On any summer day, you may glimpse them. Perhaps off Brenton Reef. Or in the East Passage. Across Buzzards Bay. Reaching out into Nantucket Sound. Seeming from a distance like restless ghosts from another time, the unmistakable profiles of 12-meter yachts carve through water and sky.
But get closer and you discover these are no apparitions. These boats are alive with the sights and sounds of a race. There may be only two of them, dueling tack for tack, or you may stumble upon a half dozen of them, jockeying for a starting line.
Twenty years have passed since the America's Cup was last contested in the waters off Newport, RI And the 12-meter yachts once synonymous with the Cup haven't been used in a cup race since 1987. But thanks largely to two Newport charter companies, 12-meter racing has been thriving and quietly growing in Southern New England.
"Maybe it is a bit of a secret," concedes Paul Butrose, president of the North American 12-meter class association, which boasts
20 member boats competing in regattas from Nantucket to New York. About 14 boats are expected for this year's North American Championships, being held in Newport on September 10 -14.
At the heart of today's fleet are four passionate Newport sailors who have built neighboring businesses out of restoring and chartering 12-meters: Bob and Elizabeth Tiedemann of Seascope Yacht Charters, and Herb Marshall and George Hill of America's Cup Charters. The Tiedemarms manage three classic 12s built in the 1930s, long before 12-meters were ever considered for the Cup. Marshall and Hill manage a fleet of five 12-meters - all of which competed for the America's Cup.
This winter, the owners of three more 12-meters formed another charter outfit it in Newport, Classic 12-Meter Charters. Two of these boats had been previously chartered by America's Cup Charters, and the third, Easterner, had been previously chartered independently by her owner. Nearly any day of the season, boats from any or all of these companies can be seen competing outside Newport harbor.
All three firms offer charters that allow teams of guests to race against each other. The seriousness of these charter races varies from client to client, but the boats' consistent presence has formed the foundation of a flourishing, competitive one-design class - even though no new 12-meters have been built since 1987. The 12-meter was created in England in 1906 - one of several "meter"-class boats. The name doesn't refer to the boats' length, but to the solution of a complex formula that combines length, freeboard and sail area. As a one-design class, the 12's were popular on Long Island Sound, Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, the huge J-class boats were competing for the America' Cup, but when World War 11 erupted, most of the J's were scrapped for the war effort and the Cup was put on hold. It wasn't until 1958 that the
All three firms offer charters that allow teams of guests to race against each other. The seriousness of these charter races varies from client to client, but the boats' consistent presence has formed the foundation of a flourishing, competitive one-design class - even though no new 12-meters have been built since 1987. The 12-meter was created in England in 1906 - one of several "meter"-class boats. The name doesn't refer to the boats' length, but to the solution of a complex formula that combines length, freeboard and sail area. As a one-design class, the 12's were popular on Long Island Sound, Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, the huge J-class boats were competing for the America' Cup, but when World War 11 erupted, most of the J's were scrapped for the war effort and the Cup was put on hold. It wasn't until 1958 that the America's Cup was revived and the New York Yacht Club chose the 12-meter as the new boat for the races. That year, the 12-meters Gleam and Northern Light, both built in the late 1930s and now sailing for Seascope, served as trial horses for the defense candidates, as well as for the British challenger Spectre. But it was the newly built Columbia, now sailing for America's Cup Charters, which won the race. Bob Tiedemann acquired Gleam in 1975, restored her and founded Seascope Yacht Charters to fund the boat's ongoing maintenance.
"When I first had Gleam, we still had the America's Cup in Newport, said Tiedemann. "It was a novelty. People wanted to take a ride on a Cup boat." Ten years later, he used the income from the business to save Northern Light, which had fallen into neglect and sunk at a dock in Holland, Michigan. Restored, Northern Light joined the working fleet funding the Tiedemann's restoration of more boats. The fleet now includes a third 12-meter, Onawa, built for W. Cameron Forbes in 1928. The same year that Tiedemann was refloating Northern Light, Herb Marshall and George Hill were joining forces to start their business. With separate plans for chartering, Marshall had purchased the 1964 contender American Eagle, and Hill was restoring the 1962 winner, Weatherly. "It just made sense for us," Marshall said.
"Newport was the perfect choice because of its connection to 12-meters as well as its great location." Both companies primarily market to corporate clientele who want to sail or race against each other. Many of their corporate racing charters are conducted as team-building exercises or icebreakers for employees and clients who may not know each other. The boats carry a professional captain, two crew and up to 12 charter guests. Frequently, different divisions of a company will form teams to compete against each other.
"Performance sailing is a very interesting metaphor for corporations," said Greg Metzler, a consultant who's conducted programs with America's Cup Charters. "There is a structure in place and it requires a combination of individual leadership and group leadership skills. Once people get in tune with that, it's almost a ballet that flows from individual to group leaders. Teams work best where leadership is based on needs. Sometimes your tactician is going to be most important; other times it's your mainsheet trimmer." In addition to their corporate charters, the 12-meters charter out for participation in regional regattas. At these events, the clients are often more experienced sailors. The boats sometimes fly spinnakers, and practice sessions are mandatory to familiarize everyone with the boat, the rig, and the procedures.
"There's a big difference between a J-30 and 12-meter in just the loads," Marshall said. For the regattas, often a group of friends from a yacht club will get together to form a "syndicate" to charter and race the boats. A professional captain and two professional crew still accompany the boat, even when the likes of Ted Turner and Ted Hood are the charterers. "We keep a pretty close eye on things," Hill said.
"They're in it for the day, but it's our livelihood at stake if something breaks." During the 1990s, as the charter 12-meters began showing up in increasing numbers at area regattas, other owners
of classic 12-meters were drawn out by the lure of competition.
"It's a fun class," Butrose said. "It's onedesign racing. To attract a dozen guys, an owner has to put on a good program. It's a Corinthian crew."
In 1994, the Edgarlown Yacht Club decided to hold a 12-meter regatta to build sailing interest in their area. Club members chartered three boats, Gleam, Northern Light and American Eagle, to create the regatta. Spurred on by their initial success, the regatta has continued to grow each year. This year, 12 boats are expected at the race, which has become the most competitive of the 12-meter regattas held in New England.
In 2001, all the boats from both charter companies as well as several other local 12-meters were shipped to England to join the America's Cup Jubilee celebration of the 150th anniversary of the first race. From there, the boats went on a tour of week long regattas in the Mediterranean, competing against each other and other European 12s. The success of those events has only added to the resurgence of interest in the 12-meters.
Now the American 12-meter class is working to develop several standout events competitive enough to attract 12-meters from Europe, and the class association has begun planning for a world championship regatta to be held in 2006, the 100th anniversary of the class. "The Europeans would very much like to bring their 12s to America," Tiedemann said. This year, KZ5, one of only three fiberglass 12-meters ever built, is spending the summer sailing and competing in New England.
The 12-meter class is divided into six divisions and subdivisions based on the age of the boats. The divisions range from the Grand Prix division of winged keel boats built after 1983, like KZ5, to the Antique subdivision of gaff-rigged cutters built before 1924, of which only two boats
exist. It's estimated about 100 12-meters are still sailing worldwide, but many of them have been altered beyond being able to get re-certified by the class association. Dennis Connors' Stars & Stripes and the Canadian True North IV, for example, are currently used as part of a three-hour excursion business for cruise ship tourists in St. Maarten. While the 12meters' entrenched association with the America's Cup adds to the class' allure, Butrose and other advocates for the 12s say the boats easily stand on their own merits: They're solidly built, fun to sail, and evenly matched.
Lacking any of those characteristics, the new International America's Cup Class boats are unlikely to ever enjoy the second life that the 12-meters are now experiencing. Hill and Marshall considered adding an IACC boat to their fleet, but quickly realized that it would be impossible to get Coast Guard passenger vessel certification for the fragile carbon fiber hulls. Additionally the expense of maintaining the high-tech boats and their difficult sailing characteristics make them illsuited for the charter trade or recreational racing. "Those boats are man killers," Butrose said. "And they're fragile. The 12s were very strong sturdy boats. They had to survive all kinds of conditions." Additionally the 12-meter rule created fairly evenly matched boats over the 80 years that 12-meters were built.
"The rule itself is a good rule," Tiedemann said. "Most of the time the boats would come from different designers and be dead even matched. There's not a lot of disparity between the boats, so racing them becomes a cerebral affair." That evenly matched competition is likely to be one of the keys to the continued success of a small class where the same boats have been competing against each other for a long time. "Sometimes the aggressive (charter guests) will do some advance research: 'Oh, this boat was faster in these conditions.' But they're always surprised when it doesn't turn out that way," Hill said with a sly smile.