SI Vault
Carleton Mitchell
May 12, 1958
In the first of his reports on the classic sailing contest which culminates off Newport in September, a noted yachtsman-author analyzes the men and the ships contending for the defense
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 12, 1958

Defenders Of The Cup

In the first of his reports on the classic sailing contest which culminates off Newport in September, a noted yachtsman-author analyzes the men and the ships contending for the defense

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

When the British 12-meter yacht Sceptre sails forth from Newport on September 20 for the 17th challenge of the America's Cup, she will meet in lone combat the sole survivor of four American candidates for the defense which awaited the starting gun for the first preliminary trial race held by the New York Yacht Club in mid-July. Between this first trial and September's ultimate, great effort, the pressures will have been as severe as any in the historic struggle for possession of the greatest single international trophy in sport. Three crews will have fallen by the watery wayside as the miles spin astern during the intervening weeks—weeks of hard work, constant experimenting, astronomically mounting costs, midnight strategy sessions and morning sail drills, race on top of race, tension building and hope an almost fanatical determination, after a century of successful American competition, "not to be the first to lose the cup" in the face of what appears to be the most scientifically planned and meticulously executed invasion by a cup challenger in history.

It must not be forgotten-that yacht races are basically tests of skill, preparation, stamina and courage among men. This will never be more true than this summer. Due to the rigid straitjacket of convention imposed on the designers by the provisions of the International Rule, it will probably be difficult from a distance for the spectator fleet to tell the competing vessels apart, except perhaps for hull color. Extremes in length have to be paid for by radical alterations of sail area, and such characteristics of appearance as freeboard, overhang, crown of deck and tumble home are matters carefully controlled. Even the dimensions of the table in the cabin below are specified.

But no rule governs the selection of the crews who will be aboard, or gives a hint of the motivation inspiring each owner or head of syndicate to undertake the organization, the expense and the potential heartaches and headaches likely to result from a bid for the honor of defending. Nor does the disembodied impression of beauty and serene grace of the yachts themselves convey the stress and strain of competitive reality. When you read in the morning paper a simple statement like "Weatherly tacked under the Point Judith shore," it can cover a multitude of mental and physical activities: an evaluation of the wind and tide, and the possibility of a favoring lift; an assessment of the tactical situation of the moment, and what is likely to evolve; a sudden sharp order, and the crew leaping to stations, and the helmsman bringing the boat through the wind in a precise pattern, and the sweaty application of brute force on the winches as the sails are sheeted home. The success of the maneuver will depend on split-second timing and teamwork as precise as the Oklahoma backfield—and on imagination and ability equally lively to that of the quarterback calling the signals.

Thus it is axiomatic among sailing men that skippers and crews are as important as the vessels, if not more so. Philip L. Rhodes, one of the competing designers, went so far recently as to say publicly: "Assuming no luck is involved in winning, the crew comes first, the sails next and the boat comes third and last." Between tank-tested hulls of similar dimensions, the difference in speed potential can only be a matter of a few seconds per mile. And as Harold Vanderbilt wrote in On the Wind's Highway, an account of the America's Cup preparations and races in 1934 and 1937 aboard Rainbow and Ranger: "Mistakes are made frequently in yacht races, and fortune generally smiles on the yacht which makes the fewest."

Yet somehow the incidents which make good alibis later on the club veranda don't happen to the best skipper and crew—not so often, anyway. Vanderbilt proved his thesis with Rainbow, which was selected as defender after a bitter series of trials in which it was generally acknowledged Yankee was the faster boat, and then went on to retain possession of the cup against T.O.M. Sopwith's Endeavour, even more superior in sheer ability to get through the water. In the first instance Rainbow came through principally because of sounder tactics and stronger gear; in the second, again through tactical superiority, plus far smarter teamwork on deck.

It is still too early to make any sweeping predictions about the yachts themselves. Improvement of the current 12s over Vim, considered the last word in 1939 and built to the identical rule which governs design today, is generally conceded to be a matter of refinement, of smoothing lines here and cutting weight there, and perhaps taking advantage of technological advances in other fields which can be applied to naval construction. Refinement has reached the point where Weatherly is using aluminum screws in her deck to save a few pounds over the traditional bronze—this in a vessel whose finished weight will not be far from 30 tons.

Despite the fact that Phil Rhodes, before a dinner of the Cruising Club in late March, also stated his belief that "the International Rule establishes virtually a one-design class"—and proved the degree of his conviction by the unprecedented gesture of projecting before a large audience construction details and even the lines of his creation—the possibility of a vessel of revolutionary speed like Ranger, the "super J boat," appearing is not to be entirely ruled out. His own may be such a boat. Another American designer of great skill and imagination, C. Raymond Hunt, is getting his first crack at the class. He produced the 5.5-meter Quixotic for the 1956 Olympic Games, and she was by far the fastest of the fleet assembled for the selection trials. She was also the hard-luck boat of the series. After being disqualified by a foul in one race, she came to the last needing only a ninth for over-all victory—and down tumbled her mainsail when a halyard fitting failed.

Olin Stephens, of the design firm of Sparkman and Stephens, sums it up by saying, "If enough little things could be put together, you might get a boat that would appear as outstanding as Ranger." By the "little things" he is thinking not only of the physical factors of hull, rig, sails and the minutiae of gear which together make a boat go, but also of the human element: an organizational ability to match Harold Vanderbilt's, as well as his meticulous attention to the perfection of every detail and evolution; matters like the afterguard of Ranger, selected solely in an effort to get the best possible man for each individual chore; the foredeck teamwork developed through constant and demanding practice; and a dedication to a boat and her mission which not all men can achieve. It would have been hard to defeat even a relatively slow boat having such a background and organization; concentrate it on a fast hull with everything below and aloft as nearly perfect as human ingenuity and hard work could make it, and you have a superboat. Thus it may be with a 12 in 1958.

Three are two principal requirements governing crews aboard vessels seeking to defend the cup. The total number is limited by a provision in the racing rules of the New York Yacht Club allowing one man to each 250 square feet of measured sail area or additional fraction thereof, plus three. Vim's present area of 1,916 feet, for instance, permits a working crew of 11, including skipper, navigator, afterguard and professionals. If she reduced sail area by 166 square feet, to 1,750 feet or below, she would be allowed only a crew of 10; by increasing it by 85 to 2,001 square feet or more, she could carry 12. However, sail area under the measurement rule is delicately balanced against water-line length, so even a minor change in one means an alteration, not necessarily desirable, in the other. Thus it can be almost certainly assumed that the crew aboard each boat will fall within the figures above: 10, 11 or 12.

In the old days professionals would have outnumbered amateurs. But modern yachting has become largely a matter of participation by the owner and his friends or family, and the paid hands in most cases have been relegated to the position of shipkeepers, responsible principally for maintenance and assistance in sail changes. While there is nothing in the rules which would prevent a professional from steering and acting as captain in fact as well as in the oft-heard courtesy title, it is a certain bet that all helmsmen and directors of tactics will be Corinthian—amateur—sailors. This year it is doubtful if any yacht will have more than three paid men aboard, and at least one plans even less.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4