Defiant and America� are mere sail triangles on the horizon. Bill Koch has missed the boat, so to speak, and now he's being taxied across the water on a speedy launch. He has foul-weather gear on, and the first wave that breaks over the bow covers his tortoiseshell glasses with salt water. The roiling sky is as gray as the warships berthed in San Diego Bay.
"The scale of this thing is unbelievable! It's like Operation Desert Storm!"
Koch's words, shouted over the engine roar and the wind, are an apparent reference to the logistical apparatus at his disposal. The young man at the wheel of the launch has radioed one of Koch's rubber-hulled tenders to rendezvous with the launch at the harbor mouth; other support boats circle the sail triangles in the distance. If Koch has any Walter Mitty in him, this is heady stuff.
The launch hammers into the first Pacific swells, making further conversation impossible. After a few hundred yards, the waiting tender sweeps alongside and nudges its bumpers against the launch. The two boats are pitching out of sync, but Koch leaps onto the tender, grabbing the windscreen to keep from falling. Immediately, the tender peels off and pursues the sailboats.
America� is dead ahead now, no longer a sail triangle but a 75-foot International America's Cup Class (IACC) yacht plowing through the swells. On port tack she is heeled precariously to the right, her crew perched on the port side, high above the waves. The tender twice approaches the yacht but has to back away; the swells arc severe, the angle of heel too great. A third approach offers a window of opportunity: Hands reach over the transom of America�, Koch lunges, and the 51-year-old tycoon scrambles aboard the sailboat. Immediately, the raft tears off to safety.
Once aboard, Koch gets a quick briefing from his afterguard: helmsman Buddy Melges, 62, navigator Bill Campbell, 40, and tactician Dave Dellenbaugh, 38. If Koch wants to practice in heavy air, they tell him, he has picked the right day—the wind is blowing at 20 knots. Stressed lines crackle, the hull groans. The shivering sails sound like hail on a tin roof.
The water could be smoother farther out, so Koch radios Defiant, another of his IACC boats, to forge ahead. It's a gutsy call, because the new IACC yachts are as fragile as kites. The week before, in the third round of the Defender Selection Series leading to the America's Cup, Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes snapped its mast in 12- to 15-knot winds—a $250,000 to $1 million setback for the Conner syndicate, depending on whose numbers you believe.
"Tacking!" Koch's command is all but lost in the wind, but the grinders begin cranking furiously. The sail handlers scramble to starboard as the boom swings over the deck. America� levels and then heels sharply left, shuddering and lurching through the waves.
The walkie-talkie crackles in Campbell's ear, and he shouts to Koch. Their meteorologist, on a support boat, says the wind has risen to 25 knots. A storm front is bearing down on San Diego.
Koch shakes his head and confers with his afterguard, who balance like roofers on the pitched deck, their faces close together. The decision is made: Campbell radios Defiant, and Melges barks orders to the crew to come about. America� shows her stern to the wind, and the sail handlers drop the jib.