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Carleton Mitchell
October 06, 1958
The cup challenge began and ended on the drawing board but made glorious racing history
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October 06, 1958

Victory By Design

The cup challenge began and ended on the drawing board but made glorious racing history

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The final match, as the others, was no contest, a race in name only, and for the 17th straight time an American defender had turned back a challenger.

What was the reason for the great superiority of Columbia over Sceptre? Before competition began in the spring, it was generally agreed that hull differences between challenger and the ultimate defender would be slight, due to the rigid requirements of the International Rule of measurements; crews and sails would probably make the difference. And so it proved with the four American candidates. Hulls seemed the factor least important in over-all performance.

When Sceptre appeared on her mooring in Newport, the general impression among yachtsmen was as mine had been on the Solent in May: a handsome and powerful vessel, differing somewhat from American practice, but in no way unconventional or suffering by comparison. All hands were impressed by Helmsman Graham Mann and his crew, and the businesslike way both sailing and nonsailing members of the organization went about the job of preparation. Yet, the moment Sceptre was first hauled from the water and her underbody exposed to critical view, most experts felt a premonition of disaster. The apple bow, bulbous keel section, scant lateral plane, sharply raked rudder, slack bilges—all added up in American eyes to poor performance. I felt a deep stab of amazement—and worry, wishing her well—as I stood below and analyzed her shape. Briggs Cunningham best summed up my feeling during Columbia's celebration on being selected as defender, when he said of the challenger's underbody: "One of us has to be wrong." Unspoken was the conviction that Olin Stephens, who had turned out an even faster boat than Vim, would not be the one.

When Sceptre was pitted against the defender her speed deficiency was apparent in all conditions. Watching from Columbia's tender, Chaperone, Howard Fuller commented: "She's not a light-weather boat, nor a moderate-weather boat, nor a heavy-weather boat—she's a no-weather boat." Sceptre unquestionably had a poor hull form. In her case, it was the decisive factor, although bad sails compounded the situation by failing to supply maximum drive to a shape which needed all the push it could get.

Sceptre's failure undoubtedly began with the tank tests. As the British were unable to organize more than one syndicate to produce more than one boat, they asked four prominent designers to submit drawings for two 12-meter yachts, one to be conventional, one to be as radical as desired, provided it would measure in the class. These eight models were towed in the tanks of Saunders-Roe, on the Isle of Wight, a firm which specializes in aircraft and high-speed motor launches, although it has tested the hulls of a few small racing classes, such as 5.5 meters. Naturally, a model of a known 12-meter yacht had to be used as a comparative yardstick in the tests, and here again is an example of what the British were up against. Before the war, the best British 12 was Tomahawk, designed by Charles Nicholson, who had also designed the Endeavours for T.O.M. Sopwith. Tomahawk was tough competition for Vim when Harold Vanderbilt campaigned on the Solent in '39, and would have been a good point of departure for a new design. Yet, according to a member of the Sceptre organization, "Poor old Charlie was bombed out during the war, and all of his drawings were burned. So we had to use Flica II, which had belonged to Hugh Goodson, as her lines were available." Unfortunately, Flica II had never been a very successful boat.

As the tests proceeded, the four designers formed a committee to evaluate the tests. Tank results are admittedly tricky, and understanding and applying them to full-size vessels takes much practice and experience. The English had no equivalent to the late Dr. Kenneth S. M. Davidson, developer of accurate tank testing at Stevens Institute in Hoboken, N.J., where the American designs were towed. The committee chose the design of David Boyd, and the Royal Yacht Squadron syndicate immediately gave an order for construction. As Hugh Somerville of the London Times wrote last week, "Poor fellows.... It appears that they were beaten on July 13, 1957 when Sceptre's corpulent form came out of the test tank."


Gossip had it that one of the reasons for Sceptre's poor performance was that the British hulls were tested in a tank where waves—actual sea conditions in a fresh wind—could not be simulated. This implies that the defender enjoyed this advantage. It did not. As Rod Stephens explained: "It is difficult to agitate the waves from the proper direction—going to windward, waves come from an angle on the bow, not dead ahead. It may work eventually, but so far the data is not trustworthy. So we didn't use it on Columbia."

In the wake of the cup matches it is easy to point out flaws and deficiencies in the British effort. Monday-morning afterguards are criticizing the inexperience of the crew, especially their youth. However, selection was made on the basis of actual performance aboard Sceptre and her trial horse, Evaine, and the best available candidates were chosen from those able—in the British economy—to afford the luxury of an entire summer of sailing. There has been censure of the size of the syndicate, yet this, too, was dictated by economic necessity, and the members' sincerity is evidenced by the fact that none sailed aboard, feeling others were more competent.

Naturally, in so large a group there was inertia and oversight: Sceptre did not have equipment requested months before the matches by her navigator, and, thanks to the "heavy-weather" fixation, proper sails for light air were not provided. Yet, given the hull of Sceptre, it is doubtful if Columbia's crew could have made her a winner even with their great inventory of sails.

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