Challenge XII, for the second time in four years, has capitalized on its home-field advantage.
The 1982 yacht, owned and skippered by Jamestown resident Jack LeFort, won the world championship in the 12 Metre Modern division that was raced off Conanicut Island from Aug. 1-5. Flying the black KA-10 sail alongside the white spinnaker with the glaring gold “XII” logo, the sister ship of Australia II won five of nine races en route to the seven-point victory over Takashi Okura’s Freedom. LeFort’s team finished runner-up in the four other races.
“It’s fabulous. It’s really great.” he said. “The crew did an unbelievable job.”
After sailing in the parade Saturday around Newport Harbor amid cannon salutes to showcase the boats that ruled the America’s Cup from 1958-87, 10 historic 12 Metres moved to Rhode Island Sound for the finale. If Freedom were to win the final race, Challenge XII merely had to finish better than last to be crowned world champion. Columbia, co-owned by Kevin Hegarty and Anthony Chiurco, already had mathematically sewn up the series in the five-boat division that combined Vintage and Traditional yachts.
After waiting for two hours, a windward/leeward course was set for a 7-knot breeze, and Challenge XII handily sailed to victory as Freedom maintained its second-place podium position.
“Freedom has been unbelievably tough,” LeFort said. “Unbelievably sailed. Class organization. Class boat. It’s really wonderful to sail against them.”
Enterprise finished third followed by Courageous and Defender. The regatta, along with the finale on Rhode Island Sound, was raced offshore of Park Dock.
“Conditions were light, heavy, medium,” LeFort said. “We went up the bay, out on the ocean. It was just a great across-the-board test for the fleet.”
“Conditions were all over the place,” said Guy Sanchez, a representative for the Ida Lewis Yacht Club, which hosted the regatta. “The race committee adjusted to them and so did the teams.”
In the older division, Columbia was followed by Onawa, the oldest boat in the fleet, in second place. Co-owned by Jamestown resident Chris Culver, who served as captain, the 1928 yacht was presented with the Tiedemann Trophy, which is awarded to the best Vintage yacht. Columbia and Onawa were followed by American Eagle in third place, Weatherly and Nefertiti.
Racing started Aug. 1 with one race in light 8-9 knot breezes that gave Challenge XII and American Eagle the early leads.
“It’s always nice to get a bullet on the first day,” said LeFort, whose crew included his wife, Lisa, as navigator, and tactician Ken Read, a two-time U.S. Sailing yachtsman of the year. “Candidly, we’ve stayed away from Freedom and Enterprise and racing against them. So, we weren’t really sure. We didn’t want them to know much about us, and, consequently, we didn’t know a lot about them.”
Both teams fell to second place behind Freedom and Onawa, respectively, after two races on the second day in roughly the same wind speed as opening day. The next two days, however, featured winds ranging from 18 to 20 knots, which proved to be ideal for LeFort as the team won three of five races in the Modern division.
“This is Challenge XII weather,” LeFort said.
Columbia also took advantage of the breezier conditions by posting five bullets in five races over those two days of racing in the Traditional/Vintage division.
“It’s not about being the fastest boat,” said Hegarty. “Whoever performs the best, or messes up the least, is going to win. That’s why I love sailing 12 Meters. Everything is manual, and it takes muscle and teamwork. There is no other class like it.”
Both Challenge XII and Columbia, featuring mostly homegrown crews with experience sailing in Rhode Island, won the worlds in 2019 when it was last raced in Newport. According to Hegarty, becoming a two-time world champion did not compute with him until the middle of the night on Friday.
“I woke up and just had a big smile on my face,” Hegarty said.