It was a typical June day in San Francisco when Mayor Dianne Feinstein cracked a bottle of Domaine Chandon over the bow of USA, the city's entry in the America's Cup derby. A blanket of fog hid the sun, and the cold, steady wind drove the christening balloons toward Oakland and the blessed warmth of the valleys beyond.
There was a time when America's Cup challenges were born of "alcohol and delusions of grandeur," as Australia's Sir Frank Packer once put it. Today they are more likely to be born of Perrier and wounded pride. While Dennis Conner and the New York Yacht Club were the visible losers when Australia II, with her daring winged keel, sailed away from Liberty on the next-to-last leg of the seventh and final race at Newport in 1983, American technology, marine division, sustained a blow to its collective ego equivalent to that dealt the U.S. by the Soviet Union's Sputnik launching in 1957. The result has been a cavalry charge of scientists into the breach for the 1987 Cup races off Perth, Western Australia. In the vanguard of the new 12-meter technologists is Heiner Meldner, 48, a German-born physicist who has taken a leave from his work on Star Wars weaponry at the government's Lawrence Livermore research laboratory in northern California to join the St. Francis Yacht Club's Golden Gate Challenge for the America's Cup. "If Australia II was the Sputnik shot for yachting, what we have in the Golden Gate group is the Apollo program," says Meldner.
Meldner is an expert in the uses of the world's largest computer, the Cray X-MP/48, which is capable of handling 1.2 billion instructions per second—BIPS to you. With it, he and Golden Gate colleagues Gary Mull, a naval architect, and Alberto Calderon, a fluid dynamicist, and 60-odd part-time volunteers from California's scientific and academic communities have been able to test the worth of hundreds of radical ideas for hulls, keels and rudders with a speed and accuracy never before possible.
Trying out a new idea—drawing the lines, building a scale model, testing the model—was a process that once took months. Now, using computers such as Meldner's Cray and highly sophisticated three-dimensional flow-analysis programs, an idea can be evaluated, from concept to dustbin, in eight hours. "I tell Heiner his computer just allows us to make mistakes faster than ever before," says Mull. Of course, being able to make mistakes is the whole idea, since it was fear of making mistakes that led American designers into the fatal conservatism that lost the Cup to the Australians in '83. While U.S. designers were improving existing designs by tiny increments—an inch here, a bulge there—the Australians, desperate for an edge after six tries at the Cup, were willing, with the help of Dutch computer experts, to take a technological plunge into the future.
"Alan Bond [chief of the victorious Aussie syndicate] apparently decided," says Mull, "and probably [designer] Ben Lexcen helped him decide, that to continue to make just a little bit better boat than the last time was not going to work, because the Americans were also making just a little bit better boat and always starting with the better boat."
Australia II's winged keel was a design "breakthrough," as was Intrepid in 1967, when designer Olin Stephens separated the rudder from the keel. Both advances made all other 12-meters of their day obsolete. Other attempts at radical change have failed humiliatingly—Britton Chance's Mariner in 1974 and Alan Payne's Advance in 1983, for two.
The 12-meter yacht that Feinstein christened USA on June 24 is known inside the St. Francis syndicate as R1, for Revolutionary 1, to distinguish the new boat from its predecessor, El, for Evolutionary 1. E1, launched last February, was a conventional winged-keel 12-meter design based on Australia II. It was intended from the beginning to serve as a benchmark for a more radical boat, but it was also meant to be a fallback entry for the Cup trials had the radical concept failed. Now that the syndicate has decided to run with R1, E1 has been relegated to the role of sparring partner.
Just how revolutionary is San Francisco's revolutionary 12-meter? According to skipper Tom Blackaller, previously a helmsman of two Twelves that failed to be selected as Cup defender, if one were to assign numbers for uniqueness on a horizontal scale with Liberty, a conventional pre-1983 12-meter, at 1 and Australia II, with her winged keel, at 3 or 4, "our boat is over here, at about 10." That, however, is all that Blackaller, or anyone else in the syndicate, will say. All have signed a nondisclosure pact that is said to be legally binding, and security around R1 is so tight as to make Australia II's blue plastic skirt in 1983 look like something out of a game of peekaboo. Meldner, whose office location in San Mateo is secret, meets interviewers in a pizza parlor. Even the names of the volunteer scientists who have worked on the R1 project are classified.
"The difficulty is that the list, to a knowledgeable person, reveals where our emphasis is," said Meldner one day between bites of pizza. "It's the same in the weapons business. We have to be careful not to reveal who is working on what, because an espionage technique is to put the pieces together out of 'O.K., this guy worked so much on that, and we know exactly what his specialty is.' "
"They are trained in paranoia out there in Livermore," says Mull. "As a joke I had a rubber stamp made up that Said, TOP SECRET, BURN BEFORE READING. I don't think Heiner even noticed."