A head-standing genius
He was an odd, multifaceted genius, whose designing brilliance he inherited from his father (designer of three America's Cup defenders in the 1880s) along with the family habit of somersaulting in exultation, or standing on his head—a position from which he often, and at considerable length, quoted from the poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne. He was a flamboyant dresser, sported a giant drooping mustache like Robert Louis Stevenson's, and arrived in the boatyards in a stripped-down Lancia, with a trained seal sitting up next to him in the front seat. While he worked, the seal sported in the harbor around the hulls of Burgess' remarkable creations: the great J boats. Into the lines of these yachts, more than 80 feet on the waterline, up to 135 feet over-all, with masts that towered as high as a 14-story building, went Burgess' modern theories of aircraft engineering and aerodynamics—a "mechanical invasion" decried by the traditionalists, but which culminated in the famous Ranger. The "ultimate conception" she was called, so fast her speed might be matched but never surpassed.
The great professional
Recurrent in Sir Thomas Lipton's troubled dreams of cup contests was the nightmare figure of Captain Charles Barr—a laconic Scotsman with a slight, calm voice who signaled his crews into action with spare hand motions—directing crews that numbered over 50 men, some of them stationed 100 feet forward of the steering post on the immense defenders, a few of them, the mastheaders, as much as 80 feet aloft. They were molded into teams of such remarkable efficiency that yachts captained by Charlie Barr were considered nearly unbeatable. He successfully defended the cup three times, and in 1905, in the schooner Atlantic set a record for transatlantic crossings for sailing vessels which still stands after 53 years—12 days, four hours, and one minute. Even his death was attributed to speed: a hidden reef, so the story goes, once stopped the onward rush of a yacht he was commanding so suddenly that Charlie Barr was slammed up against the spoked wheel and suffered internal injuries, which ultimately closed out the legendary career of the greatest and last of the professional skippers.
CHARLES F. ADAMS
The great amateur
He was the first amateur skipper of a defender, as neat and tailored ashore as befits a director of 50 corporations, treasurer of Harvard College and Secretary of the Navy in Herbert Hoover's cabinet. But on the water Charles Francis Adams appeared in soiled and tattered duck trousers, a nondescript sweater and a battered canvas sailor's hat with the brim tugged down to his cheekbones. "The Deacon" they called him, because of his abstemious habits—he never drank a drop of liquor in his life—but his sulphurous deep-sea cussing was famous all along the New England coast. He sailed in any craft he could get into. The first time Lipton saw him, Adams was racing in a dinghy. At the starting gun he caught his mainsheet on a marker buoy and in a confused tangle revolved tightly around the buoy like a dog chasing his tail. Unhappily for Lipton, the error was no indication of Adams' ability. He sailed all yachts, regardless of size, with equal skill—slave of a passion for racing, and an indefatigable love of the sea so consuming that on occasion his friends would remark they were surprised he ever came ashore at all.
The grand old man
Although it was an inherent part of the drama and tradition of the America's Cup that the competing yachts were the largest ever to engage in a series of match races, most of the skippers commanding them were trained in the dories and dinghies of their youth. Harold S. Vanderbilt was one notable exception. Though he started in a 14-footer at the age of 11, afterward he raced almost exclusively in large boats. Bouncing around like a cork in a Snipe or a Comet, while it appealed to Charles Francis Adams, was not Vanderbilt's idea of sailing. He missed the feel of the sense of power present in large boats. In 1937, in a widely publicized event, Vanderbilt and four other J boat skippers stepped gingerly into little Brutal Beast 12-footers to compete for a trophy donated by Arthur Knapp Jr., then a member of Ranger's afterguard, one of the best small-boat sailors in the country and today skipper of the 12-meter Weatherly. The two races sailed were both won by T.O.M. Sopwith, the English challenger who was never that summer to have the satisfaction of leading Vanderbilt across the finish line in a J boat. In both events Vanderbilt finished last.
Victory in these small craft did not come easily to a yachtsman who only three years out of college won the 1910 race to Bermuda in a 53-foot Herreshoff schooner, Vagrant, and in 1913 while still in his 20s was sailing another Vagrant—which was 80 feet on the waterline. In such yachts Vanderbilt was almost unbeatable. Generally recognized as the finest large-boat skipper who has ever lived, he is in many ways a composite of the outstanding men who preceded him in the history of the America's Cup.
As a skipper he equaled Charlie Barr's record of three successful defenses of the cup and, aboard the defenders Enterprise (1930), Rainbow (1934) and Ranger (1937), he commanded his crews with the same firmness and brilliance, coupled with a voice of command that, though rarely interspersed with Charles Francis Adams' deep-sea oaths, could cut through a gale of wind. Much like Adams, Vanderbilt's competitive spirit was a consuming passion—in marked contrast to the professional skipper aboard Shamrock V, his first opponent, a man who admitted he raced solely to earn his salary from Sir Thomas Lipton, his true passion being neither the sea nor racing, but the standing of the soccer teams in Britain's Football Association.
By nature, Vanderbilt is shy, with as little liking for the tumult of public acclaim as Captain Nat Herreshoff; yet as a designer and experimenter he was a perfect partner to the bizarre extravert genius of Starling Burgess—appreciative of the technological developments that would make such J boats as Ranger invincible.
Last spring Vanderbilt, now in his early 70s, was honored at a testimonial dinner given him by the New York Yacht Club in its enormous Model Room, whose walls are almost hidden behind the wooden hull models of famous yachts—among them, of course, all those associated with the America's Cup. After the dinner Vanderbilt gave a lecture illustrated with slides showing the giant J boats in action. The last slide he showed was his favorite: the famous Morris Rosenfeld photograph of five J boats running before the wind in 1937—Ranger, Rainbow, Endeavor I, Endeavour II, Yankee. Vanderbilt's Ranger is far in the lead, flying the largest sail ever made, an 18,000-foot parachute spinnaker which bellied so far out over the bow that a temporary bowsprit was set up to catch it and keep it out from under the boat if it ever collapsed.
Vanderbilt remarked that it was unfortunate that these beautiful yachts "were sailing to a destiny which turned out to be the scrap heap." Not one of them exists today. A few spreaders and spars remain to decorate the walls of New England taverns. To build another would cost an astronomical sum, more than $1 million. But Vanderbilt has always believed that "size and importance are brothers," and up until last year he hoped the British would challenge with a J boat. He felt so strongly that any diminution in size of competing yachts would demean the historical value of the trophy that he might have financed, had the British so challenged, the construction of an American J class defender.
Now he has changed his mind. In his final remark to the members of the New York Yacht Club he indicated his delight that the America's Cup would once more be raced for by "smaller, but no less worthy contenders." This summer, as a member of the America's Cup committee that will select a defender, he has been watching the trials off Newport from the deck of his motor sailer Versatile. As the trials have progressed, he has become absorbed, until he now seems as involved in the cup defense as when he was at the wheel of Ranger. His motor sailer, flying the cup committee pennant, is immediately recognizable in the spectator fleet, not only for the way she dogs the heels of the 12-meter contenders so that Vanderbilt can keep a close eye on them, but also because he keeps her under sail—purportedly to steady the yacht in rough weather but more likely because he is at home with canvas aloft.