SI Vault
Carleton Mitchell
September 22, 1958
There was never anything even remotely like it in the staid annals of cup racing. As Commodore W.A.W. Stewart, chairman of the selection committee, said, "I've seen five cup trials, and this time the friendship and attitude of the crews impresses me most of all."
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September 22, 1958

'columbia' Rules The Waves

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There was never anything even remotely like it in the staid annals of cup racing. As Commodore W.A.W. Stewart, chairman of the selection committee, said, "I've seen five cup trials, and this time the friendship and attitude of the crews impresses me most of all."

When the crew of Columbia piled on the dock from their tender Chaperone, the crew of Vim was waiting there, dark-blue shirts stained white by caked salt. Minutes earlier, the cup committee boat had made a circuit of Brenton Cove, formally notifying each crew that Columbia had been selected as defender for the 17th America's Cup challenge.

Before the Columbians reached shore, little Buddy Bombard of Vim stepped forth and led a fervent hip hip hurrah. Harry Sears, head of the syndicate which had built the defender, came up with hand outstretched, exclaiming, "You wonderful, wonderful guys." For a few moments there was a swirling pattern of shaking hands and backs being pounded, now the tension of the final drive was over. As Colin Ratsey put it, "Hell, we all know each other. We've grown up racing together."

Gone were the huge impersonal professional foredeck gangs of old; these crews had really raced each other, boat for boat, man for man. "That's what made it so much fun!" exclaimed Halsey Herreshoff. And that is undoubtedly why the competition reached such high levels.

Never had a group more distinguished itself in defeat than the Vim organization. That very afternoon they had staged the hardest battle of the year; "one of the most exciting and finest match races ever sailed," in the words of Vice-Commodore George Hinman, who had followed every move as a member of the committee aboard Versatile. In a northwest wind of some 18 knots, with a lumpy sea still running from the blow which had canceled the previous day's event, Columbia, under the skilled hand of Briggs Cunningham, had taken the start from Bus Mosbacher on Vim. Despite all efforts, the older boat was not able to catch up on the first weather leg of the twice-around windward-leeward course. Yet neither did she drop back out of contention, although a wind shift near the mark put her a minute astern. Both set spinnakers, and Vim began to move: foot by foot she closed the gap until the masts were in line, then she crept ahead, to lead at the leeward turn. Again they came on the wind, and the speed and power of the newer boat told; gradually Columbia worked out to weather. Yet, miraculously, after some four miles of hard going, Vim, on the starboard tack, forced Columbia to bear off sharply and go under her stern. Before they reached the stake boat, Columbia had pulled ahead by a length. Again, on rounding, Vim drew abreast and forged past, to lead for the third time. Downhill to the finish, it looked like her race; but this time Columbia, carrying a smaller, flatter chute than on the first leeward leg, crept back and ahead to sweep across the line—the winner by 12 seconds. With this on top of her Tuesday victory, Columbia led 4-2 in the final crucial trials, and there remained no doubt she should defend.

In the eyes of the committee, Columbia must have established herself as the superior boat primarily through her windward ability. As velocities increased above 15 knots, so did Columbia's margin of superiority. Her power in driving through a building sea was very noticeable, and there is every reason to expect consistently stronger breezes later in the month. At the same time, Columbia seemed at least as fast as Vim on all points of sailing in lighter air, making her the better all-round performer. Although Vim's score was higher on starts, in the last two races Columbia was best on one and was able to break through to ultimate victory after losing the other. In no way did the helmsman-ship or tactics of Columbia suffer, except by direct comparison with Vim's helmsman, Bus Mosbacher, whom many were considering touched by a special genius. Columbia's crew work, while not brilliant, was good by any standards. In short, at the end, it would have been impossible not to have picked her. And it is only fair to consider ship and crew a unit.


The victory celebration was quiet. The strain of nine races in 11 days showed. In the drawing room of the baronial mansion overlooking Brenton Cove and the moored fleet, a table had been hastily set up as a bar, strangely at variance with the spartan training regimen of the summer. "I don't know how many more of those I could take," sighed Briggs Cunningham. Corny Shields, forced by doctor's orders to relinquish his post as co-helmsman that very morning, appeared drawn and tired. Even the tough young winch-pumpers looked "beat," in the words of one, while taped knuckles and tender spots were noticeable.

The long, watery trail was ended, and a defender had been chosen. Now thoughts turned to the challenger. When a toast was proposed to the loser, Bus Mosbacher replied: "May your victories continue." These last races had honed Columbia as nothing else could. Sceptre would be at a disadvantage no matter how fast her hull turned out to be. But her capabilities were still topic A. "I don't believe they can tack with us," exclaimed Collie Ratsey. "How can they tandem-winch genoa sheets across that deep cockpit?" "That round bow," reflected Briggs Cunningham. "I don't see how Sceptre can be a heavy weather boat. The models we tested never went with a round bow. And her short keel; she should be fast running and reaching, but I can't see how she will go to windward. One of us has to be wrong—I hope it isn't us, but I'd like them to win if they have the better boat."

Meanwhile, the Sceptre camp, although impressed with what they had seen, was unawed. Coldly, John Illingworth ticked off an objective analysis: "The best of our five suits of sails comes up to the average of yours. Our gear is quite adequate to the job, but we've arrived at the same answers in a different way. Your masts, being extruded in section, may be slightly stronger; in average conditions our single-spreader rig may be better because it cuts down windage, but in heavy weather the ability to keep the upper section straight is of paramount importance. And regarding Sceptre's cockpit, while we know there is a very distinct risk of shipping water, we think it is worthwhile because of advantages we expect. In fact, the only thing we're really worried about is our lack of racing in close competition; there is no other way to perfectly tune a boat, helmsman and crew."

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