Nine miles off Brenton Reef Lightship, out of sight over the horizon from Newport, to all intents and purposes in the open ocean, rides an orange-and-white buoy. Rising and falling in the swells which roll in from the trackless wastes of the North Atlantic, or sitting idly in a foggy calm, it has the air of lonely isolation common to all offshore aids to navigation.
Yet this is a special buoy, and during the past week—as it will be until some indefinite moment later in the month—it was neither lonely nor isolated. Each day about noon it became the focal point of a marine cavalcade streaming forth from the land, and each day on the firing of a gun began an unfolding drama of mounting tension. Like knights jousting in tournaments of old, tall sleek yachts circled and charged, thrust and parried, wholly intent on victory—and the right to defend the America's Cup. First they were four—Vim, Columbia, Weatherly and Easterner. Then they were two—Vim and Columbia. But only one could survive, to be pitted in turn against a new adversary, the Sceptre from over the sea.
As late as Monday night the committee had been unable to decide between Vim and Columbia as defender of the America's Cup. Statistically, they were tied at two victories each, but figures alone do not tell the story. Vim, the older boat, was holding a newer and undoubtedly faster boat through sheer nerve, skill and tactical superiority. Each day, her lead had to be established in a matter of seconds, where one mistake could be fatal, and then maintained throughout a course requiring hours to sail, without an error that would lose the advantage of those original seconds.
But it is hard to understand the final duel without knowing what went before. First, with an almost brutal abruptness, came the elimination of Easterner and Weatherly, two of the three 12-meter yachts built this year. After but three of 13 scheduled events, a terse statement was issued: "The America's Cup Committee announces that Easterner and Weatherly will not continue to compete in the Final Trials for the selection of a defender of the America's Cup."
Obviously, the desire of the cup committee was to narrow the field to the remaining two yachts, Vim and Columbia, which had throughout the summer demonstrated the greatest consistency. A streak of bad weather could keep the boats in harbor indefinitely, and the conditions agreed upon last year by the New York Yacht Club and the Royal Yacht's Squadron stated that "at least one week before the first race the challenger shall be informed of the yacht selected to defend the cup."
Unfortunately, Easterner had never found herself. Last boat to be launched, sailed with basically a family crew and not equipped in the lavish style of her competitors, she came to the Final Trials with a record of 10 consecutive defeats. All who have seen her in action, spectators and competitors alike, felt she had a truly great potential—but, alas, it never was realized.
Weatherly was another matter. As the committee had stated that the Preliminary Trials in July would have little weight and the events of the New York Yacht Club cruise none at all, statistically Weatherly, on the basis of six victories against two defeats in the August Observation Trials, came into the finals as top boat, with Vim and Columbia tied at five and three each.
Yet, on the first day of sailing, Labor Day, Weatherly was matched against Columbia in a WSW breeze varying from eight to 14 knots, and was beaten by over 4 minutes, a decisive margin. Next day she lost to Vim—but only by a thin 18 seconds. Wednesday, when placards on the side of the race committee boat appeared showing her again matched against Columbia, it was recognized as any other handwriting on the wall: today, or else. And Columbia on that sparkling crisp afternoon buried Weatherly by a margin of almost 6 minutes, a staggering amount between vessels of almost identical waterline and sail area.
What happened to Weatherly? The wise gentry say it was the addition of inside ballast. Unfortunately for her designer, the lead keel was delivered from the foundry during building half a ton lighter than specified, naturally affecting the stability calculations. Lead pigs were added inside before the Observation Trials, and she went on to win the series. Before the finals a calculated gamble was taken, and still more lead put aboard, "on the assumption she would be racing into mid-September when winds would normally be stronger," in the words of a member of her afterguard. The gamble lost.