A Royal Revival:The 12 Metre Class

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Victory 83 competes at the 2016 World Championships in Newport, Rhode Island.

Victory 83 competes at the 2016 World Championships in Newport, Rhode Island.

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.”

Vim leads Nyala and Vanity V at 
the 2014 World Championships in Barcelona, Spain.

Vim leads Nyala and Vanity V at the 2014 World Championships in Barcelona, Spain.

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.

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“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.”

The 12 Metre Rule 

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This formula inputs speed producing factors (length (L), sail area (Sa), freeboard (F), and a girth measurement (2D)) through a simple mathematical formula. In order for a yacht to be a Twelve Metre the results of this formula must not exceed 12 Metres. To limit the likelihood that one 12 Metre design would be vastly superior to another and promote fair and competitive racing there are other restrictions on design measurements of 12 Metre racing yachts. Maximum and minimum parameters on mast height, draft, beam and headsail height are applied to 12 Metre racing yachts to ensure that there is not too much diversity among boats. —12meterscharters.com 

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue.