A Tribute to their Enduring Legacy
Published on August 22nd, 2019
by Gary Jobson
As each classic wooden yacht passes Brant Point Lighthouse at the entrance of Nantucket’s Great Harbor a large crowd of spectators and a fleet of Rainbows watch with intense interest. Every one of the racing yachts has a unique story. For the crews, it’s an uplifting moment as countless pictures are snapped and friendly cheers erupt.
This was the scene aboard the 1958 built, successful America’s Cup defender, Weatherly (US-17) on Sunday morning, August 18, 2019. A total of 55 beautiful yachts were headed to sea for the start of the 47th running of The Opera House Cup.
Many great yachts including: Gleam (US-11), Black Watch, Owl, Valiant (US-24), Heritage (US-23), American Eagle (US-21), Brilliant, Escapade, Fortune, and High Cotton have won this prestigious trophy. Weatherly was a co-winner with Heritage in 2001, which seemed like ancient history to Weatherly’s owner, George Hill, and skipper Elliot Gewirtz.
I was on board this year as tactician along with 12 other enthusiastic crew, and while the anticipation around the waterfront was high, there was a problem – no wind. This is a rare issue off Nantucket. Only once (in 1988) was a race cancelled due to a lack of wind. Principal Race Officer, Hank Stuart, kept the competitors informed about the ongoing delay, and after nearly two hours the wind seemed to fill from the southwest and Stuart commenced the starting sequences for the six classes of yachts.
The wind was light for the first four classes, and they made little progress on the three-leg course. Only three 12 Metres were in Class 3. Weatherly had a one-boat length lead over Valiant skippered by Gary Gregory with tactician, Robbie Doyle. And then a miracle took place.
Just as Weatherly, Valiant, and a 1928 vintage twelve, Onawa (US-6), crossed the starting line the wind filled in at 11 knots. We were sailing fast and rapidly making up time on the boats that had started earlier. George Hill, remarked at that time, “This could be good for the 12 Metre Class.”
Just one year earlier 8 of the top 10 finishers were 26-foot long Alerions, originally built by the great Nathanael Greene Herreshoff in 1912. The name “Alerion” is a tribute to the majestic eagle. All eleven Alerions would finish in the bottom half of the fleet this year, which reaffirms that the wind can be fickle, even capricious at times.
Weatherly slowly gained a length on Valiant as both twelves rolled past Onawa. About half way down the first leg a smaller classic yacht was right in line with Weatherly’s course. The question was whether to try and pass to leeward or to sail over the top.
The danger of passing to leeward was getting blanketed by the leading boat while the other problem would be if the leeward boat decided to luff up the windward boat and prevent (or slow) the pass. It was a tough choice, but I noticed the skipper of the leading boat continually looking back and I had a gut instinct he was spoiling for a fight.
I thought a luffing match would be disastrous and could cause us to lose valuable ground to all our rivals, so we took the lower course and passed to leeward. Valiant, on the other hand, decided to pass to windward and sure enough the leading boat went into a full luff mode and Valiant was forced off her desired course. From our vantage point it was a thing of beauty to watch as we stretched our small lead to four boat lengths.
A few minutes later we heard on the VHF radio the race committee had hoisted Code Flag Sierra at the first mark, which meant the racecourse was shortened and the race would finish there. Weatherly crossed the line 19 seconds ahead of Valiant and the two 12 Metres ended up first and second in the fleet. Onawa crossed the finish line 3 and half minutes later and placed third in the fleet.
It was a good day for the Twelves, a happy moment for Elliot Gewirtz, the incoming commodore of the Great Harbor Yacht Club (Nantucket, MA), and George Hill who now had his first outright victory in The Opera House Cup.
“It’s fun when it all comes together,” said George Hill, Weatherly’s owner, skipper and guardian since 1986. “The wind Gods cooperated with the 12mR Class by sending in the SW sea breeze as we approached the starting line. We then got a great start and were able to hold Valiant off as the pressure built into the teens, and before long we were doing mid nines.
“Gary made the right call in getting separation to leeward from a gaffer that we were passing, while Valiant decided to go above them. We still owe that skipper a beer for taking them up and costing Valiant a couple of boat lengths.
“Knowing that all the classes that started before us had at least some light NW wind to contend with, I didn’t want to jinx our luck by mentioning that we had a chance at the overall win until late in the race. My biggest worry on that account was actually the schooners, which should have sailed above their ratings with a solid breeze on a reach. We were fortunate that the wind filled in when it did, but I’ve been on the wrong side of that scenario enough times to say ‘so what?’ I’ll take the win!”
It has been quite a summer for the 12 Metre Class with 22 of these classics racing in the World Championship in July off Newport, RI. I am not sure if the sailors who won the America’s Cup aboard Weatherly in 1962 ever imagined their yacht would be still be competitive 57 years later, but it is a tribute to the enduring legacy of these special yachts.