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Keeping International 12 Metre Class sailing alive

by Kirsten Ferguson on 12 Sep 2013
The 12 Metre fleet competing off Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. during the annual 12 Metre Regatta hosted by Edgartown Yacht Club Michael Berwind
The America’s Cup will always be a fascinating contribution to the legacy of sailing, and while its current incarnation as a multihull (foiled at that) event kindles mixed emotions in the hearts of die-hard devotees, its Golden Era—from 1958 to 1987 when sleek 12 Metres ruled the waters, succeeding the more elaborate J Boats—has few, if any, detractors. In fact, there is a passionately dedicated 'club' of sailors that is keeping 12 Metre Class racing alive both in the Americas and in Northern and Southern Europe.

'We are always working to spread the word about the joys of 12 Metre sailing and the role that the Twelves played in America’s Cup history,' said Vice President of the Americas Fleet Herb Marshall (Cape Cod, Mass.), fresh off a victory on American Eagle in a 12 Metre regatta that has become an annual tradition each August at Edgartown Yacht Club on Martha’s Vineyard.

'We have eighteen 12 Metres concentrated on the East Coast, most of them located in Newport, R.I. where the Cup was staged from 1930 to 1983, but there are others out there waiting to be resurrected or restored…or simply chartered, with less of the work and all of the fun to be had racing with other Twelves.'

Dennis Williams (Hobe Sound, Fla.), the owner of Victory ’83, which finished second in its class to Courageous in Edgartown, said it 'felt like a fun thing to do' when he decided to save another 12 Metre, Defender, after he saw it anchored on the Intracoastal Waterway, sitting ever so low in the water after its owner had died. 'I knew it would either sink or get hauled and cut up for scrap, so I brought it to Newport. It had an engine in it and was a real mess, but we (Williams and co-owner Jim Gretzky of Newport) picked away at it, to the point that it will now again measure in as a Twelve.'

Williams explained that Defender was built for the late Tom Blackaller’s 1983 America’s Cup effort but never made it past the Defender Trials, as Dennis Conner’s Liberty proved indomitable…that is, until it matched up against John Bertrand’s winged-keel Australia II for the America’s Cup and lost not only the oldest active trophy in international sport but also the USA’s grip on the longest winning streak in sports history (26 challenges over 132 years). 'Defender is a piece of history,' said Williams. 'It should be a rocket ship, too, especially downwind, but it’s still a rescue mission. I don’t need two 12 Metres, so I’m looking for a new owner and more competition.'

While he searches for Defender’s perfect match, Williams, whose Victory ’83 was the British entry in the 1983 Challenger Series for the Cup, will continue supporting the International 12 Metre Class’ overarching goal to preserve the beauty and historical significance of 12 Metres in sailing history. 'It’s pretty impressive to see the Twelves all tied up at the dock at Edgartown Yacht Club or on Bannister’s Wharf in Newport (where Williams won the 12 Metre Worlds in 2009, after buying Victory ’83 in 2008). We need to save as many of them as we can so that they are all out there, consistently on the starting line at all the big events.'

The next big event is the North American Championships in Newport over September 27-29, and there a healthy complement of Twelves – both owned and chartered -- is expected to show, including New Zealand (KZ-3), Laura (KZ-5), and KZ-7 in Grand Prix Division for yachts built for the 1987 America's Cup; Courageous, Intrepid and Victory '83 in Modern Division for yachts built between 1974 and 1983; and American Eagle, Columbia, Nefertiti and Weatherly in Traditional division for yachts built between 1958 and 1970.

And if the past is any indication, plenty of America’s Cup luminaries will seek out their roots to skipper or serve as crew once again on the illustrious Twelves. Last year, two of sailing’s most famous America’s Cup skippers, Ted Turner and Dennis Conner, reunited with their winning tacticians, Gary Jobson and Tom Whidden, respectively. Turner, an American media mogul and philanthropist who successfully defended the Cup in 1977 with Courageous, sailed American Eagle (which he owned and raced in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to win most of the world’s great ocean races), while Conner, affectionately known as 'Mr. America’s Cup' for having won the America’s Cup four times (three times defending and one time reclaiming it after his famous loss in ‘83), sailed KZ-7—the same fiberglass boat that he challenged was unfair against the slower aluminum hulls sailing in the Challenger Series off Fremantle, Australia in 1986/’87.

'Where else are you going to get opportunities like this,' asked Andy MacGowan (Middletown, R.I.), a veteran of four America’s Cup campaigns who sailed aboard Courageous when it edged out Victory ’83 to win in Edgartown, 'where for relatively little money you can put together a campaign and compete in good, tight racing all the time?'

About the Edgartown Yacht Club regatta, MacGowan added, 'I’m sure the Victory ’83 crew thought, ‘we’ll get ‘em tomorrow,’ but there was no tomorrow.' He explained that the fleet practiced in 30 knots on Friday and sailed four spectacular races on Saturday. On Sunday, however, the wind switched off, so racing was cancelled, and the standings from Saturday determined the winners. 'We were so wiped out by Saturday, we could barely lift our beers off the bar (laughs); we were wondering who was going to be able to do what on Sunday.'

MacGowan, in his 60s, says he is fortunate to be asked to crew as much as he has in recent years but says the 12 Metres are quite accommodating to age that way. 'It’s still strenuous to sail them, but it’s good ol’ basic sailing—the rigs are simple and the jibs aren’t that large.' He, also, is a cheerleader for the class and introduced one of the newest 12 Metre owners, Gunther Buerman (Newport, R.I./Rochester, N.Y.) to Twelve sailing a little over a year ago.

Now, Buerman is hooked.

'Long story short, I had stopped sailing in the early ‘90s, after so many SORCs in the mid- to late ‘80s and lots of Bermuda Races and J/24 sailing, and spent the next 20 years of my life coaching sports as my kids grew up,' said Buerman. 'I crewed while Andy drove US-61 in the 12 Metre North Americans in 2012, and I enjoyed it so much. I forgot how fun racing could be, and I started asking around about the Twelves that were available to buy and was intrigued that you could buy one for 10% of what a new boat would cost to build.'

Buerman bought KZ-3 New Zealand (formerly called Wright on White by a past owner) with the intention of returning it to exactly how it looked, graphics and all, when it was launched in 1985 as one of only three fiberglass 12 Metres ever built. (Its sister ship was KZ-7, which faced off unsuccessfully with Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes ’87 in the Challenger Finals for the 1987 America’s Cup.)

'I got all these books from New Zealand and spent a lot of time looking at its history,' said Buerman. 'This was my first boat with a wheel (instead of a tiller), and I didn’t know which way to turn it. It was like a race car.'

Buerman explained that New Zealand was optimized for big breeze in Perth, where it blew 25 knots every day, but when he brought it here, it had to 'Newportized,' which he explained as undergoing moderate keel modification.

'These Twelves are great fun to sail, and they are beautiful and majestic in terms of size,' said Buerman, who has been on a winning streak at his first local regattas for this season. 'And I guess you could say I’ve been blessed by having good people on my crew to help me through the transition of not having a clue.'

Buerman looks forward to the 2014 12 Metre Worlds in Barcelona, where four or five other Grand Prix Division Twelves are expected to show up. 'I’ve never been there,' said Buerman. 'All this is new to me, even the venues.'

Pine Brothers, makers of Pine Brothers Softish Throat Drops, has come aboard as the 12 Metre America’s Fleet sponsor for 2013 after having sponsored the 12 Metre North Americans in 2011 and 2012. The company’s unique 'soft drop' throat lozenge was first introduced in 1870 as America’s first-ever commercially produced cough drop and is a favorite of sailors everywhere. Pine Brothers reflects the passionate spirit shown by the 12 Metre fleet, which works to not only perpetuate 12 Metre racing but also combine racing with charitable efforts when 12 mr Class

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