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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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Much erroneous data has been published even recently on the vital statistics of challenger and defender, especially in displacement. Reports made Sceptre out as being heavier than Columbia by a matter of tons. Yet on the day after the final race, Olin Stephens told me that the displacement of Columbia "light" (without sails, crew or movable equipment) came to about 58,000 pounds when tae cup matches began, while David Boyd put Sceptre at 61,152 pounds. Loaded, on the starting line, both would run about 4,000 pounds heavier. The sail area was almost identical, 1,825 square feet for Columbia, 1,832 square feet for Sceptre. Nor was there much difference in beam, water-line length (Columbia is a few inches less than Sceptre's "light" waterline of 46.56 feet) or over-all length (here Columbia is about a foot longer than Sceptre's 68.9 feet).

Thus, it is apparent that the difference in the two yachts lay principally in shape, not dimensions—a tribute to Olin Stephens. Indeed, it is possible that Columbia's great superiority over a foreign design could kill off 12-meter racing for the America's Cup as effectively as Ranger discouraged any further challenges in the Js. Olin Stephens' very genius might prevent him from having the opportunity of exercising it again, unless he would make available tank data on, say, Vim, as a point of departure. This is perhaps a startling thought, but something radical may be necessary to preserve future cup competition, despite rumors of pending challenges. Following the final defeat, Sam Brooks—bloody but unbowed, the stiff upper lip of a Royal Navy officer firmly in place—sighed: "Back to the drawing board." Yet, it is not so simple as that.


While there was general agreement that the design was not satisfactory, universal was the admiration for the men of Sceptre, her backers and the actual deck organization. Never was sportsmanship on a higher plane; not only no protests, but no quibbling. All observers agreed that Graham Mann had done an excellent job on the starting line, in tactics and in getting everything possible out of the boat. With more experience in 12s, he could be a most formidable competitor. After the final race he visited Columbia to pay his personal respects to the rival skipper, cap at the usual jaunty angle, as cool and detached as he had come to the start of the first race. "Too bad, Graham," I said from Chaperone, after telling him Briggs Cunningham was off looking for him. He shrugged. "One of those things. We tried. It just wasn't good enough. Maybe another time."

Throughout the series Sceptre's sail handling had been smooth and efficient. The monstrous Herbulôt spinnakers had been set and jibed without mishap, and Sceptre's tacking had been excellent. In the final race a main boom broken early on the second leg was "fished" with both spinnaker poles, a difficult job of emergency seamanship, and Sceptre not only finished but gained on the ultimate reach.

After the epic battles and genuine excitement of the Final Trial series, when Columbia and Vim raced neck and neck, there is no denying a sense of anticlimax and disappointment. Yet, on the final windy days, with the threat of a hurricane coming up the coast, there were still 300 vessels of assorted types following the contestants, and as she crossed the line for the final time, fulfilling her destiny, there was a tremendous salute to Columbia, richly deserved.

Perhaps because of the conviction that Sceptre was such a bad boat, many failed to realize how good Columbia really was, and she has not fully received the plaudits she deserves. By the time the cup matches began, Columbia was a craft worthy of rating with yachting's immortals, outstanding of her type and size. When the chips were down, she was at her best, the mark of any champion. In the cup matches, Briggs Cunningham sailed her magnificently, with a sure touch on the helm in light and heavy going, and without a tactical error. It was a long, hard summer for him, and his patience and sportsmanship were rewarded by the greatest honor in match racing. In recognition of the fact that the America's Cup would not have been revived nor Columbia built except for Harry Sears, Cunningham turned over the wheel to him for the final gun, another well-deserved tribute.

Columbia's crew rose to the occasion, making not a bobble of sail handling in four tense days. Of one spinnaker maneuver, Dick Bertram, who had been in charge of Vim's foredeck, commented: "Nobody has done it better all summer." When Columbia crossed the final finish line, it turned out she was carrying the first extra weight of her career, two bottles of champagne smuggled aboard by Colin Ratsey. Lifting paper cups, sailing in to the mooring for the last time, the crew toasted the boat and each other. The long watery trail was ended—788 rhumbline miles of hard racing, and several times as much in practice sailing, a distance approximating a transatlantic passage.

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