After Columbia surged across the finish line in the final match for the America's Cup, Skipper Briggs Cunningham leaned far out of the cockpit and patted her sleek bottom in a spontaneous gesture of approbation. And well he might. So far astern as to be indistinct in the haze of a smoky sou'wester, Sceptre, the British challenger, wallowed in hopeless pursuit, a badly beaten boat for the fourth time in four races. Never was there more truth in the remark, made on the victory of the original America that had launched cup competition a century ago: "There is no second."
From the standpoint of weather, the races could not have been sailed more fairly had some special arrangement been made with Aeolus in person. The first event, on Saturday, was a drifting match, a dismal affair from the spectator's point of view, with faint slants of air ranging from absolute zero to perhaps six knots, and Columbia won by a mile—country or nautical.
"Give us a breeze," was the justified plea of the British, accustomed to the near gales of the Solent and Channel, and not prepared either in outlook or sails for ghosting along at bare steerageway.
Wednesday dawned bright and clear, except for feather cirrus which promised future wind. On the starting line at noon, a moderate southwesterly of some 10 knots gave both boats ample speed for maneuvering. Graham Mann, at the helm of Sceptre, made an effort to get on the tail of Columbia, à la Vim, and almost succeeded in establishing a safe leeward position. But Briggs Cunningham was not to be trapped; he started with clear wind and rapidly the defender ate out to windward and ahead. Again Columbia carried "The Purple People Eater"—Ratsey mainsail No. 2 of 13.75-ounce Defender cloth, in the sail book—and again perfect sails played a vital part in relative performance. Sceptre's sails, to put it bluntly but objectively, looked awful.
There was now no doubt of Columbia's vast superiority in light or moderate breezes, yet there still remained the question of what she would do in avowed "Sceptre weather," a real slugging match. During the night the wind began to whistle. On Thursday morning the flags of the fleet stood out straight, and tiny whitecaps formed even in the sheltered harbor.
Aboard Sceptre preparations went forward with purposeful dispatch. But aboard Columbia there was sheer delight, a holiday atmosphere of "this is what we're waiting for." By 8:30 Rod Stephens and his early-bird deck crew had bent on the Ratsey No. 4 mainsail—as fine a sail in winds of over 15 knots as "The Purple People Eater" was for drifting, a sail beautifully flat and aerodynamically perfect, which could be counted on to keep its shape. When Briggs Cunningham, Harry Sears and Olin Stephens arrived aboard shortly after 9, the wind had freshened still more. "Now we'll see," exalted Cunningham, partially out of complete confidence in Columbia, partially as a true sportsman who wanted to win or lose cleanly, with no reservations by anyone of what might have been.
By the time starting signals were hoisted, the wind had piped to 23 knots, all the breeze anyone could want, and the sea had built accordingly. There was little preliminary jockeying. Sceptre broke out a genoa approximately seven minutes early; Columbia waited until only three minutes remained. Both yachts hit the line together, before the smoke of the starting cannon had been whisked away. If anything, Sceptre had slightly the better of the start, being to windward. But Columbia had her wind free, and with unbelievable rapidity she delivered the Sunday punch, the big serve, the coup de grâce; pointing higher and footing faster, her superiority to windward even more marked than in light air, the defender moved from abeam and to leeward to dead ahead. In less than five minutes the race was a rout. While Sceptre plunged and hobby-horsed in the seas—"bruising God's water," as a Bahamian might say—Columbia knifed through. While Sceptre appeared to sag off to leeward in the puffs, Columbia went right up into them. While Sceptre heeled sharply in the hardest gusts and seemed at times to be so tender that her helmsman had to ease her along, Columbia stood up as straight as a church steeple, asking for more.
Valiantly Sceptre tried to make a race of it. Shortly after the start, Graham Mann began a tacking duel, hoping to lure his adversary into an error or find a flaw in equipment; within 16 minutes the challenger had come about eight times. Columbia refused to be drawn into a short-tack contest, but instead stood on each time, covering only when tactical necessity demanded. Still, it was a rugged workout for both groups of winch-pumpers. Before they had sailed the six miles to the first mark of the twice-around windward-leeward course, Columbia had tacked 14 times and Sceptre had tacked 16 (see chart next page).
Downwind, Columbia set the large red-topped Hood spinnaker borrowed from Vim, which the crew had dubbed "Big Harry" in honor of Harry Sears, Columbia's redheaded navigator and syndicate organizer. Sceptre countered with the colorful red, white and blue Herbulôt. Columbia gained a few seconds more. But the second weather leg, wind a trifle fresher and sea bigger, was truly the death of hope. While Sceptre dove and plunged, occasionally cascading water from her foredeck like a surfacing submarine, Columbia gained almost a minute a mile. Adding a few more seconds on the final run, the defender was first across the finish by 8 minutes 20 seconds—again more than a mile in distance.
The final match was sailed in the only wind condition short of a gale—which would have forced cancellation, anyway—that had not been experienced during the first three. This time there was another sou'wester at the start, averaging between the light to moderate airs of Wednesday and the slug fest of Thursday. The result was the same. And in the 12-to 15-mile wind, once again Columbia did what she was asked.