Classic '12s' still have power to impress

On the Outdoors

November 03, 1996|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Thirty years of history crossed tacks on the Chesapeake Bay off Annapolis on Friday morning as Weatherly and American Eagle sailed toward the first windward mark through a thin, cold rain.

Winches spun, fittings groaned and a running backstay fell into a tensioned, rhythmic hum as American Eagle cut the water before a 10-knot breeze.

The two 12-meter racing boats that sailed in the America's Cup trials in the 1960s were concluding a 12-day stay in Annapolis, during which businesses and individuals paid $250 per person for a day of match racing.

It was a day of setting sails, grinding two-man winches, calling tacks and helming boats that once were the cat's meow in the world of sailboat racing.

"I've never sailed one of these, but I loved to watch them race," said Tyler Abell, chief of protocol during the Kennedy administration. "I don't know why the America's Cup ever got away from sailing in the twelves, because these really are special boats."

Abell, an active sailor on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, had the wheel through most of the first race Friday, and even though American Eagle was making more than 7 knots at times against a strong tide, Weatherly won easily.

In 1962, Weatherly won the America's Cup against Gretel, an Australian challenger that might have been the fastest boat in Newport, R.I., during that Cup summer.

And with Abell at the wheel, sitting toward the leeward rail, eyes on the rim of the jib and a light grip on the wheel, one could almost imagine being aboard as 60,000 pounds of mahogany and oak charged through the Atlantic off Brenton Reef Tower xTC more than three decades ago.

Even now, American Eagle, owned and operated by Herb Marshall of Newport, is a formidable competitor -- and a thunderous boat to sail.

Ted Lepich, who lives in Annapolis and races J/35s, sat along the windward rail as racing partner Ken Kessel sailed American Eagle upwind in the second race of the day.

"This is the first full-keeled boat I have raced on," Lepich said, as Kessel tried to solve the mysteries of making a boat older than himself speed to windward. "The 35s are almost dinghies by comparison. This, this is 68 feet of power."

During the Annapolis stay, the end of a seven-month tour of day charters, the Weatherly-American Eagle team raised nearly $10,000 for the John Gardner School of Boatbuilding in Eastport.

Marshall has owned American Eagle since 1987, and in its years since winning 20 of 21 races during the 1964 defender trials, the racer has had a storied career.

Ted Turner, who won the America's Cup trophy in 1977, made American Eagle into an ocean racer in 1968 and piled up victories and records, including standout performances in the Sydney-Hobart Race, Annapolis to Newport, the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit and England's Fastnet Race, in which American Eagle held the record for a number of years.

Noted ocean racer Warren Brown later bought the boat, re-named it War Baby and continued to win major events before an Annapolis syndicate bought the boat and raced it on the Chesapeake for a number of years.

Marshall acquired the boat from a Canadian who bought it and then decided not to pay an import duty that was based on replacement cost rather than market value.

"I wanted to get back in the charter business," said Marshall, who owns a boatyard and has run both fishing and sailing charters through the years. "I thought this boat would work well for both day trips and the occasional overnight charter, because unlike Weatherly, there are reasonable accommodations below."

While both boats retain the coffee grinder winches and basic deck layouts of their Cup days, when American Eagle was transformed into an ocean racer the interior was fitted out and a small doghouse added ahead of the cockpit. The accommodations are not what one might expect aboard a 68-footer, but then again, this is no cruising boat.

"This can be a wet boat to sail," said Gus Souza, who crews for Marshall. "But it goes in anything, and well, you're sailing a piece of history, which makes it even better."

Marshall and George Hill, owner of Weatherly, plan to return to Annapolis next fall for another series of chartered match races.

Maggie Vale of the Gardner school, who handled bookings for this first series, said businesses already are expressing interest in next year's series.

"They want to do it to build on the team concept," said Vale, who booked 14 groups this year. "Companies can do golf outings in exotic places, but this costs less -- and once you are on board you have no choice but to work together."

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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