All great sporting events have in common one unbearably exciting moment just before the gun or the whistle or the bell, when odds and records and pedigrees no longer matter and any outcome seems possible. On Saturday the 1987 America's Cup reached that moment. Day after day for almost four months, potential challengers and defenders had raced on separate courses until, finally, through the winnowing process of the trials, only two boats remained. Now the challenger. Stars & Stripes, and the defender, Kookaburra III, were face-to-face for the first time, like mountain climbers who have ascended the same peak by different routes.
"Today is a reality check," said Britton Chance, a member of the three-man team of naval architects who designed Stars & Stripes, as he paced the syndicate dock before the first race.
Eight hours later, much of the suspense was gone. The American boat had trounced the Aussies by 1:41 in the light winds that were supposed to favor Kookaburra III. The next day, Stars & Stripes did it again, winning by a comfortable 1:10, this time in heavy weather.
And on Monday, when Dennis Conner and crew made it 3-0 with a 1:46 victory in 12-to-18-knot winds, all Australia was filled with gloom. The Land Down Under was only a race away from losing the best-of-seven series and the America's Cup. The bright possibilities of early Saturday were only a memory.
At seven that morning rivulets of spectators were already flowing toward the waterfront through the streets of Fremantle, the once-quiet port town in Western Australia where the Swan River meets the Indian Ocean. By 10 o'clock, when Stars & Stripes slid out of her pen in Fishing Boat Harbour, to be followed a few minutes later by Kookaburra III, the limestone jetties that shelter the harbor from the open sea were hidden under 20,000 flag-waving bodies. Not since the New York Yacht Club's Resolute met Sir Thomas Lipton's Shamrock IV in 1920 (the last time the Cup was sailed off Sandy Hook in New York Harbor) had so many people turned out to see the boats off.
In the good old days when the Cup was U.S. property, it was said that the first leg of the first race always told the story. If the defender was faster than the challenger, which she almost always was, that was apparent by the first-mark rounding. The rest of the series was only a formality.
This year the pundits were more cautious. Watching Conner and Liberty fall to Australia II 4-3 in 1983, after Liberty had been leading 3-1, was a sobering experience. This time, the experts said, the leader at the end of the second leg will win the race, and the series could go the distance. Conner said it. Iain Murray, skipper of Kookaburra III, said it. How could anyone disagree? Still, the bookmakers made Stars & Stripes the favorite at 5-to-4 odds. Conner's by-now-legendary knack for being on the right side of wind shifts, for controlling starting maneuvers, for being wilier and smarter and, when necessary, meaner than any other 12-meter skipper alive, overcame the oddsmakers' caution. Even the Aussies who watched their beloved Australia II, "the little white pointer" (pointer is Aussie for "shark"), reduce Conner's Liberty to ignominy found it hard to believe an Australian boat could win again.
Murray, the 28-year-old skipper who masterminded the Kookaburra campaign that derailed Alan Bond's well-oiled and much more experienced Australia IV machine, was accustomed to playing the underdog. "The first race is like the end of the financial year," he said on Saturday, standing straight-backed in the cockpit of Kooka III, his fingers grasping the wheel lightly, the way a good putter holds his club. "It's when you find out how profitable your business has been. It's just another day at the office, but an important one."
Day 1 looked more like Newport in July than Fremantle in January. The sky was gray and the wind was light and so shifty that the race committee postponed the 1:10 p.m. start 20 minutes, waiting for the afternoon sea breeze to settle into its customary southwesterly direction. A minute and a half into the race, however, the wind shifted 25 degrees to the south, and Stars & Stripes was the beneficiary. Conner had picked the left end of the starting line, so when the big shift came, he was on its inside and instantly several boat lengths closer to the mark than Kooka III.
Stars & Stripes rounded the first mark 1:15 ahead of Kooka III and held the lead to the finish, but it was the way she did it that was a pleasant surprise for her designers—and a puzzle for Murray. "We really expected that in 13 knots of true wind we would not be the faster boat," said Dave Pedrick, another of S & S's designers. "We were prepared to concede that."