On August 15, 2018, a year shy of its 90th birthday, the American yacht design and brokerage firm of Sparkman & Stephens was acquired. The buyer was Donald Tofias, a former Boston commercial real estate agent and developer, and a serial owner of vintage sailing yachts such as a Concordia yawl and a Herreshoff S-Boat. He is founder of the W-Class Yacht Company, a lifelong yacht racer, and a full-time resident of the sailing mecca Newport, Rhode Island.
Tofias is quite mindful that he just purchased a large chunk of yachting history—the design firm that launched the ocean racers Dorade and Running Tide along with the America’s Cup defenders J-Class Ranger and the 12-Meter boats Columbia, Intrepid, Courageous and Freedom.
“One of the real gems of this purchase is that I own all the intellectual property, all the designs,” he said. “I’ve always been an amateur yacht historian, and I think that was what excited me most about this purchase. There was so much history here that I’d be fulfilling a lifelong dream of creating and recreating a business that matched with my passion for yachting history.”
Tofias, who grew up sailing around Bourne on Cape Cod since the age of 5 or 6, recalls the heady “Summers of the Twelves.” That’s when America’s Cup races were held in 12-Meter sloops off Newport between 1958 and 1983.
“I can remember coming down to Newport from our house on the Cape with a whole group of guys in somebody’s fishing boat—getting up before dawn—when Columbia beat Sceptre,” he said, recalling the America’s Cup series of 1958. “I was always aware that Sparkman & Stephens clearly produced some of the finest sailing boats on the water.”
Tofias will recite the names of sailing yachts that Olin Stephens designed after founding Sparkman & Stephens in 1929 with yacht broker Drake Sparkman. When mentioning the 72-foot ocean-racing sloop Baruna launched in 1938, and the 73-foot Bolero in 1949, he said. “Those were the maxi yachts of that time. There’s something about a 75- to 80-foot Sparkman & Stephens yawl that gets everyone all excited. They’re just perfectly designed.”
Today, said Tofias, there is a market for owners who would like to recreate classic Sparkman & Stephens designs with modern construction techniques and technology. He calls the combination “spirit of tradition.” It’s one reason he bought the firm.
“I never thought I’d own the company, but the opportunity came up and I pursued it,” said Tofias, who purchased the business from a private investor. “I bought all the units in the LLC. I have total control of Sparkman & Stephens. I have no partners, and I will have a very active day-to-day role in the management and planning, and coordination for the company. It’s my job, as I see it, to grow the company and expand the design services, expand the brokerage services and, hopefully, find other areas that the company should be involved in.” In addition to his passion for the company’s history, Tofias brings decades of business experience to the table. In 1996, as he was winding down his real estate business, he founded the W-Class Yacht Company, which offers a series of one-design spirit of tradition racing sloops.
“The original boats designed by Joel White, the 76s, were a kind of a synthesis of some of the late 12-Meters and the Herreshoff designed-and-built New York 50, which was 50 feet on the waterline,” Tofias said. “If you took a cross between, say, Intrepid and the New York 50 Spartan, that was a Joel White inspiration after knowing what I was looking for, which was a racer/cruiser that was part of the big boat class. But we wanted more emphasis on racing than cruising.”
The first two W-76 yachts were Wild Horses and White Wings, built in 1998 by Maine boatbuilders Brooklin Boat Yard and Rockport Marine respectively, with cold-molded wood construction and carbon-fiber rigging. They have been frequent match-racing partners ever since.
“I have Race Horse, a W-37, and my two babies, Colt and Filly, which are the first two W-22s,” Tofias said of the 22-foot White designs with centerboards. “We keep those as show boats and demonstrators, and what we have been trying to do is sell fleets of them to people who live in shallow-draft harbors.”
When Tofias purchased Sparkman & Stephens he made its brokerage division the official distributor of W-Class yachts, which Artisan Boatworks in Rockport, Maine, now builds in lengths overall to 140 feet. Tofias has campaigned his W-Class yachts in New England, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
“We race a lot,” he said. “We do upwards of 60 races a year between these boats. For seven years of the last 20, we were in Europe in the Western Med, racing primarily in Italy, France, Spain and Monaco. We did the America’s Cup Jubilee in 2001 in Cowes.” He also has raced the W-76s in superyacht regattas such as the Bucket series.
“Between Wild Horses and White Wings, we probably did more Buckets than anyone else: Nantucket, Newport, St. Barths, and we have done other superyacht races. They used to say we had to be 100 feet,” he said of entry rules. “The first 15 years of the W-Class, we had two 76-foot boats, and we used to say that we had 152 feet.”
Tofias is always at the helm during a race. “When I stop driving, then I’m done,” he said. “That’s when I retire.” He brings professional crew, volunteers and friends to race with him. “I am especially proud of the fact that in 20 years, we have put more than 500 young people through the program, and that includes campaigning and racing the W-46s—we’ve built four of those,” he said. “We have college kids who have raced with us, even high school kids. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get a lot of people to go through the program, and a lot of them stay in sailing.”
An example is Toby Brand from the United Kingdom. When he finished secondary school at age 18, he decided to take a gap year before continuing his education and ended up in the W-Class racing program. “I was working as a nanny at the time and was looking for some sailing to do,” Brand said. “I was referred to the captain of White Wings. I was a volunteer at first, then paid crew. I started as a deckhand, then moved up to mate. I ended up staying almost two years.”
Brand said that Tofias drove the boat he was on about half the time, alternating between the two W-76s.
“I learned a lot from him match-racing White Wings and Wild Horses,” Brand said. “He’s pretty quiet when he’s actually driving the boat, but he’s quite a character when he’s docking in and docking out. He loves a story, and he’s got some good ones.”
During his time with the program, Brand racked up a lot of sea time between delivering the W-Class boats to regattas and racing them, which ultimately led to getting his captain’s license. He has been the skipper of Lionheart, a 142-foot aluminum “spirit of tradition” J-Class yacht, since her launch in 2010.
“A lot of the people we put through the program have stayed with yachting and expanded their licenses and tracked their sea time, and are running much bigger boats,” Tofias said. “I’m proud of that. It’s a wonderful profession. You’re outside and hardwired to nature.”
Andy Green, a professional sailor based in Newport who served as a TV commentator for the last Volvo Ocean Race, sailed with Tofias at the St. Barths Bucket.
“He was sailing through this fleet of large boats, and he knows all the owners, and everyone knows him. Everybody waves,” Green said. “We probably had a conversation with 15 captains. I said, ‘How do you know all these captains?’ Donald said, ‘They’ve all sailed with me on Wild Horses and White Wings.’”
Green continued, “He has exacting standards and demands hard work and loyalty from the people he sails with.”
Tofias also throws great parties when the day’s racing is over, Green said.
“His style in sailing is like his style in life: very passionate,” Green said. “The more you get to know him, the more you understand his complete commitment to the sport. He brings people to Newport to race who wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to do it, and to sail all around the world.”
Green said he expects Tofias to be a good steward of the Sparkman & Stephens legacy. “Donald has always wanted to be involved with beautiful, classic boats and to put a modern twist on their beauty. I’m glad he has the opportunity to be custodian of a world-famous and classic brand.”
Tofias is approaching ownership of the company in the same way he approaches every race while on board. “We have a trademark saying. If we lose, we say, ‘Yachting is the winner,’” Tofias said. “When we win, we say, ‘Yachting is the winner.’”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.