But perhaps the answer rests, not with Weatherly, but with Columbia. Before Columbia ever slid down the ways, she was thought of by many as the certain defender. She was the traditional New York Yacht Club Syndicate boat, and therefore would be favored by the cup committee; she was designed by Olin Stephens, who had had a hand in Ranger and had wholly produced Vim; she was to include in crew not only Olin but his brother Rod, the unchallenged authority on rigging and considered without peer on the foredeck; she would be sailed by Briggs Cunningham, an outstanding helmsman...the list went on indefinitely. Columbia appeared to have everything—yet Columbia did not seem to go.
She was a marvelously efficient machine, all body and muscle and brain, but somehow lacking the essential and vital quality that would make her tick. Clearly, coming into the Final Trials, she would have to improve greatly to earn selection.
From the moment the starting gun sounded on Labor Day, it was apparent she was a different boat. Against her, Weatherly was helpless. What had brought about the transformation? Before the season started Olin Stephens had said it would be putting together "little things" that might produce a great boat. Certainly no organization strove harder than Columbia's to perfect each detail. And the final little thing added was heart—a heart that almost stopped beating two years ago.
At the helm for the start of that decisive race was Cornelius Shields Sr. In 1956 the 63-year-old stockbroker-yachtsman was told he would never be able to race again after an almost-fatal heart attack at the helm of a dinghy. Until this spring Corny obeyed instructions, but when his son "Glit"—Cornelius Jr.—was selected as part of Columbia's crew, he became interested and agreed to act as advisor. Tentatively, he began sailing the 12-meter trial horse Nereus in practice sessions, always checking with his doctors. During the later Observation Trials he was lured into the cockpit of Columbia in an effort to improve her starts, but still in a physically inactive role. Then, finally, for the opening gun of the Final Trials, Columbia's last chance to prove herself, he took the helm, and the boat came alive, his presence—and heart—the synthesizing agent welding all the little things into a magnificent whole. In a very real sense, he is a sportsman risking his life—but with the concurrence of his doctors—for the thing he loves best.
At the end of the first windward leg, Corny Shields turned over the helm to Briggs Cunningham. He, too, has profited by the arrangement; after 10 years of concentrating on sports car racing, his timing and reflexes on the starting line had understandably adjusted to an entirely different set of speeds and conditions. With Corny starting and generally relinquishing the helm with clear wind and a lead, Briggs could concentrate solely on making the boat go—he makes her go magnificently. Rod Stephens summed it up after the Labor Day race: "Now the boys feel we can go out and beat anybody."
Yet—as last Monday's race again proved—it is not quite so simple as that. Vim is still fighting, still a superb racing machine, one which takes a lot of beating. On their first encounter of the Final Trials, on Thursday, after the field had narrowed to two and the chips were clearly down, Columbia treated Vim nearly as badly as she had Weatherly the day before. With her wind free at the start, Columbia walked out in the fresh souwester, looking like the epitome of power as she sliced into a short, steep sea, not rising or plunging but driving through, water hissing past her rail in a smoking cataract. At the windward mark, Columbia led by an astonishing one minute 53 seconds, and on each of the remaining three legs—twice to leeward and once more to windward—increased the gap of water between, to emerge victor by four minutes. After the finish, it looked as though the vitalized Columbia was invincible and further races would be mere formalities prior to naming her the defender.
The next day, in a slightly lighter breeze, Bus Mosbacher at the helm put Vim on Columbia's stern a few minutes before the start and, twist and turn as he might, Corny was not able to escape. Brilliantly the younger man in the older boat rode herd on the older man in the newer boat and crossed the line with Columbia dead in Vim's backwind. Because of the effectiveness of the "wind shadow" cast by the tall rigs of the 12s, it is almost impossible to break through the cone of disturbed air in a light or moderate breeze. So Columbia was in effect shackled to her rival, boxed in, unable to go faster even if she was capable of doing so, like one car behind another on a narrow road.
On Sunday, after Saturday's contest had been called off because of fog, Columbia again won decisively, getting her wind clear at the start and once more walking out to weather at an astonishing rate. As the spectator fleet streamed back to Newport, there was almost universal agreement that after the meeting of the cup committee, Columbia would be formally named the defender. Instead, the only word from Versatile was that the morrow's race would be triangular. Rumor flew that Harold Vanderbilt had persuaded fellow committee members to give Vim another chance, his sentimental attachment to his old boat having long been no secret.
Monday was conceded an "or else" day for Vim, and again helmsman and crew rose superbly to the occasion. Before the preparatory signal, Bus Mosbacher once again got on the stern of Columbia, and through perfect timing, exquisite touch on the helm and a chess player's application of tactics controlled every movement of both boats. At the start, Columbia was in a hopeless position, backwinded, beaten as the gun fired. Her efforts to break through in a prolonged tacking duel furnished the spectator fleet with the most exciting moments of the summer, but Vim covered every move.