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Heart of the America's Cup

Evoking memories of decades past, the 12 Meters return to Newport for their World Championships

Evoking memories of decades past, the 12 Meters return to Newport for their World Championships

Newport missed the days when the world came to Rhode Island to race for the America’s Cup.

In a town where at least eight roads are named for yachts, a huge vacuum appeared that day in 1983 when a 12 Meter named Australia II beat the American 12 named Liberty and snatched the Cup. The big race never returned, although a few aging 12 Meters remained.

They would sail for the North Americans and in local regattas. Some, like Courageous, became museum pieces. Others, including Weatherly, Freedom, Intrepid and Northern Light, took out schoolchildren and charter groups, their racing luster diminished like that of a once-wealthy widow who opens her mansion for tours. Majestic, yes, and with timeless beauty, but as they slipped across Newport Harbor they reminded the town of better times when international competition, not local commerce, was the thing, and winning was what the United States did in Newport.

Then the 12 Meter Worlds came to Newport. Sixteen yachts, including one from France and one from Brazil, gathered at the International Yacht Restoration School dock in September and prepared to duel in the old-fashioned Newport way. Courageous — the boat that won the Cup for Ted Hood in 1974 and Ted Turner in 1977 — was there, of course. So was Intrepid, another two-time victor. Their slender masts rose above sleek hulls gleaming in the reflected sunlight of late summer. There were wooden 12s and aluminum and fiberglass 12s. There were 12s with full keels and others with wing keels, the whole gorgeous range that the 12 Meter Rule allowed to develop, as yachtsmen looking for an edge within those rules pushed for technological advances that would translate into winning advantages.

It was the largest gathering of 12 Meters in Newport since the Cup departed, according to organizers, and for Newport the event brought back some of the old feelings.

“It’s a lot of neat history coming full circle,” says Rhode Islander Bradford S. Read, executive director of Sail Newport and tactician aboard the eventual winner, Hissar. “Probably the coolest thing I remember was watching the 12s getting towed in and out while we were sitting on our cruiser off Ida Lewis Yacht Club. Watching these guys who were going out on these awesome boats … got us into the idea of racing.” (The “us” Read refers to is himself and his brother, Ken, both internationally known sailors.)

The 12 Meters came to Newport in 1958 for the first America’s Cup after World War II, chosen by the New York Yacht Club because the class rules would help restrain the cost of racing. The yachts had been around since 1907 and were built to Lloyds standards. “They [the NYYC] didn’t want these boats to be disposable,” says Michael Levitt, author of three books on the Cup.

The first 12 Meter to successfully defend the Cup was the wooden Columbia, one of the boats docked in Newport for the Worlds. USA also was there, one of the last 12 Meters built, a contender for the 1987 America’s Cup, and one of the most radical boats designed under the 12 Meter Rule.

“It’s a rekindling of the golden era,” says Jan Slee, managing partner of a syndicate that bought USA, also known as US-61, in December 2004 and shipped it from France, where it had sailed under the name Ecosse. “It’s just going to get better. The logical place to bring [12 Meters] is here.”

Most 12s are found in Europe, where the class flourished before it was chosen for the America’s Cup. That point was driven home in 2001 when 34 of the sloops gathered in Cowes, England, for the America’s Cup Jubilee celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Cup. “Probably the greatest gathering of 12 Meters in the history of man,” says Paul Buttrose, North American vice president of the class. The Jubilee was followed by a Grand Tour, with the 12 Meter yachts sailing with other vessels to Sardinia, Monaco and Cannes and then racing to Saint-Tropez.

“[After the race] the owners are standing around, and I jumped up on a bollard on the dock and suggested maybe we could do something to get the class stronger in the United States,” Buttrose recalls. The 100th anniversary of the first 12 Meter regatta would be in 2007. “We hadn’t had a world championship, so I thought: Let’s have one before we have the anniversary,” he says.

It was the approaching world championship that finally drew Slee into the 12 Meter fold. “I followed the ’83 and ’87 Cups closely, but never close up,” he says. He says he had sailed on “anything I could sail on. Nothing big.”

Slee says he had passed on an offer to buy into one 12 Meter, but when USA came on the market, he saw a challenge. Slee’s Web site,, quotes Jim Plagenhoef, who crewed aboard USA in the 1987 trials: “She’s a remarkable yacht that has enormous untapped potential. A good crew that is willing to put in some time to learn the boat could tap that potential and make USA the fastest 12 in the world.”

With an unorthodox configuration below the waterline — rudders fore and aft and a huge bulb suspended from short strut, or bolt — USA was the most radical of the boats built for the 1987 Cup races. Most of the rest had wing keels, introduced in 1983 by Australia II and successfully defended in court after the Australians took home the Cup. But only five of the 19 boats built for the ’87 America’s Cup remained in condition to sail for the World title in September, Slee says. Most of the rest had been destroyed or had entered the charter business, requiring them to have engines and lifelines, equipment prohibited by the 12 Meter Rule.

In order to include as many 12s in the event as possible, the fleet was divided into four categories, as it was at the Jubilee. The Grand Prix Division included four boats from 1987. The Modern division comprised yachts built from 1974 to 1983 that had separated keels and rudders. The Classic Traditional division encompassed yachts built after 1958 with rudders attached to the keels, and Classic Vintage yachts were built before 1958. The Grand Prix 12s were all scheduled to be sailed by their owners, while some of the others were chartered for the Worlds.

Just as innovation had flourished when the 12s raced for the America’s Cup, so do the class rules still encourage tinkering. In the Grand Prix class, where owners are battling for prestige alone, modifications were being made to the boats before they arrived in Rhode Island. Knowledgeable sailors estimated that the costs of improvements ranged from tens of thousands to millions of dollars.

“The Grand Prix boats have a lot of tweaking,” says Read. He says Cup veteran Bill Koch’s Kiwi Magic had a new keel, and there was a modification made to Hissar, the boat Read sailed on, owned by clothing retailer Edgar T. Cato. “We made a subtle change done by David Pedrick — who designed many of the 12 Meters — that was a graduation from last year’s upgrades,” he says.

Read says many of the Grand Prix boats now have carbon fiber winch drums and booms, not available when they competed for the Cup. While the boats are required to have aluminum masts, “there’s tons of things you can do to make the boats better,” he says. And the changes are trickling down to the Modern division, as well, he says, although “they have done some things to limit the arms race in the moderns.”

Why not just invest in International America’s Cup Class yachts and sail the real thing? There are a couple of reasons. A consensus has been reached that it costs $100 million to mount a Cup challenge, basically eliminating most sailors. Equally important, enthusiasts say, is the aesthetic of the 12 Meter.

Michael Levitt believes the 12s are “more beautiful” than the IACC yachts, with “better, more manageable proportions,” not to mention greater durability. He compares the latest Cup boats to Formula 1 race cars. If Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari breaks before the race is over, it is too light, Levitt says. “If it doesn’t break after the race, it’s probably too heavy.”

Buttrose, who was born in Australia and races sports cars when he isn’t sailing, calls the 12s “a very handsome class.”

“I think they are striking-looking boats, particularly when a few of them get on the wind together,” says Buttrose.

Sixteen boats were near the starting line Sept. 15, about three miles off Newport’s rocky coast in the very waters where from 1930 until 1983 the America’s Cup was contended and defended by the New York Yacht Club, which hosted the 2005 Worlds. (The actual America’s Cup finals are match races, rather than fleet.) The starting gun sent each class off on a windward-leeward course, keeping the slower, older boats behind the Grand Prix boats. But as each class crossed the line, the sailors found themselves in a scene from old, with the tall, overlapping sails slicing up into the wind like long, curved blades, slashing from port to starboard and back.

“It’s incomparable, especially in Newport,” says Read. “People equate Newport with the historical element of what the America’s Cup is. You don’t think of San Diego [where the Cup was last raced in the United States] when you think of America’s Cup. You think of Newport.”