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.
As a yacht race, the revival of competition between a British challenger and American defender after 21 years left much to be desired. "Nothing but a damned drifting match," growled one salty observer, feeling like a fight fan who had traveled far to see a heavyweight bout and instead wound up at a rugged game of drop the handkerchief. It was almost sad to watch the two magnificent yachts, both ready for the slugging match for which they were designed and had trained, reduced to bare steerageway for nearly half the distance. "Light and variable," had prophesied the weather forecaster in the morning, and faint indeed were the breezes. The storm system of the three previous days, after interfering with final preparations and practice sails, had moved out into the Atlantic, and the next oncoming low still lurked in the Canadian wilds.
Yet undoubtedly meteorological circumstances prevented the greatest mass drowning in history. For, from every harbor, creek and eel rut on the Atlantic Coast had poured boats, perhaps 1,000 or more, to form an unparalleled spectator fleet. Gone was the parade of stately queens of yore, the Nourmahals, the Corsairs, the Orions, and Alvas, the Alohas and the other miniature ocean liners privately maintained. Converging on the orange-and-white cup buoy was everything and anything that would float, from excursion steamers to sport fishermen, motor sailers to outboard runabouts; the finest modern yachts in commission, varnish and chrome gleaming, rubbing bottle-smooth topsides with the battered gunnels of top-heavy relics rarely seen out of sheltered creeks: mom and pop and the kids munching sandwiches from a red icebox on the back porch.
The start was delayed 20 minutes while Coast Guard patrol craft scurried back and forth, worrying at the motley assemblage like dogs driving sheep. Finally, maneuvering room was established, and signals were hoisted for twice-around windward-leeward course, four legs of six miles. The wind was slightly east of north at some five knots.
Columbia carried the off-white Ratsey mainsail which her crew had dubbed "The Purple People Eater." It is a very full and beautifully shaped sail, almost ideal for winds of less than 12 knots. At the warning gun she added a drifting jib of lightweight Dacron, set flying. Even in the faint breeze both of these sails filled and took shape, giving her drive through the small, lumpy sea. On the other hand, Sceptre's sails looked like boards, her mainsail hard and tight along the leech, her genoa of such heavy fabric that it seemed hardly to lift.
At some three minutes before the gun Sceptre tacked to leeward and ahead of Columbia as the latter came back toward the line, apparently trying to achieve the safe leeward start which had mousetrapped competitors so successfully for Vim. She was moving slowly, but Graham Mann made his move at the proper moment, allowing time for Sceptre to pick up speed before his adversary came abeam. Yet Sceptre did not respond. With agonizing deliberation she pivoted and then seemed to die. Columbia's bow came sliding toward the challenger's stern, and foot by foot she ate away at the overlap, finally to forge clear ahead. Briggs Cunningham had room to bear off, being slightly early, and run the line to increase speed. When the cannon fired aboard North Easter, the race committee boat, Columbia sharpened up for a perfect start on the line at the gun, wind clear, carrying full way. Sceptre was three lengths behind and still not moving. And that was the race.
The farther the two boats sailed close-hauled, the more Sceptre dropped back, until when she tacked at the end of six minutes, Columbia appeared as far ahead of Sceptre as the challenger was from the orange-and-white starting buoy, which meant Columbia had been traveling through the water at almost twice Sceptre's speed. Not only did there appear to be a ridge ahead of the battens of Sceptre's mainsail, but her genoa seemed sheeted too far aft, holding the foot tight against the shrouds while allowing the leech to sag away aloft.
In any case, Columbia pointed higher while footing faster, a devastating combination. By the time they had covered the six-mile windward leg, a tremendous gap had opened between and Columbia rounded the stake boat an amazing 7 minutes 22 seconds ahead.
For the downwind leg, almost a dead run at the beginning, Columbia chose one of her smaller parachute spinnakers, since the American boats had learned during the trials that large sails were hard to keep full when ghosting; it is better to have a small sail lifting than a big one hanging limp. Sceptre, on rounding, set a much bigger parachute, and had the good fortune to pick up a faint slant of air from the shore, which kept her big greenchevroned Herbulôt chute filled. For a while it was a private breeze, and rapidly she overhauled Columbia, which was sitting in a flat spot with drooping sails—the one moment of jubilation for Sceptre supporters during the afternoon. But in turn the puff died, and Sceptre with it.
About halfway home on the first round, there seemed every probability that neither boat could finish within the six-hour time limit. More than half the time had elapsed with less than half the distance covered. Faint cat's-paws kept the crews of both boats busy; for a while, Columbia carried her interim jib, and Sceptre twice changed chutes, ending with the enormous red, white and blue French Herbulôt which has long been considered something of a secret weapon. A reported 75 feet on the foot—longer than Sceptre is over-all—it was enormous. But at that point it could make no difference, especially as a new wind struck in from west. Faint at first, it rapidly freshened, forcing both boats to use jibs as it came ahead. Unfortunately, from the moment it arrived, the race became a parade; the shift put the wind on the beam for the rest of the race.