Briggs Cunningham – 12-metre class sailing

(For more photos, please visit our “Cunningham Sailing” album on SmugMug.)

12-metre class sailing
Photo Courtesy of Charter Financial Management and George Ross

The following article is from

Columbia – US 16

First 12-Meter America’s Cup Winner! In 1958 a new class of sailboats, the 12 Meter class, was introduced as the racing class of the America’s Cup. Off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island sleek and fast, Columbia (12 Meter US-16) stunned its competition with a sweeping win of the first 12 Meter America’s Cup, proving that 12 Meters were justifiable competitors in the coveted America’s Cup!

Commodore Henry Sears and Briggs Cunningham, along with other financial investors, formed one of the New York Yacht Club’s syndicates for the 1958 America’s Cup and commissioned Columbia to be their racer. They hired Olin Stephens of Sparkman & Stephens to design Columbia and she was to be built at the well known Nevins Boatyard in New York. Her design was based on the successful, pre-war 12 Meter, Vim (12 Meter US 15). Although 19 years old at the time, Harold Vanderbilt’s Vim was, up until then, the fastest 12 Meter sailing, and provided the foundation for Sparkman and Stephen’s winning design for Columbia.

Columbia began her path to America’s Cup victory with hard fought preliminary races off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island. The America’s Cup defense trials during 1958 were probably the most exciting ever held. Columbia was one of four American boats competing to defend the America’s Cup. The others, Weatherly (12 Meter US-17), Easterner (12 Meter US-18) and Vim (12 Meter US-15), like Columbia, were also very fast boats and had excellent crew. Columbia was skippered by Briggs Cunningham and had a crew that included the finest sailors in the United States including Olin and Rod Stephens, Harry Sears, Colin Ratsey, Wallace Tobin, and Halsey Herreshoff.

The preliminary America’s Cup defense trial series started on July 12, 1958 of the coast of Newport, RI. Easterner and Weatherly were the first to be eliminated in the America’s Cup trials which left the two Sparkman and Stephens designed boats, Vim and Columbia. In the end 19 year old Vim was unable to defeat the newer and faster Columbia who won the series by only twelve seconds in the final race.

The challenger for the 1958 America’s Cup finals was the Royal Yacht Squadron’s Sceptre (12 Meter K-17). Sceptre, the first of two twelve meters designed by David Boyd, had trained extensively on The Solent and won the America’s Cup trials to be the first 12 Meter challenger of the America’s Cup. Sceptre was shipped to the United States and began racing in Newport, RI on September 20, 1958.

In Newport, RI’s 1958 America’s Cup finals it was immediately obvious that Sceptre was no match for Columbia. Columbia, prepared by her hard-fought trials victory, never once trailed Sceptre and won four straight races by margins ranging from 7 to 12 minutes sweeping the first 12 Meter America’s Cup and making her the first 12 Meter to win the America’s Cup.

Columbia has had a very successful career since winning the America’s Cup. She was a contender thru the 1962 America’s Cup and continued to win races for various private owners while in Europe. After a French ownership, Columbia was brought back to Newport, RI in 1997. She has been restored to her winning lines and features a beautiful teak deck and a gracious, comfortable interior including plush cabins, roomy salon, full heads, and ample galley.

Under the direction of her experienced captain, Kevin Hegarty, and crew she is meticulously maintained and has never looked more beautiful! She continues to be a force to be reckoned with as she regularly competes in New England sailing regattas. In 2010, she again dominated the 12 Meter racing circuit. Team Columbia won their class in New York Yacht Club’s Annual Regatta in Newport, the Top Gun Regatta in Newport, the Edgartown Race Week in Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket Race Week and the Opera House Cup in Nantucket and the Classic Yacht Regatta in Newport. For the sixth time she won the Ted Hood Perpetual Trophy for the best Classic 12 Meter racing season performance.

12 Meter Charters proudly offers the incomparable America’s Cup winner, Columbia, for charter. Fast, sleek, and beautiful Columbia offers enjoyment to all her guests for racing or pleasure sailing! Come sail on the legendary first 12 Meter America’s Cup winner, Columbia, as she continues her winning ways!

Please contact 12 Meter Charters for more information about chartering Columbia.

Article excerpts from – New York Times, July 5, 2003

“Briggs was like a fine violinist with boats,” said Victor Romagna, who sailed with Cunningham in the competition. “He would need someone to do the tuning, as one might with a Stradivarius, but afterwards, we would hand the boat back to Briggs. Then he would play the instrument absolutely perfectly.”

Cunningham was born Jan. 19, 1907, in Cincinnati. His family helped finance railways, telecommunications, meat-packing and commercial real estate, and his father was the chief financier of two young men who had developed a bath soap that floated. Their names were William Cooper Procter and James Norris Gamble.

Cunningham spent his summers in the Northeast and learned to sail by the time he was 6. His family moved to Southport, Conn., when he was a teenager. At age 17, Cunningham joined the Star Class racing fleet at the Pequot Yacht Club in Southport. The venture was the beginning of his 30 years of sailboat racing on Long Island Sound.

As a member of the New York Yacht Club, he continued to sail the Columbia in club races through the 1960′s. He also developed the Cunningham, a common device on sailboats that adjusts sail tension.

In 1993, he was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame at the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, R.I.

The following is an excerpt from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

He skippered the first victorious 12-Metre yacht Columbia in the 1958 America’s Cup race, and invented the eponymous device, the Cunningham, to increase the speed of racing sailboats.

The following excerpts are from The Telegraph July 5, 2003 article.

Cunningham’s passion for quality cars and engineering was matched by his interest in sailing and yacht racing. In 1958 he skippered the American 12-metre yacht Columbia to demolish the British challenger, Sceptre, in the America’s Cup. His first wife Lucie recalled how, during practice, the Vanderbilt launch drew alongside Columbia. On board the launch were the New York Yacht Club’s former president Harold Vanderbilt and his formidable wife Gertrude: “She picked up a megaphone and called, “Mrs. Cunningham, will you please see that your crew is properly attired!” Shorts, in 1958, were not acceptable.

The following article is by – Rob Robinson (2015).

He raced with Olin Stephens and Harold Vanderbilt in the 1939 racing season in the Solent (England) against Sir Thomas Sopwith, on the the first breakthrough 12 metre yacht VIM. Briggs’ father-in-law presented him with a new 12 metre yacht as a wedding gift! In 1958, he successfully defended the Americas Cup against the first English Challenger in 12 metres. His support and involvement in other defenses in years to come was also very important.

In many ways his yachting achievements in metres yachts (6 and 12) were more than enough to make him one of the world’s great true amateur sportsman almost more so that his magnificent motor sport achievements!

For more photos of Briggs Cunningham – Sailing, please go to Cunningham on SmugMug, click on the SmugMug link, then click on “Sailing”.

bridge at twilight


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