"Olin was in tears when he first saw the boat."
For 132 years straight, the America's Cup was held in American hands, the longest winning streak in sports. The last successful defender of that tradition was a 12-Meter from a design firm that left an indelible mark on 20th century yachting, Sparkman & Stephens. The year was 1980, the boat was Freedom, and with Dennis Conner on the helm, Freedom defeated Australia four races to one.
Today, like so many other America's Cup yachts, Freedom is lovingly restored and actively sailed. But that is true only because Ernest Jacquet wanted Freedom, sought Freedom, and when he eventually found her—fallen on hard times—he argued long and hard to be allowed to buy her.
Here's his story: "In the early Nineties," Jacquet says, "I was sailing aboard Twelves in Edgartown [Massachusetts] and I asked Olin Stephens, what was his fastest Twelve Meter. He said, 'Freedom, but we don't know where she is.' I knew right then that I had to find her."
After a long search, Jacquet found Twelve Meter US 30 lying in a harbor in the Med, not far from Marseille. The boat was in bad shape, her dignity lost. "The hull was stove in," Jacquet says. "Someone had put a huge diesel in her, and a toilet, refrigeration, a windlass on the foredeck—"
And the owner was unwilling to sell. He had his boat and that was it. Enter Gabrielle Jacquet, the former sailing instructor at Edgartown Yacht Club and now a medical student. "The fellow clearly intended to hang onto the boat," Jacquet says, "so I took my daughter Gabrielle to France—she's a strong French speaker—and she entreated him to let us buy the boat and treat it as part of our national heritage. That was the pitch, and she got through to him on that level, and he let me buy the boat after I made a commitment to do a complete restoration."
Then, when Jacquet finally owned the boat, "I had to get her de-registered as a French vessel. That may sound easy, but don't think it is."
The Freedom story finally got to the good-news parts when it was time for the boat to return to the U.S. in 1999. Because it was Freedom, Jacquet got a break on shipping, "And some of the original crew were at New England Boat Works. They took very good care of us. So we got the boat home. Olin was in tears when he first saw the boat."
Then began a long, detailed restoration. Aided by advice from Stephens and with the original line drawings to work from, Freedom was faired to her proper lines and returned to the sailing condition of the 1980 America's Cup match. She was re-launched in May 2001 and spent the summer competing in Twelve Meter races out of Newport, Rhode Island.
"Newport is good because there are plenty of people who have 12-Meter experience," Jacquet says. "We were able to assemble a corinthian crew for the summer and then for the America's Cup Jubilee in the fall."
At the Jubilee, held in Cowes 100 years after the schooner America captured her famous prize there, Freedom was entered in the Modern 12s division where she had her troubles. "Every time we went out to practice, something broke. And we were an all-amateur crew. We weren't supposed to win. But we scored four firsts, one second and a third and wound up with six points to Intrepid's 13.
As Team New Zealand and Team Alinghi prepare to meet on the Hauraki Gulf to decide the future of the America's Cup, Freedom is being prepped for another summer of racing out of Newport. First, however, she will be towed along with Courageous, US26, to the Baltimore Water Festival. That's in April. Then Freedom and Courageous will visit Annapolis to continue their revival of the great defense-camp rivalry of 1980.
"Gary Jobson cooked up a rematch between the boats last year," Jacquet says. "I thought we'd just go out and leg around Red#2 or something like that, but Jobson brought in Turner, and that's not Turner's style. He brought in his old US26 crew and chartered the New York YC's committee boats and laid out a full America's Cup course. They even practiced, and I guess you can tell that I'm laying the groundwork for my excuses here, but I think we gave them some pretty close racing."
A satisfied Ernest Jacquet is pictured at left, in the center of the picture, with daughter Gabrielle and Freedom's designer Olin Stephens.
Jacquet today is an executive in a private equity investment firm, but he earned a masters degree in naval architecture from the University of Michigan along the way because, "To me, a boat is sculpture. It's about beauty."
Not only a naval architect, Jacquet understands the mechanics of boats from the inside out. During four years in the U.S. Navy, Jacquet was based in Guam as the diving officer for that part of the Pacific ("a great job") and made the time to build two Gardner ketches, one of which was for himself. When he was released from active duty in 1975, he sailed the boat to San Francisco.
In later years Jacquet lived in the UK, returned to California to study at Stanford, and later still found himself living in Massachusetts and crewing 12s out of Edgartown. Which returns us to our beginning, where on that fateful day he said, "Olin, what was your fastest Twelve?" KL