 61.

“We are only guardians of these boats,” he says. “We want to leave them bet­ter than we found them.”

Ac­cord­ing to Sail New­port Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Brad Read, who helms Gun­ther Buer­man’s New Zealand (KZ-3), “Be­yond the boats’

his­toric im­por­tance, there is no bet­ter sail­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in terms of bal­ance. All trimmed up, they are spe­cial.” Read’s brother, Ken Read — rac­ing skip­per of the 100-foot maxi

Co­manche and tac­ti­cian aboard Chal­lenge 12 (KA-10) — added, “The re­vival of the 12 Me­tres in New­port is noth­ing short of spec­tac­u­lar. Not just from a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, but from a nat­u­ral beauty and awe­some rac­ing per­spec­tive as well. Sail­ing the 12s is such a con­trast to many of to­day’s mod­ern race boats. You must re­learn what you were taught 25 years ago. Guys and sheets and spin­naker poles and big over­lap­ping genoas ... my God!”

Other top sailors who love the Twelves are Rob­bie Doyle and Gary Job­son, both of whom were on board in Amer­ica’s Cup com­pe­ti­tions.

But the 12s are not mod­ern race boats. Their top speed, even on a reach, is 12 knots. That makes them fun for even novices to be aboard. Three char­ter com­pa­nies out of New­port make that hap­pen, and can ar­range ev­ery­thing from day sails to mul­ti­day char­ters to regatta cam­paigns. They work with in­di­vid­ual sailors as well as groups.

The com­pany 12 Me­ter Char­ters has Columbia (US-16), the first 12 Me­tre to win the Amer­ica’s Cup, in 1958, and Her­itage (US-23), the last wooden Cup boat built. For a vin­tage 12 Me­tre char­ter ex­pe­ri­ence, SeaS­cope Char­ters of­fers the 1937 Gleam (US-11), the 1938 Olin Stephens North­ern Light (US-14) and the 1928 W. Star­ling Burgess Onawa (US-6). Amer­ica’s Cup Char­ters of­fers Amer­i­can Ea­gle (US-21),

Weatherly (US-17), In­trepid (US-22) and Amer­i­can Ne­fer­titi (US-19). “These boats are com­pletely re­stored, in rac­ing shape,” says Amer­ica’s Cup Char­ters co-owner Herb Mar­shall, who is al­ready pre­par­ing for next sum­mer’s rac­ing fi­nale. “Our clients char­ter them for cor­po­rate team-build­ing and re­gat­tas. In­di­vid­u­als can take sun­set sails. All four boats are booked with char­ters for the 2019 cham­pi­onship regatta.”

Vim leads Nyala and Van­ity V at the 2014 World Cham­pi­onships in Barcelona, Spain. Vic­tory 83 com­petes at the 2016 World Cham­pi­onships in New­port, Rhode Is­land (be­low).

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