Paranoia is not confined to San Francisco. Before the St. Francis challenge got under way a year ago, both Meldner and Mull worked briefly for Conner's San Diego challenge. Mull recalls a meeting there, held in a windowless room with double-sealed pneumatic doors, attended by syndicate officials and two former government agents, one CIA, the other FBI. There was talk, among other things, of telephone scramblers, locked drawing boards and messages to be sent by courier. Amused by it all, Mull wise-cracked to the group, "Who are we gonna hire to do our dirty tricks, Gordon Liddy?" When nobody laughed, Mull thought to himself, "Oops, maybe they already have."
Rumor has it that the Golden Gaters themselves are not above a trick or two. In 1984 Meldner organized a secret "intelligence" mission to Australia. Armed with a three-dimensional camera devised by the CIA to measure Soviet weapons during a May Day celebration, a team was sent to Perth to gather data. At the 11th hour, however, someone blabbed, and the mission was recalled. "Yachtsmen and secrecy are literally a contradiction in terms," says Meldner in the weary tone of a pro forced to deal with tyros.
Rumor also has it that San Francisco's big secret is a rudder in front of the keel as well as behind. Another holds that chain saw surgery was performed on the aluminum hull of R1 before the boat even left the yard where she was built. If the latter rumor were true, it would mean that all had not gone smoothly in the transition from design to reality.
"I can only tell you," says Blackaller, normally the most candid of America's Cup skippers, "that there is an awful lot of stuff written that is just bunk. We're going down there with a revolutionary boat, and if it works, and we have every indication it will, we're going to be revolutionarily fast."
Now that the designers have finished their work, the sailors take over. "You can go to race and you can go to war with the very, best technology," says Mull. "That doesn't mean you're going to win. It just means you are giving your side all the possible advantages you can. Then you pat the guys on the butt and say, 'O.K., it's your trip now.' "
The St. Francis crew had little more than a month of practice on San Francisco Bay to learn how to sail their new boat. A month is not much time, but they are a talented bunch, plucked by Blackaller from places as far away as Maine and as close to home as the junior sailing program at the St. Francis Yacht Club. On Aug. 9, R1 was put aboard a freighter to be shipped to Perth, a trip that was expected to take about three weeks. She and her crew will then have a month in Australian waters before the first race of the challenger trials, on Oct. 5. Again, not much time, but as Blackaller points out, the October races count only 1 point each versus 5 points for the November races and 12 for the December series.
Blackaller pooh-poohs the advantage allegedly gained by syndicates that have been practicing in the waters off Fremantle, Western Australia for a year and more. "We have 18-to 30-knot winds here on San Francisco Bay every day of the week between the middle of April and the middle of September. If we want to test the boats in smooth water we go inside [the Bay]. If we want water that's as rough as Perth we go 30 minutes outside the Gate to the Potato Patch Shoal, one of the roughest places in the world. The home team doesn't have that much of an advantage in international competition. I mean, I won the Star world championships in Spain and Rio de Janeiro. When they were here I finished third. It's some kind of media hype by the Australians, and I don't believe a word of it."
Hype is a valuable tool when wielded by skilled craftsmen. In 1983 the Australians hyped their secret keel with devastating effectiveness against Conner and the America's Cup race committee. For the '87 Cup, the six American challengers—not to mention the 10 foreign syndicates—are using various strategies. For the last two years the America II syndicate of the New York Yacht Club has played infinite variations on the theme of its vast experience and bottomless financial resources. From San Diego, Conner has struck fear into faint hearts by increasing his 12-meter navy to a previously inconceivable five boats. The Heart of America syndicate in Chicago claims to have the best sailor in the world, Buddy Melges, as its skipper, and nobody argues. The Eagle syndicate in Newport Beach, Calif., points with pride to its letterhead, which is sprinkled with the names of organizers of the enormously successful Los Angeles Olympics, among them Peter Ueberroth. The Courageous syndicate? Well, Courageous may be an old lady, but she did defend the America's Cup successfully twice, in 1974 and '77.
The Golden Gate challenge has hyped its technology. While city slickers in the men's grill at the St. Francis Y.C. may refer to their Twelves as V1 and V2 and brag about the Yankee ingenuity it took to hire a latter-day Wernher von Braun to design their boats, the hype is beginning to work. Oddsmakers in Australia have moved the San Francisco challenge up a notch or two in recent months, and corporate sponsors have begun to climb aboard.
If the hype holds water, if R1 's secret whatsit is worth keeping secret, and if the 1,001 things that can go wrong don't, the 1990 America's Cup will be sailed on San Francisco Bay, and the city that styles itself "the city that knows how" will have a chance to prove it.