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Remembering the international 50 foot class

The International 50-Foot Class saw some of the most competitive racing ever in the IOR era, through the class association's own "World Cup" circuit raced in several venues each season. The development of the International 50-Foot Yacht Association ("IFYA") arose as a result of those owners who wanted to race their yachts on a near level-rating basis, similar to that enjoyed in the smaller Ton classes, and the larger Maxis. The IFYA established a rating band of 39.0 to 41.0 feet IOR, for boats known as 50-footers for their approximate overall length.

The IFYA demanded (and received) a separate class at grand prix events and began holding its own regattas, all the while attracting world class sailors and producing extremely close action. The Fifties didn’t reach their pre-eminence in the grand prix scene overnight, although there had been some interest in IOR yachts of this size in preceding year. The first of the type, primarily German Frers designs such as Bravura, Morning Star and Retaliation, appeared at the SORC in the early 1980s. By 1984 there were seven 39.0-41.0ft raters in the dozen boats that made up Class B. But it took three more years for the Fifties to achieve their own class at the SORC (with 11 boats in 1987).

Elsewhere, the 50-footers were a mainstay of US efforts in events such as the Clipper Cup in the early 1980s (with success by the crack Peterson-design Checkmate and the Frers Tomahawk), and enjoyed competitive racing in Class B in the SORC.

The first apparent effort to scale up from some of the successful One Ton yachts of the mid-1980s was the Farr design Great Expectations (#155), which was also oriented towards the Clipper Cup as well as the Southern Cross Cup, but incorporated some cruising amenities (Great Expectations later became Yeoman XXVII, and was an unsuccessful contender for the British Admiral's Cup team in 1989).

The Davidson 50 Great Fun also signaled the potential of the big fractional rig approach, with an impressive performance in the 1982 Clipper Cup where she finished first in Class B, and formed part of the winning US "Blue" team.

In Europe, the Fifties were the "big boat" of any Admiral's Cup event, being at the maximum limit of the 30.0-40.0ft rating band for this series. Although teams had occasionally included a 50-footer, they usually struggled to save their time against their smaller rivals. This was particularly apparent in the 1985 and 1987 Admiral's Cup, when teams that were comprised of at least two One Tonners were almost essential to be competitive. The Fifties were also a more expensive option for most teams.

The IFYA was formed in early 1986, co-founded by Swedish yachtsman Wictor Forss (of Carat fame) and by 1988 had 20 members. Its first annual meeting in January 1987, in St Petersburg, Florida, was followed by its first North American Championship (at the same location). This set the precedent for future events, with tight round-the-buoys racing. Regattas-within-races and a Fifties Great Lakes Championship followed. A World Cup series was established, based on the results of six regattas during each season.

When the officials for the 1988 SORC refused to change the format and length of that series at the request of the Fifties owners and others, the IFYA and the Maxi yacht association announced a boycott. So influential had their respective associations become, that this boycott decimated the IOR entry list, diminished the world class status of the SORC, and forced the organisers to open the regatta to yachts racing under PHRF handicaps.

Like any grand prix racing of that era (and as remains the case), Fifties racing was not for the faint hearted, nor for the slim of wallet. To design, build and equip a custom Fifty would typically cost US$500-700,000 in 1988 dollars, but the attraction was obvious for those that could afford it, and filled a gap for those owners too old for an uncomfortable One Tonner, but not rich enough for the Maxi scene.

Eleven Fifties assembled for the 1988 Key West Race Week, and although four of those were from Europe, the Fifties were initially an American phenomenon. The Fifties had tended to mirror US conservatism toward IOR racing and design. In practice, owners eschewed sponsors’ names on their boats, yet packed their crews with professionals, continuing the US contradiction of being anti-commercial but "pro the pros". In design, the early Fifties were conservative - slower to shed the high-freeboard, moderate displacement hull types and masthead rigs than the smaller IOR classes, with something of a “mini-Maxi” appearance (see Infinity profile to the left).

The first generation of yachts included an evolution of these conservative designs, such as the Frers 1982-vintage Tomahawk (ex-Margaret Rintoul), owned by Californian John Arens, through to the 1983-84 Frers designs Nitissima (George Uznis from Detroit), Morning Star, and Springbok (John Ambrose and David Rosow, both from Long Island Sound), to two Great Lakes boats, Rich DeVos’s Windquest and Jerome Schostak’s Fujimo.

A second generation emerged in late 1986 and early 1987 as more designers entered the Fifties fray, and four-spreader and fractional rigs became more common, and hull shapes were varied and displacements lightened. The Nelson/Marek design duo began the new generation, with Lemak’s Abracadabra and John Thomson’s Infinity, both launched in 1987. Abracadabra was 5,000 pounds lighter than the average Frers 50 (at 25,000 pounds versus 30,000). Within months of her launching, Infinity was lightened further, with a new thinner, lighter keel, the removal of 1,000 pounds of ballast, and the addition of more mainsail area.

Other variations included the Joubert/Nivelt Leading Edge (Eugene Mondry), a narrow Fifty with a plumb bow and lighter displacement of 23,000 pounds. She carried an unusual masthead rig – which featured unusual fractional proportions with a small J measurement and a large, low-aspect mainsail. George de Guardiola commissioned a new Locura by designer Mark Soverel (replacing his earlier 43 footer), with a relatively small hull and large 15/16th rig. Swedish yacht Royal Blue was the lightest of all the newcomers, designed by Philippe Briand and owned by eight Swedes who had formerly campaigned a Frers 51 Bla Carat (which sailed for Sweden in the 1983 Admiral's Cup alongside Forss' Carat, with disappointing results).

Unsurprisingly, the increasing attention from top designers led to the beginning of an arms race. There was hardly a pre-1987 boat that didn’t receive a keel or rudder replacement or other modification. The record was held by Windquest, which had three keels by early 1988. Many, such as the “mini-Fifty” Gem (ex-Brooke Ann, a Nelson/Marek 49) had been given lighter four-spreader rigs.

The early pace-setters in the emerging class were Fujimo and Infinity, seen as transitional boats that fell somewhere between the two design generations. Fujimo won her class in the 1986 SORC, finished third in the 1987 SORC, and won the Great Lakes Championship. Infinity was second at the 1987 North Americans, won the 1987 SORC, and was third in the Great Lakes series.

At the 1988 Key West series, Infinity showed the benefit of her new, lighter configuration and won the Fifties class, while Fujimo faltered, suffering from mistakes – she withdrew from one race after clipping Infinity’s stern aerials, and was over the line in the last race. She tied for third place overall with Locura, both finishing behind Royal Blue, which was also the winner of that year's Big Boat Series.

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