SI Vault
Carleton Mitchell
September 29, 1958
When the gun fired to start the opening race for the America's Cup off Newport on Saturday, two spectacles of almost equal interest began unfolding simultaneously: first, the astonishing rate at which Columbia left Sceptre astern; and, second, the staggering number and variety of floating contrivances which fell in behind to form the gallery.
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September 29, 1958

Two Spectacles At Newport

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The boats close-reached to the end of the first round, where Sceptre had cut Columbia's lead to 2 minutes 24 seconds. The boats reached back and forth once more. Columbia again steadily walked away. As Columbia headed for home on the last leg while Sceptre still went for the mark, mutual embarrassment prevented any of the waving and display of good will which had occurred when the two boats passed close on the final practice sail late the afternoon before. It is almost as embarrassing to win by too much as to lose by too much.

When Columbia swept across the finish she led by 7 minutes and 44 seconds, greater than any defeat she had handed an American opponent during the trials. It was, in fact, a somewhat staggering victory, though other challengers in the past have been defeated by greater margins.

Immediately arises the question as to why such a difference should occur between two vessels so closely controlled by the International Rule of measurement. Certainly, no one in advance anticipated "so one-sided a victory." But neither do I consider the first race conclusive.

Primarily, I should say the effort of the British on Saturday failed to take into consideration one vital point: that anywhere in the world at any time of year there can be periods of very light weather. After a study of past records, it was assumed fresh winds would be the rule off Newport after mid-September. But the exception tests the rule, and Sceptre had nothing in the sail locker to cope with the combination of ghostly breezes and a bobble of a sea. Her sails simply refused to take shape, and sails to a racing yacht are as engines to racing cars: the sole driving force. And the difference between good and bad sails reduces to a matter of horsepower.

This planning error was undoubtedly compounded by the fact that Sceptre's helmsman and crew were coming to the line "unbloodied, not tested under fire," in the words of her designer, David Boyd. In any sport the newcomer knows tension, and no group could have been under greater pressure than the gallant men of Sceptre, the focal point of thousands of spectators and a worldwide attention. All this in their first race—not just the first international competition, as in the case of Columbia with 692 miles of hard-fought trials astern, but a real first. Touch on the helm could suffer, judgment in calling sails could be off any number of small seconds, losing situations could develop. These human jitters probably did not materially change the outcome, but they might not have appeared at all if Sceptre had found the conditions for which she was prepared. The unexpected is always disconcerting.

Wind can determine the future. The real battles between boats like these come when the breeze pipes to 15 knots and above. Both were designed and outfitted for rail-down going in a slop of a sea. Perhaps in such conditions Sceptre's sails would be better, and her crew trained in the near gales of the Solent come into their own. Personally, after a summer of sailing aboard and watching the 12s, and being able to study Sceptre's underbody when she was hauled for last-minute work, and having enjoyed the unique privilege of handling the helm of both challenger and defender, and now having watched them matched, however inconclusively, I feel that Columbia will prove the better boat.

I believe part of Columbia's superiority lies in design. To my eye, her underwater lines are a composition as beautiful as the drawing of any master, giving her power to windward and speed off the wind. I believe that Briggs Cunningham, Olin Stephens and Harry Sears, as skipper, co-helmsman and navigator, have attained a feeling for the boat and the waters that can only come from close competition, and the same is true for Rod Stephens, Fred Lawton and the rest of the deck organization. I believe that concentration on the "little things" will pay off. But, principally, if the first race was any indication, I think the greatest margin will lie in sails.

Columbia went into the series with her sail book listing 14 spinnakers, having added the three best of Weatherly and the three best of Vim. These range from a 40-foot Watts storm spinnaker of three-ounce Dacron and a 42-foot Ratsey drifting chute of 1.2-ounce Zeta cloth, to Vim's biggest Hood red-top, 65 feet across the foot. She has really five mainsails, from "The Purple People Eater" for light weather to a Ratsey bulletproof for a blow. She san choose from 18 headsails: ballooner interim jib, spinnaker staysail, drifter storm jib and assorted genoas, including two from Weatherly. The trials over, ranks were closed against the invader. Columbia has aboard or available the best sails from every locker.

After the Final Trials against Vim a member of the Sceptre group confided: "I never saw anything go to windward like your Columbia. We only hope that we can stay near enough on the weather legs to have a go at her reaching and running with our Herbulôt spinnakers."

Monday in the second race, an excruciatingly slow affair that was called off when neither boat covered the triangular course in the alloted 5½ hours, Sceptre got one chance to use her Herbulôt. Behind by 200 yards after a three-hour drifting match on the first leg, Sceptre picked up a faint southwesterly slant, broke out her red, white and blue chute and moved ahead by 400 yards. When the boats rounded the first mark, Columbia walked up rapidly and astonished the spectator fleet by breaking through to leeward, to establish a commanding lead. But as they turned the final buoy, it was obvious that time would run out. It did, at 5:50, with the contestants still three miles from home. No decision was reached. The lessons of the first race stood. The real test was to come.

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