Born to Be Wild: Donald Tofias, the Man Behind the W-Class

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Article Courtesy of Classic Boat Magazine

Where did the term Spirit of Tradition come from? From behind dark glasses, Donald Tofias shrugs. “It was me, it was Kenny Coombs—we came up with the idea for having the first Spirit of Tradition class at the Antigua Classics. But the real credit belongs with Jill Bobrow, who wrote a book called In the Spirit of Tradition in the 1990s, about boats that weren’t really classics. She came up with those words.”

“That was a pivotal time, the mid-nineties,” reflects Tofias. “That was just before I conceived the W-Class.”

We’re sitting under the blue skies at a table outside Belle’s Cafe overlooking Newport Shipyard. Tofias has bought us breakfast—with extra fried tomatoes and mushrooms because we’re English—and is holding court in a way that only Tofias can.
Our host is a former commercial real estate mogul who grew up in suburban Boston, sailing from a young age and spending summers on Cape Cod. In 1989, he restored Concordia yawl hull number 29, and then the 1931, 50 ft. (15.24m) W. Starling Burgess cutter Arawak (formerly Christmas), but his great achievement has been the W-Class, a range of Spirit of Tradition yachts and dayboats that, since its inception 19 years ago, has been crewed almost entirely by young people. The W-Class has become an official apprenticeship for those entering the yachting industry, with hundreds of people passing through its ranks, many of them now mates or skippers on big boats—one skippers a J-Class yacht.

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Today everyone knows Tofias and he knows everyone. He knows the chefs in Belle’s Cafe, he knows the owner of the shipyard, he knows the Antiguan guy varnishing a boat across the marina. Tofias is not unremarkable company, dressed in colorful wardrobe with a skull pendant around his neck, and the day passes with an entertaining drawl of anecdotes ranging from the sage to the outrageous. At Belle’s Cafe it doesn’t take long for Tofias’ laconic narrative to attract the attention of our neighbors.

“It was the mid-90s, I got a call from [J-Class restorer] Elizabeth Meyer. She said ‘Tofias come pick me up’. She knew I was looking for another project after Christmas. We drive to New London, Connecticut, where downtown there’s a big boat on the hard with a huge green cover over it. We climb down into the hull. With the right medieval music it would have been like walking into a cathedral. Just ribs tenderly holding the two sides of the hull together. The boat was so dried out you could see through the planks, which only made it more eerie. It was a religious experience for me. I decided I had to have this boat.”

The boat was Spartan, the last of the New York 50s, designed and built by Nathanael Herreshoff. She was eventually rebuilt, after a wrangle over title rights, for other owners and now competes in the Med. Tofias’ plans had included modernizing the keel and putting on a fractional carbon rig to make her a Spirit of Tradition racer/cruiser, something he had done with some success on Christmas. “I probably would have been incarcerated for it,” says Tofias.

>But the idea for a modern classic stuck. “Then one night I really had a vision, a dream,” he continues. “Someone said to me, some extra-terrestrial being said: ‘You should recreate the NY50’. I said: ‘That’s a great idea’.”

He took the modern NY50 idea to naval architect Joel White in Brooklin, Maine. Tofias wanted to create a new class, building 20 boats over the next decade, four a year. They’d be cold-molded wood, fin and bulb keel, spade rudder, carbon rig, proper sheerline, and classic overhangs. White designed a boat in less than two weeks and things were on track, but then tragedy struck. White was diagnosed with lung cancer.

In an oft-quoted exchange, Tofias asked White if he wanted to postpone the project while he received treatment, to which White replied: “Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away from this.”

In late June 1997, at a dinner during the Mystic Seaport WoodenBoat Show, Tofias announced the project publicly.

“One of the most emotional moments in my whole life was being on stage and watching Joel get a standing ovation. The design was an assemblage of all the things he had learned, big boats, small boats, you name it, this was the ultimate design and he did it in just two weeks.”

Tofias turns his head to look across the marina, “And it is the boat over there, Wild Horses. Her 18th birthday was last Saturday.”

She launched in June 1988, six months after White’s death, and three months later was joined by sister ship White Wings. The W-Class, named after White, was in action. The four-boats-a-year idea never happened, but over the next 14 years, Tofias campaigned Wild Horses and White Wings up and down the US east coast, in the Caribbean (regular winners in what was then a new Spirit of Tradition class at the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta), in the Med, at Cowes for the 2001 America’s Cup Jubilee, all the time crewed by young people. He estimates the two W76 yachts raced about 600 times together, giving countless youngsters a taste of big-boat match racing and a season or more aboard. “I’m incredibly proud of that part of our program,” he says.

Later in the day, we’re sailing with Tofias and W-Class skipper Nat Wilson aboard Race Horse, the 37-footer in the W range, designed by Stephens Waring & White and built five years ago in Maine.

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Amid an entertaining guided tour of Newport Harbor, Tofias considers how the Spirit of Tradition scene has changed since the early days. “It’s part of yachting in general, not just the classic scene. Europe is ahead of us but it’s big business here in America, too. The average customer is probably someone who hasn’t owned a vintage boat, who wants something that looks great but he doesn’t want to put up with the idiosyncrasies of a wooden boat.

“It’s fine to rebuild an old Herreshoff or Fife, but it’s work for life. With cold-molding, you’ve got a hull that will last 100 years. It’s not going to rot, the maintenance is significantly less. People say ‘look at all the varnishing you have to do’. If you want to look at white plastic all the way from Newport to Bermuda, knock yourself out. That’s not for me.”

“I love the smell of fresh varnish in the morning!” says Tofias with delight, deliberately misappropri- ating the famous line from Apocalypse Now. As we tie up in the marina, Tofias bids us farewell.

“I’m over-scheduled,” he says as he prepares to leave for the WoodenBoat Show at Mystic, where he is exhibiting the W-22 Colt, half of a matched pair that enables the young crew of Wild Horses to match race against each other. “I’m going to clone myself, so I can sail on more than one boat and do more than three things at the same time. You can quote me on that.”

And with that, Donald Tofias leaves the building. ◊

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