12-Meter: The Perfect Starter Boat

Published on November 21st, 2017

by Jonathan Russo, Observer.com
The world of sailing has some great competitions. There is the America’s Cup, Volvo Ocean Race, Vendee Globe, Extreme Sailing Series, and Sydney Hobart. The downside is you’re probably not going to get to sail in them—ever. They’re either just for pros, or so difficult and expensive they’re reserved for millionaires and billionaires.

But the 12-Meter class of boats (usually referred to as Twelves, maybe out of affection, maybe because the spelling of “meter” is subject to global debate) wants no part in that. This venerable category has it all: a historical pedigree second to none (they sailed in the 1908 Olympics), an active global fleet, a cohesive class association and a charter program that is both accessible and affordable.

These are boats that look and feel like boats. They do not fly on foils or capsize from instability.

The Twelves were first launched in 1907, and they are still being built (or re-built) today. They’re about 70 feet long and are designed to a measurement rule. They’re not all the same, but within their sub-class their weighting and measurements are similar that they can race against each other. In this way, design innovations, like modern underbodies and new rigs, are incorporated into the class. New and old boats have their own divisions.

Sailing’s legends like Olin Stephens have designed 12-Meter boats. Vim, a Stephens design built in 1939, is one of the most beloved Twelves of all time, and it’s still racing and winning in Europe. Philip Rhodes designed Weatherly, and she is still actively racing and available for charter in Newport, Rhode Island. Sparkman and Stephens designed Columbia, Intrepid and one that Ted Turner made famous in the 1977 America’s Cup, Courageous. All are still racing. And Columbia and Intrepid are available for charter.

The world’s most skilled skippers made their marks in the 12-Meter class: Dennis Connor; Ted Hood, Emil (Bus) Mosbacher; and of course, Ted Turner. All of them sailed Twelves in the America’s Cup.

The height of 12-Meter fever was during the 1958 to 1987 America’s Cup years—a long run by any standard. The Twelves were perfect for the post-J-Class era. Unlike the Js, which are mammoth, Twelves require a far smaller crew, are a fraction the size and cost, and can be modified easily as racing technology advances. These boats kept the Cup safely in American hands, demonstrating to the world, in the waters off Newport, that America had the best boats and best sailors.

Now a series of regattas have been organized to celebrate the revival of the Twelves. This summer saw three: two in Newport and one in Martha’s Vineyard. All presented under the umbrella of “Road to the Worlds.” That “road” will end in 2019, in Newport, with the World Championships. Peter Gerard, Vice President of the America’s fleet, believes there will be 30 or more boats sailing for the trophies. Twelve of the boats are based in Newport, but the fleet is truly international; there are Twelves in 17 countries.

During the past few years, several old Twelves have been restored to their former glory. Others have had major upgrades. Freedom, an Olin Stephens design, has been completely redone. Defender, a David Pedrick design, has been salvaged and made new again. Defender’s owner, Dennis Williams, has also restored Victory 83. As he sees it, “We’re only guardians of these boats. We want to leave them better than we found them.” Several other owners agree.

For example, the Ben Lexcen-designed—Challenge XII, the sister ship to the revolutionary winged keel Australia II that snatched the Cup away for the first time in 1983—made its 2017 debut after a complete refit, winning its first regatta. Enterprise, another yacht from the fabled Sparkman and Stephens design board, is currently “in the shed” for a complete refit, in anticipation of being on the starting line in June 2018.

Peter Gerard pointed out that Twelves attract aficionados of yachts and history, not to mention beauty. “These yachts are thought to be amongst the most beautiful ever afloat. Their lines are graceful and they sail through the water like a proper yacht,” he said. The class is sailed by all Corinthian (amateur) crews. Clearly this is not about who has the biggest checkbook.”

The fleet is divided into four groups: Grand-Prix, Modern, Traditional and Vintage. There is also an antique category. The groupings reflect age, rudder and sail configurations, and a whole host of rating rule constraints. The hoped-for result is competitive racing without resorting to handicapping.

Aside from owning one of the Twelves, a one-half to million-dollar a year proposition between boat purchase and campaign costs, there is a way to participate in this exciting class revival: charter.

And for this, there’s a very active fleet. Current boats available for charter include Weatherly, Nefertiti, American Eagle, Intrepid, Columbia, Heritage, Gleam, Onawa, and Northern Light. One can rent them for a regatta, or for just a sail around the bay with family and friends. The Twelves are often used for corporate team-building exercises.

I have been fortunate enough to sail on chartered Twelves in regattas—once for the Opera House Cup in Martha’s Vineyard, and once for a guys’ weekend in Newport’s Narraganset Bay. I was also part of a group that sailed a Twelve in New York Harbor for a fundraiser. I had a blast each time. The Twelves are big but not too big, strong but not too overwhelming, powerful but not uncontrollable. Their graceful lines translate into a smooth knife through the water.

You can feel the historical lineage of all the legendary sailors who designed, built or skippered a Twelve. Their nautical spirits whisper to you through the rigging.

As Gerard says, “It’s hard to sail a more beautiful boat with such incredible history than a Twelve.” I would have to agree.

Author: Jonathan Russo has been a sailing enthusiast for 30 years. He sails his Sabre 38 “Sachem” and an Etchell’s from the Shelter Island Yacht Club. He has written about sailing and racing for Soundings, Scuttlebutt, and The Shelter Island Reporter.com.

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