Sir Frank intoned a countdown by seconds five minutes before the start so that watches could be synchronized, taking station with his motor cruiser Sara at the other end of the line. After a little preliminary jockeying, jibs were broken out with a minute to go, and both boats hit the line almost on the dot, parallel, but with Gretel to windward, although alternate Australian helmsman Archie Robertson had Vim moving at full speed in clear air.
It was what I had hoped to watch, the Australian-de-signed-and-built Gretel against tried and true Vim in the conditions I consider the ultimate test of sailing: driving to windward in a rail-down breeze and lumpy sea. For months I had heard conflicting rumors about the relative merits of the two boats, and now I was having the opportunity of seeing for myself, sliding down the steeply sloped cockpit to peer under the mainsail, cold salt water splashing in my face as Gretel sliced through. And from the first there was no doubt about the challenger's superiority. Steadily the gap between the two hulls widened laterally until—after some four miles of sailing—Navigator Terry Hammond reported a stadimeter reading that, allowing for the angle of heel, Vim was 500 yards to leeward, a most impressive margin. "Let's make it a half mile," muttered Jock Sturrock from the wheel.
Archie Robertson tacked first, passing well astern, was covered by Sturrock, tacked again when short of the mark and was covered once more. But as both boats made the final hitch for the buoy off Sakonnet Point a wind shift wiped out much of Gretel's windward advantage by lifting Vim onto the weather quarter, while a fouled jib sheet on the jibe at the turn cost more distance. Thus a new race started on the downwind leg, Vim only a couple of lengths astern. Again the challenger was more than able to hold her own. Despite the fact that Gretel carried a Down Under chute that bore no resemblance to Vim's lovely Hood spinnaker except for its red-and-white color combination, the challenger slowly crept ahead, both boats close to maximum hull speed. When Archie Robertson sharpened up in a final, desperation gamble to blanket Gretel but failed to cut her wind, Gretel spurted ahead to win by several lengths.
To me the victory was more decisive than the distance apart indicated because of the difference in the sails being carried by the two boats. The experience of everyone connected with the revived America's Cup competition indicates that drive aloft is perhaps the most important single factor governing speed through the water, granted reasonably matched hulls and competent helmsmanship. During our practice session Gretel carried a mainsail too long on the foot and much too full in cut for the weight of wind, a jib that could not hold its shape and a spinnaker that was narrow aloft by any standards. Vim used a full complement of American sails, all by Ted Hood, all coming close to aerodynamic perfection. Had Gretel been similarly equipped, her superiority undoubtedly would have been greater. In this connection, it is interesting and important to note that the Australians will be allowed to use American sails in the cup matches. Held in reserve at the moment is a new Ratsey mainsail, checked out as excellent in heavy winds, and a Hood mainsail is on order, while Hood jibs and spinnakers are already in the Aussie locker.
Although sails are of paramount importance, the downfall of former champion
and the revitalization of underdog Weatherly in the trials this summer illustrate the delicate balance of factors that govern performance in the complex 12-meter class, as well as the difficulty of making predictions. Olin Stephens thought that changes made in
since her triumphant campaign culminating in the defeat of Sceptre would be for the better but in any case were so minor that they could have influenced speed only by fractional seconds per mile. Yet the former defender now bears almost no resemblance to the powerhouse of yore, trailing Easterner and Weatherly to the windward mark on successive days before her elimination. Thus any evaluation of a boat should include many factors, including helmsman, crew and the myriad details that must add up to near perfection.
To the casual onlooker Gretel is a shapely vessel, nicely proportioned, without any freakish characteristics. Designer Alan Payne accorded Naval Architect Bill Luders the unusual privilege of examining and comparing the blueprinted lines from which Gretel was built. To Luders' expert eye the Australian challenger has "midships sections somewhat similar to Vim's, but the bow sections are rounded into more of a U, while the stern is slightly flatter." Gretel adds up, in Luders' opinion, to a "good all-around boat, probably at her best in fresh winds—15 to 18 knots and over." As an afterthought he says: "If she doesn't do well it shouldn't be the designer's fault."
And if determination and hard work are enough, any failure of Gretel to measure up in the big test won't be a fault of Sir Frank Packer or the crew, either. Rarely have I sailed with so responsive a group, ready to jump to the slightest command after hiking over the side for the entire weather leg, soaked to the skin even before the start, alternately raked by spray and wind possessing the chill, keen edge of autumn. "They're tough personally and tough competitors," avows Eric Olsen, U.S. representative in the Sharpie class to the Olympic Games of 1956, who remained in Melbourne for local racing. "Anyone who sails in Australia is accustomed to dealing with heavy weather conditions. They are good solid seamen, not Sunday afternoon sailors—which can be important off Newport, especially in late September. And all have done some helming, so they know what to anticipate from the cockpit." Olsen evaluates Jock Sturrock, who won an Olympic bronze medal for Australia in the 5.5s, as a "cool competitor, with an unemotional poker-face approach, thinking ahead and analyzing tactical situations before they develop—the kind of man who could give us a good match race."
Continuing experience has dictated changes in Gretel, altering the deck layout pictured in the July 9 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Most important, the steering wheel has been moved into the after cockpit, formerly occupied by crewmen operating the backstay winches. Now the helmsman is chocked off aft by himself, as in Nefertiti. Backstays are handled from the main cockpit. Another major alteration is elimination of the mainsheet coffee grinder and the complex mechanism below deck that spooled the wire mainsheet. Now the sheet is of braided Dacron, led to a Barient winch. Still in use are the tandem coffee grinders for trimming headsails, which can be linked together by throwing a lever so that the total strength of four men at the handles can be directed to one drum, while on the American boats it is necessary to lead the sheet around two drums to attain the same power. Time is inevitably lost in taking the double turns. I was impressed by Gretel's tacking, also by the handling of the spinnaker sheet on a hard reach.
When the defender and challenger come together September 15 much more will be at stake than the ornate bit of Victorian silverware now resting on its pedestal at the New York Yacht Club. In sporting history few other trophies have inspired such outlays of money and effort, and each win by America in the past has built up pressure on the defender "not to be the first to lose the cup." Similar pressure builds on the challenger. During our sail a Gretel crewman commented: "Being another Sceptre is the great Australian nightmare." It is a nightmare that is not likely to materialize. Gretel seems an able, workmanlike craft, well thought out for varying winds, well sailed. The planning is thorough, the effort is great despite the odds, the level of sportsmanship is the highest. The outcome of the race may—quite literally—be up in the air.