A Summer of Twelves

From onboard the 12 Metre Courageous it was easy to see how much these relics of the America's Cup continue to draw wonder.

12 Metre crew
First row from left: Robbie Doyle, Gary Jobson, Ted Turner, Ralph Isham, L.J. Edgcomb, Stephen Glascock. Second row from left: Stu Argo, Ward Marsh, Jan Majer, Alex Auerspeg, Jimmy Handy, Dan Dytch, Marcus Cochran, Jon von Schwarz, Sam Loughborough. (Art Santry, Jon von Schwarz, Sam Loughborough, Kenyon Kellogg not shown).Paul Todd/ outsideimages.com

Our 12 Metre, Courageous, is about 10 boat lengths short of the layline. Four of our rivals are on starboard tack on our windward quarter and they are fetching the windward mark. The wind is blowing a stiff 18 knots. The seas are choppy. If we have any chance of crossing the fleet, we need a perfect tack and set up on the starboard layline. Dipping four boats would cost us the race and valuable points in the 12 Metre World Championship being raced off Newport, Rhode Island, in July.

We’d lost three boat lengths in our ­previous tack because of an override on the winch and a bad set of waves. As tactician, I ask everyone to prepare for a “championship tack.” Our helmsman, Art Santry, turns the wheel and the bow of our 58,000-pound America’s Cup winner swings across the breeze. All 15 crew perform the maneuver perfectly and our starboard trimmer, Stu Argo, remarks, “That was the best tack of the season.”

We cross the fleet, tack on to starboard and round the windward mark. As we bear off and set the spinnaker, I smile and think, “Now this is the essence of yacht racing.”

In all, 21 12 Metres competed in the world championship. It was the largest fleet of 12 Metres to ever race in North America. Each boat has a unique history and all were sailed by motivated and experienced crews. There were four preliminary regattas leading up to the championship, and if all of that competition wasn’t enough, most of the fleet raced in the New York Yacht Club’s 175th Anniversary Regatta the following week. A total of 32 races were sailed over a five-week season.

Most of the 12 Metres racing in Newport were in better shape and sailing faster than when they originally raced in the America’s Cup or even earlier races, thanks to the commitment of owners and syndicates. Confirming the 12s can still draw a spectator fleet, there were dozens of spectator yachts each day, including a few behemoths and some interesting classics. Race teams and race committee alike put on a good show with Principal Race Officer Mark Foster setting racecourses that provided close racing. The weather featured classic thermal southerlies, thunderstorms, fog, drifters, big wind shifts and plenty of surprises.

Like each of the 336 sailors spread across the fleet, I had my personal goals. At 69, I wanted to see if I could still compete at this level. There were a number of veterans with me onboard Courageous who I'm sure had the same feeling.

Robbie Doyle, our mainsail trimmer, had just turned 70. One of our jib trimmers, Jon Wright, a veteran of five America’s Cup campaigns—­including three victories—was 71. Our grinder crew of Ralph Isham, Ward Marsh and Alex Auersperg averaged 64 years and made up three of our four syndicate members. The other member was Steve Glascock, 59, who worked the running backstays. Santry was 63; our navigator, L.J. Edgcomb, was 66. I doubt any one of us thought we would still be racing 12 Metres 40 years after sailing in the America’s Cup. But here we were racing as hard as possible.

Reflecting on the experience, it was fun, challenging, emotional, both mentally and physically exhausting, exhilarating, and most important: It renewed my belief that sailing is truly a lifelong sport. Adding to my personal appreciation of being on board Courageous, I was determined to be on the water after a tough winter that started off with a broken leg while skiing in January, followed by an 11-day stay in a Denver hospital with pneumonia. By the time of our first practice day in June, thankfully, I was ready to go. When you have a special incentive to recover from an injury and illness the ­process is both purposeful and urgent.

The 12 Metre Class dates back to 1907, when the first of 180 12 Metres were built. The rating rule came out of a five-day conference in January 1906 in London that created The International Rule for Measuring and Rating Yachts. The 12 Metre was one of 12 rules established. The 12 Metre was considered a middle-sized yacht and was used in three Olympic Games: 1908, 1912 and 1920. Many books that have been written about the class and its famous yachts; three books I recommend include: Defending the America's Cup, edited by Robert W. Carrick and Stanley Z. Rosenfeld, Alfred A. Knoff, 1969; The Grand Gesture, by Roger Vaughan, Little, Brown and Company, 1975; and The 12 Metre Class, by Luigi Lang & Dyer Jones, Adlard Coles Nautical, 2001.

The Twelves had a great 30-year run in the America’s Cup between 1958 and 1987. It is probably unrealistic to return the Twelves to the days of intense match racing, but the fact that so many are still on the water speaks volumes about their longevity. It makes me wonder if the current foiling monohulls, scheduled to race for the 2021 America’s Cup, will still be on the water 40 years from now?

Like each of the 336 sailors spread across the fleet, I had my personal goals. At 69, I wanted to see if I could still compete at this level. There were a number of veterans with me onboard Courageous who I’m sure had the same feeling.

Courageous was one of eight 12 Metres competing in the Modern Division, along with Challenge 12, Defender, Enterprise, Freedom, Intrepid, Lionheart and Victory. The racing was close and spirited. Challenge 12, skippered by Jack LeFort, won 16 of the 32 races and was clearly the champion. Challenge 12 was built as a stable mate to Australia II in 1982. LeFort and his crew, including tactician Ken Read, spent two years preparing for the worlds and their efforts paid off.

The racing between Enterprise, Courageous and Victory was extremely competitive. Enterprise was helmed by Clay Deutsch with his tactician Vince Brun; and Victory was skippered by Dennis Williams with Tom Lihan serving as tactician.

After 32 races, the cumulative score between these three boats was only 5 points.

Intrepid and Freedom were behind in the standings, but both had top-three finishes throughout the series. There were no discards in any of the lead-up regattas. I liked the protocol that made every race important. Frankly, I think the Olympic Games would be a better competition without discard races.

The oldest 12 Metres in the Worlds included: Onawa (1928); Vema III (1933); Blue Marline (1937); and Nyala (1938). Their longevity is an encouraging omen for the more modern 12s.

The Grand Prix Division included Kookaburra II, New Zealand KZ 3, New Zealand KZ 5 and New Zealand KZ 7. The New Zealand 12 Metres were the only three built of fiberglass. For the record, 57 were built of aluminum and 120 were built of wood.

The Grand Prix Division World Championship was won by KZ 5 with three-time Olympic medalist Jesper Bank of Denmark at the helm and the New York YC's 175th Annual Regatta was won by Kookaburra II with five-time Olympic medalist Torben Grael of Brazil steering. With little 12 Metre experience and limited practice time, it was interesting to see the truly great sailors prevail.

There were many lessons I took away from the racing. It was important to improve our performance in every race.

There were plenty of disappointments and our veteran crew always recovered quickly for the next race. Keeping emotions in check when something goes wrong is a strong attribute. In one race we were over early at the start and came back to win the race.

We learned not to change sails shortly before the start or we would be out of sync during the starting sequence.

Wearing the proper sun-­protecting clothing, effective sun block and staying hydrated was important during the long days on the water.

One boat in particular seemed to perpetually get into a match race with the boat closest to it and lost distance in every race. It was better to stay clear of a pack of boats and sail in undisturbed wind.

We quickly learned that ­taking fliers rarely paid off, so we accepted the racing would be close and kept it that way. Rounding leeward gates is always tricky, and we practiced switching sides to give us flexibility.

We conducted a full-crew meeting before and after each day of sailing, which was a good time to hash out our mistakes.

It paid off to approach the windward mark just a little over the layline. Pinching up to round the turning mark was very costly. I watched for every little wind shift because the 12 Metres have a narrow tacking angle of 70 degrees, which means that even a 3-degree windshift made a big difference on every cross.