St. Maarten’s 12 metre Challenge. It’s the 1987 America’s Cup over and over again…
Tired old racehorses are put out to pasture. Over-the-hill greyhounds become family pets. And retired 12-metre racing yachts? For five veterans of the extended 1987 America’s Cup campaign, the Golden Years are spent forever rerunning that famous series of races in the warm waters off St Maartens in the Caribbean Sea.
Now that America’s Cup has switched to the International America's Cup Class size, the 12-metre has begun to fall out of favour with competitive racers. Although not dead yet (there still a few key 12-metre races being held) in terms of the Big Show, the once mighty 12-metre class seems destined for marine museum collections.
But wait, in St Maartens, Canadian businessman Colin Percy has rescued five of the greatest 12 metre yachts ever sailed and brought them to the Dutch/French island of St Maarten. Three to four times a day visitors can now participate in a mini-America's Cup race in actual boats from the 1987 competition, including Canadian yacht designer Bruce Kirby’s Canada II and Steve Killing’s True North I 12 KC-87 and True North IV 12 KC-4.
For over a decade Colin Percy has been operating his 12-metre Challenge races out of the port city of Philipsburg St. Maarten. Headquartered beside a mammoth cruise ship dock which annually welcomes a million tourists, Mr. Percy has no trouble finding wanna-be sheet jockeys willing to pay up to $100 each to crew on the 12-metre boats and spend two hours racing a stripped down version of an America’s Cup race.
Most days the faux competition features two boats from the company’s stable of five yachts. For my race, (held on a day when 4 oversized cruise ships were in port), a “match race” was held with three boats – Canada II, and Dennis Connor’s Stars & Stripes US-55 and Stars and Stripes US-56.
“Star BORED “ complained one teenager as he sat in the Grinder pit waiting for the onboard humourous pre-race talk by the skipper and his three crew members to end. A burley chap wearing a Princess Cruise Line cap (who rate this as the number 1 attraction in the Caribbean) loudly explained to his winch-wench wife that the front of the boat is called the “curtsey”.
This was obviously not a crew who had much knowledge of anything nautical beyond the free rum (and beer, and wine coolers) rations. No matter, over the course of the race the 18 volunteers on each of the three yachts, hoisted the sails, ground the grinders, winched the winches, and screamed at each other across the opens seas as the trio of skippers tried to steal each others wind.
It was a noisy race, with the paying crew depended on the skipper to explain exactly when and why we were whooping it up! But, by the time the boats had completed the triangular shaped course most of the people on board had a clear understanding of how a 12-metre challenge is run and had some insight into strategies needed to win a high stakes race.
“ I was really happy when Colin Percy acquired both True North vessels,” said yacht designer Steve Killing. “True North I raced in Pacific Sea trials, but the other boat was never finished. You know the syndicate ran out of money and her unfinished hull was in East Coast yard for years.”
“They bought her, took her down to St Maartens and finished her. That is great! “ he explained. “They made some modifications, but basically it is the 12-Metre I designed. I haven’t been down yet to see them but I am glad they are still be raced today.”
The modifications that Mr. Killing referred to are minor. The St. Maarten outfit has a policy to maintain the boats in as original condition as possible. The only changes being those designed to improve guest safety, such as lifelines, raising the boom and roller furling systems.
True North never did race in America’s Cup. It was built as the first of two – its owner Don Green (the winner of Canada's Cup) wanted to build one boat from Mr. Killing’s plans and test it thoroughly. From the lessons learnt they would build a second boat incorporating those modifications considered key to improve the speed. Following this, both boats would be "maximized" by racing against each other, constantly improving. Unfortunately, due to over zealous spending in the early days the second boat -- the one designed to compete for the Cup – was never finished.
In preparing for America’s Cup, True North competed in California and lost to Canada II (now also part of the St Maarten fleet).
Canada II was the Western Canadian yacht designed by Bruce Kirby. She was originally built for the 1983 America's Cup and race under the name Canada I. For 1987 she underwent major alterations, in keeping with the Australia sea conditions. Renamed Canada II she was outfitted with a new bow, stern section, and a state-of-the-art winged keel.
Canada II was defeated by Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes '87 12 US-55. The winning vessel, along with Mr. Conner’s alternate boat Star & Stripes '86, 12 US-56 are now also in St. Maartens.
Quite often these days True North IV 12 KC-4 and Stars and Stripes ’87 face-off against each other in the race that should have been. Guess which boat has won the most races? Nobody knows.
“Due to the fact that we are open 364 days per year and we do up to 4 races per day with up to 2 pairs of 2 boats, we do not keep records of who wins each of our races,” explained Kim Van Loo with the St. Maarten 12 Metre Challenge. “ However, during the Heineken Regatta of ‘96 we invited Dennis Conner to helm his America's Cup winning Stars & Stripes, this developed into a match race between True North IV and Stars & Stripes over a period of 4 1/2 hours of racing during which the lead changed some 8 times.”
“Canada’s True North IV (the unfinished Killing boat) was driven by one of our own skippers,” she continued. “Skippy Hammond managed to pip Stars & Stripes at the post by 13 seconds. This raises the very big question... what if?”
Sidebar 1 - Just the facts
The dual nation island of St. Maartens and Saint Martin is in the Caribbean Sea, 150 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. It covers 37 square miles, with Dutch St. Maarten on the South spanning 16 square miles and French Saint Martin on the North covering 21 square miles.
As a part of the Netherlands Antilles and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, St.Maarten (population 41,000) boasts 77 different nationalities. Saint Martin (population 36,000) is a commune of Guadeloupe, an overseas territory of France. English is spoken everywhere, but Dutch is the official language of St.Maarten, and French the official language of Saint Martin.
Currently there is direct charter service to St. Maartens from Canada via Conquest Vacations (Toronto and Halifax). Scheduled American carriers with routing out of Canada include American Airlines, Delta, US Airways, Continental and Northwest.
Canadian citizens need only a valid passport and a return/continuing ticket to visit the island. No vaccination certificates are required. St. Maarten is the only completely duty-free port in the Caribbean.
For more information visit: www.st-maarten.com or call the St. Maarten Tourist Office in Toronto (416-622-4300).
By Stephen Weir
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