In July, 22 12-Metres from six countries gathered in Newport, Rhode Island, for the quadrennial the 12-Metre World Championship—the second-largest 12-Metre gathering ever, only topped by the America’s Cup Jubilee in Cowes, England, in 2001.
The famed class is best known as the choice boat of the America’s Cup from 1958 to 1987. However, the first 12’s were built in the early 1900s and used in three Olympic games at around that time.
“Prior to World War II they were the kids’ boats. The parents raced J’s,” said Dick Enersen, skipper of Defender for this year’s World Championship, referring to the huge J-Class boats that contested the Cup until the 1930s. He adds that the generational nature of the class changed when the America’s Cup resumed after WWII. “They had to figure out an economical and still dramatic way to carry the tradition on,” he said. The 12-Metre got the nod.
Enersen should know since for him the class’s backstory is more than just a history lesson. Fifty-five years ago, he raced in the America’s Cup as part of 1964’s winning campaign, Constellation. “I was a grinder. All these years later I’ve moved back in the boat, and I have the best job there is to have. I get to steer, and very few people yell at me… though some people still do,” he said. “In the meantime, I’ve sailed every boat out there.”
Enersen wasn’t the only member of the Defender crew with an impressive resume, as several more of the crew were also former America’s Cup racers. “The guys you see down the deck, some of them I’ve known for 40 years. One of the side effects is that our crew is probably one of the oldest of any boat in the regatta, but we like to think that we have the most experience. We just need to get our bodies into action,” Enersen said.
With just a handful of sub-40s, most of whom are up on the bow, the crew was certainly an experienced one. However, after a ripped sail on the first day of training, it was clear that finding rhythm and cohesion across the crew was going to be the key to success. As Enersen put it, he liked the chances of the boat from a naval architecture point of view, but whether they could make all the right decisions and get the sails up and down in good order—“Well, we’ll find out.”
Defender had originally been chartered for the event by a European crew, but when that fell through, the opportunity to put together a last-minute (mostly) American team arose—thus the time pressure. “My friend Tommy Webster called and said ‘we ought to do this,’ and I thought about it for about 20 seconds before I said ‘yeah, we should’” Enersen said. “It seemed like a fitting bookend to the career that started here in Newport all those many years ago.”
In addition to reliving its glory days, the Defender campaign was also helping raise awareness and funds for Warrior Sailing (not to be confused with Wounded Warrior Project): an organization that provides sailing training for wounded, ill and injured veterans, with graduates often going on to sail competitively on their own, including a team that was preparing for the Chicago-Mackinac Race at the time of the 12-Metre event.
The Defender crew also included a Warrior Sailing grad—grinder Anthony Villalobos, who somewhat ironically grew up landlocked. “People always ask ‘were you in the Navy? The Coast Guard?’” He laughs “No, I was in the Army. The only water we saw was rivers and streams.” Without Warrior Sailing, he would never have been introduced to sailing. In fact, after being medically retired he had no idea what was next. “It was kind of ‘what do I do with my life now?’” he recalled.
As is the case for many veterans, the answer to this question was not an easy one, as Villalobos was turned away from becoming a firefighter and an EMT because his injuries made him an insurance liability. Fortunately, after a period of continued uncertainty, a friend who knew of Villalobos’s love of scuba diving made a suggestion that changed everything for him. “He was like, ‘There’s a three-day keelboat course for disabled veterans,’ and he asked me if I was interested. Absolutely!” Villalobos said. “So I did a course with Warrior Sailing and met coaches who are from all over the world. I told them the J/22s were fun, but I wanted to be in deep water on big boats. They gave me the opportunity to do that, and I just started networking from there.” Since then, sailing has not only become an avocation for Villalobos, but a career, as he both races and does deliveries.
While some of his old-timer crewmates have sailed so many boats in so many locales that this championship was just another day on the water, Villalobos was excited for the challenge. “Just to be able to be a part of this and have the opportunity to race on a 12-Metre is a big deal to me,” he said. “Especially being on a boat with a bunch of guys that actually raced in the America’s Cup and hearing their stories.”
Which is not to say it was all smooth sailing. With just a few days together to prepare, Villalobos acknowledged it had been a stressful experience as well. “Being asked to come out here and sail on a different kind of boat with a crew I’ve never sailed within my life, it’s nerve-wracking. If you’re not nervous, there’s something wrong, not to mention competing. Everyone wants to win. So you’ve got that in your mind, but at the same time you’re trying to fill everybody out, learn how to mesh with everybody and then turn around and race in just a couple days.”
As for the rest of the crew (whose white uniforms bore the Warrior Sailing logo across the shoulders to match the branding on the boom), despite having decades more experience than Villalobos in many cases, they were all proud to have Villalobos with them as both a representative of Warrior Sailing and a member of the team. “He’s a very skilled sailor and tough as nails,” Enersen said. It was perhaps appropriate that Villalobos was almost exactly where Enersen started half a century earlier—grinding on a 12-Metre.
The regatta itself was also reminiscent of Newport’s America’s Cup golden days, as it was held in the same historic venue where the Cup was held between 1958 and 1983—the open waters off Brenton Reef. Since the 12-Metre fleet hasn’t been gathered in Newport for a World Championship in a decade, fans were thrilled to come out and watch the spectacle, and they were not disappointed. The racing itself could only be described as intense, with several hours worth of hearings to resolve eight protests and scores so close it came down to the final race to decide the winner in all but one class. (Italian-flagged Nyala was the easy winner in the Vintage division.)
Though Defender came in seventh out of the eight boats in the Modern division, the crew still returned to the dock at the end of the regatta in good spirits. “Even though we didn’t finish as well as we would have liked to, it was an amazing experience,” Villalobos said. “The knowledge from the people on the boat that originally raced them in the America’s Cup was priceless.” Reflecting on the experience, he commented that he’s looking forward to continuing the tradition of the 12-Metre. As the original 12-Metre crews pass down lessons from their experience, devotion to the class remains strong, firmly rooted in nautical history, yet still inspiring and resonating with the next generation.
Design and Innovation
The 12-Metre class adheres to the International Rule, which was established in 1907 and allows for essentially unlimited innovation within certain parameters. Thanks to its association with the America’s Cup, the class eventually came to represent the height of yacht design for the better part of the 20th century, with boats created by many of the era’s foremost naval architects, including Olin Stephens, Clinton Crane, William Fife III, Johan Anker and Ben Lexcen. In order to account for the differences that exist between boats built, in some cases, decades apart, the class is now divided into categories based on design eras. These are comprised of those built before the America’s Cup era (1907-1958) in what is now called the Vintage division; boats built between 1958-1966 primarily for Cup competition and now sailed in the Traditional division; a Modern fleet featuring skeg-mounted rudders and boats built from 1967 to 1983; and a Grand Prix division for boats built up until 1987 and including winged keels, as pioneered by the famed Australian Cup winner Australia II in 1983.