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The best small keelboat you've never sailed turns 50

Away from the spotlight of micromanaged prime-time sailing events, a little celebration is in order this summer. The place couldn’t be more picturesque: Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. The occasion could not be more fitting: a world championship. And the excuse is better than any: The Tempest, like Medicare and Medicaid, turned 50 this year. It’s perhaps the best small keelboat you never sailed.

An athletic boat, the Tempest has a lifting keel, a spinnaker and planing performance.

It was used in the Olympic Games in 1972 and 1976, and once enjoyed worldwide popularity. Today it’s mainly Europeans who keep the flag flying; in the United States the class is a faint shadow of its former and much stronger self.

In 1965 the International Yacht Racing Union (today’s International Sailing Federation) staged a design competition for a two-person keelboat with a maximum length of 22 feet and a sail area of 247 square feet, plus spinnaker. The use of a trapeze was encouraged. The goal, supposedly, was to replace the Star, designed by American Francis Sweisguth in 1910, the year the Boy Scouts were founded. The brass at the IYRU felt that it might be time for something a bit more exciting, and the design parameters that were issued were right up the alley of champion dinghy sailor Ian Proctor of the United Kingdom, who thought the boat he submitted would be “something entirely new.” He had no idea how right he was.

A home run at the trials

The first (and only) trials were held in Medemblik, Holland, with 10 entries, plus a Flying 15 as a scratch boat. Sailed by Brits John Oakley and Cliff Norbury, who had trained under Proctor’s supervision, the Tempest crushed it, with eight bullets out of nine races (one DNF due to a broken rudder) and winning even when loaded down with 88 pounds of dead weight.

“The Tempest can best be described as a design breakthrough,” wrote Bob Beavier Jr., the U.S. representative on the selection committee, in Yachting magazine. Indeed, with a lifting keel, a spinnaker and dinghy-like planing performance, the Tempest could be rightfully called the progenitor of modern performance keelboats.

It quickly was recognized as an international class and grew by leaps and bounds, as Anna Templeton-Cotill, 90, of Jamestown, Rhode Island, remembers. She lived in England in the 1970s and was in the eye of the storm as the class secretary. Anna T-C, as she’s still known, quotes from the archives: “Builders were clamoring for licenses, and new molds were going out at the rate of one every two months.”

When the class was elevated to Olympic status (without displacing the Star), top talent was flocking to the Tempest. Norbury was joined by fellow Brits Keith Musto, Reg White and Alan Warren, with his Bunyanesque crew David Hunt; the formidable Russian Valentin Mankin; John Albrechtson from Sweden; Uwe Mares from Germany; and Ben Staartjes from Holland. Those were the usual suspects in the winner’s circle. And then there were the Americans, with three world- champion teams: William Kelly/Robert Connell, John and James Linville, and Glen Foster, with 6-foot-6-inch Peter Dean on the wire, who tipped the scales north of 210 pounds. Other notable Tempest sailors, according to Templeton-Cotill, included Ted Turner and Australian designer Ben Lexcen.

Foster/Dean were favored to win the first Olympic Tempest regatta in 1972, but in unusually light air in Kiel, Germany, the heavy-air specialists had to settle for bronze behind Mankin/Vitaly Dirdira from the Soviet Union and Warren/Hunt from the U.K. Gleefully, the Tempest newsletter pointed out that the Brits, winners of Race 2, also beat the leading Star to the finish line, even though they’d started 10 minutes later on the same course. Henceforth the Tempests were sent off before the Stars.

Other nuggets include the story of Prince Bira of Thailand, who showed up with multiple wives, unhappy about the fact that his crew’s head was above his when trapped out. He finished dead last in 21st place. And there was the ditty about Mankin’s boat flunking the measurement because of an “abundance of ribs in the forward compartment and beneath the cockpit floor. But after a little work with hammer and chisel and a healthy string of Russian profanity the red (boat) was declared a Tempest and set sail.” Those were the days.

A fiery end to the Olympics

When the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal rolled around, the Star and Dragon were replaced by the 470 dinghy and the Tornado catamaran, and the Tempest returned for its second Olympic tour — its last but a memorable one.

The United States, this time represented by Dennis Conner and crew Conn Findlay, who’d won two gold and a bronze as a rower in previous Olympics, took third. Mankin/Vladyslav Akimenko got silver behind Albrechtson/Ingvar Hansson, who sailed a near-perfect series. But the kicker came from Warren and Hunt, considered medal prospects again. They disappointed at 14th overall but were hampered by their boat, Gift ’Orse, which had been damaged during transport.

Just after crossing the finish line of the last race, they torched it using a can of acetone as a fire starter, which they’d smuggled aboard. “She went lame on us, so we decided the poor Gift ’Orse should be cremated,” Warren says.

They were on a roll. Previously they had tested Canadian security by “dressing up as Arabs using bed blankets as headdresses, walking around the compound with squash rackets bulging like submachine guns underneath. They were not stopped,” recounts yachting photographer Barry Pickthall.

Whether the arson played a role for the selection committee that ditched the Tempest as an Olympic class is unclear, but to this day the 86-year-old Norbury thinks it “hurt the class tremendously.”

British Olympic sailors Alan Warren and David Hunt torched their Tempest, Gift ’Orse, when the boat didn’t perform well at the 1976 Games.

Rolf Bähr, a multiple Tempest world champion from Germany, witnessed the demise of the class as an IYRU delegate. The politically well-connected Star class — many ex-Star sailors sat on key IYRU panels — was lobbying behind the scenes for reinstatement as the Olympic two-man keelboat, Bähr says. At the 1977 IYRU meeting the permanent committee voted 15 to 14 for a comeback of the Star.

That outcome had a profound effect on the Tempest class, with the pros leaving in droves and boats being dumped onto the market. The class declined everywhere, but nowhere more dramatically than in the United States, where builders such as W.D. Schock stopped production and formerly strong fleets in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the Noroton section of Darien, Connecticut, and Annapolis, Maryland, began to wilt.

It didn’t happen overnight or without a valiant effort to arrest the decline, especially by Dave McComb, a longtime Tempest sailor and class secretary. McComb published a Tempest handbook called The Sandbag, which carried glowing endorsements by Ian Proctor and Bruce Kirby, the designer of the Laser, who called the Tempest a “boat that was very fast while at the same time well mannered. You could find yourself in trouble in heavy winds if you were careless. But a foolproof boat would surely be, as the British say, ‘a crashing bore.’ It was great sport being on the thin edge of the other kind of crashing.”

One of the more exotic fleets on this side of the Pond is in Martinique, the site of the 2006 Tempest Worlds. In the United States, former racer Dominic Meo III runs the non-profit U.S. International Tempest Association in Long Beach, California, a community sailing program that offers refurbished older boats. “Classes fail because people sell their boats when they have kids or move away,” he says. “So I was looking to build a sustainable fleet [with Tempests] that bridges the gap between sailing school and boat ownership.”

A continuing renaissance in Europe

The epicenter of class activities lies in Europe — Germany, Austria, Switzerland, England, the Netherlands, France and Italy — where top events can draw more than two dozen boats. The Tempest also was part of Vintage Yachting Games 2012, a gathering of former Olympic classes.

Boats are still being built by Mader in Bavaria, high-end but pricey. Still, older Tempests can be quite competitive, a saving grace for the class, which introduced sensible changes over the years. The size of the spinnaker was increased; rudder, keel, rig and parts were improved; and the deck layout was modified. But the hull Proctor designed in 1965 remains unchanged.

After his passing in 1992, Proctor’s spar-making firm was bought by Swedish industry giant Seldén, which stopped producing Tempest masts. Undeterred, the class started building them in-house and of excellent quality. Another tactic to boost membership is loaning boats to newcomers, betting that the shift toward skiffs and multihulls is a boon for the Tempest, which had a chute and trapeze all along. And if you can’t capsize while turning up the fun meter, all the better.

“It’s an athletic boat — I’m close to the water but not in the water — and the many tuning devices appeal to skipper and crew,” says Cornelia Christen, 50, a Swiss kindergarten teacher and the reigning Tempest world champion. She is the first woman in history with that distinction. Her husband, Ruedi, is crewing for her, and together they are set to defend the title on Lake Lucerne. Culture, she insists, also is important. “The class is like a big family. On the water we race each other hard, but at the club we party together.”

As the Tempest turns 50, with about 1,200 boats built to date, it proves that it is possible to get older without getting old, even without lofty Olympic status and rock stars taking the tiller. And that is something to celebrate under the snow-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps. The very essence of all this is brought home by Anna Templeton-Cotill, who says, “You can’t stop a Tempest.” Maybe this spirit can spark a comeback in the United States so this marvelous boat might add another chapter to its glorious history.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue.