A BOLD HELMSMAN ON A BOAT WELL FOUND
Last weekend the stars of the Southern Cross in the Australian ensign floated proudly over the fleet anchored in Brenton Cove at the finish of the fourth race for the America's Cup. Although the score at the time stood at three victories to one in favor of the defending Weatherly, the racing had been closer than the numerical results indicated. For the first time in many years a challenger for the cup was providing competition to justify its prestige. As Bobby Mosbacher commented after watching brother Bus stave off Gretel's stretch drive on Saturday, when the challenger came from astern to draw almost even with less than a mile to go, "There hasn't been a race where there hasn't been some real excitement." A few minutes later Weatherly crewman Vic Romagna put it even stronger as the defender came alongside her tender. "Is there a doctor in the house?" he called across. "We have 11 cardiac cases aboard."
From the first day of competition it was apparent that the gentlemen from down under meant business. Even before the starting gun of the opening race Helmsman Jock Sturrock took the initiative, boldly setting off after Bus Mosbacher to force a combat, something not often witnessed in the summer-long trials, when most rivals seemed intent on finding a peaceful stretch of ocean by themselves. Before that opening contest was over, it was plain that the challenger's crew work was fully as good as that of any American 12-meter and that Naval Architect Alan Payne's first attempt at designing a 12 had resulted in a vessel worthy of the class standard. If there was any shortcoming in the Australian challenge, it was more due to faulty judgment stemming from lack of experience in close competition than shortcomings in design or handling.
The first race was sailed in light to moderate winds, admittedly the best conditions for Weatherly; yet Gretel did well until a useless tack (the result of an Aussie misconception concerning the importance of carrying a navigator) put her astern. When the boats met again on Tuesday after a postponement provided for in the rules to give either competitor a free day on request, there was an 18-knot breeze at the start, with a fairly large sea. Conditions were similar to those existing when I had sailed aboard Gretel against Vim (SI, Sept. 3), and in these circumstances I felt she might come into her own.
Again Sturrock took the initiative, clamping himself on Weatherly's stern and refusing to be dislodged despite a series of evasive maneuvers, then breaking out a genoa at the proper moment and leading Weatherly across the line. Yet the defender was in the clear and slightly faster, so that she built up a lead (opposite page) of approximately three lengths by the time half of the eight-mile windward leg had been sailed. To close the gap, Sturrock instituted a tacking duel. With both crews straining at the coffee grinder winches in a wind that had now built to more than 20 knots, the Australians gained on each hitch. Closer and closer came the two boats, Gretel's geared tandem headsail winches that operate a single drum proving as effective as I had anticipated. Sturrock finally slashed the rapier bow of Gretel so closely across Weatherly's, flat transom that she appeared to wipe off droplets of water. So superior was the challenger that Bus Mosbacher was forced to break off the duel, thereafter nursing his lead by playing tactically safe, covering only when necessary, to maintain a lead of 12 seconds at the first mark. Not since the Columbia-Vim battles in the final trials of 1958 had such a contest been witnessed.
The second leg of the triangle was a genoa reach. Both boats were evenly matched, and the relative distance between them remained the same, bringing them into the final run only a few lengths apart. Gretel set her spinnaker first, and then began the most exciting and beautiful moments of this America's Cup—perhaps of any cup match in history. The wind had freshened to some 25 knots, and the seas had lengthened. Both boats were traveling at close to maximum speed, Gretel with white sails, Weatherly carrying a ruby-red spinnaker brilliant against a deep blue sky, while crests of seas creamed in the sunshine.
Gretel began to close the gap. Shooting the seas like a surfboard, the challenger gained in great kangaroo leaps, drops glittering from towering fans of spray at her bow and a pluming rooster tail under the counter. Hanging on the crests of the seas, a technique developed by Australian helmsmen from riding the Pacific swells that roll off Sydney Head, Gretel shot ahead so fast that her sails went limp. As the bigger crests lifted astern, Sturrock sharpened up slightly to gain speed at exactly the moment the wave peaked under Gretel's after sections, which are flatter than any American boat's except Nefertiti. At the precise instant the boat hung poised, stern high and bow low, the helm was turned to put her dead in line with the sea, which then shot her forward like an arrow from a bow, 100 feet or more at a time. As Gretel surged by the defender, the sight was indelibly recorded in my memory as the most dramatic in my yachting experience.
There was nothing Bus Mosbacher could do until Gretel had passed. Then he attempted to slow the flying Australians by angling across their stern to cut their wind. But it was a hopeless gesture. Probably no 12-meter yacht in the. history of the class had ever moved as fast as Gretel at that moment. The only result of Weatherly's effort was a broken spinnaker pole as the after guy parted under the strain. The accident in no way detracted from the challenger's victory, as she was clear ahead and going away when it happened. Gretel crossed the line 47 seconds in front, to a tumultuous cacophony of horns and sirens from the spectator fleet—the first challenger to win a race in 28 years, and only the fourth boat in a century.
After the finish came a decision that will long be discussed on yacht club verandahs around the world. According to rumor, the Australians had decided in advance to request a lay day after every race, on the theory that extra time would be on their side in making Gretel a better boat through lessons learned in each race. However, her request for postponement after the second race came as a surprise to many. She had just gotten the lift of winning, and all indications pointed toward identical weather conditions for another 24 hours, conditions the challenger obviously relished. As the wind did hold and the seas became even larger, the decision to postpone may well have cost the Aussies the advantage at that point in the series.
When the boats met again on Thursday the heavy winds had passed, leaving only fickle airs and a jumble of dying sea. Carrying little more than steerageway, Sturrock again took the start but was unable to hold his advantage. Again it was Weatherly's weather. Mosbacher easily sailed into the clear from under Gretel's lee after the latter had crossed ahead on the first tack after the start. After a few moments, it became clear that unless a miracle happened the contest was over. Besides being behind, Sturrock was caught with his heavy-weather mainsail hoisted: because of inexperience with local conditions he had relied on a forecast promising fresh winds.