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Of two better boats, which is more better?
Carleton Mitchell
June 15, 1964
Early trials between England's challengers failed to answer this question, but they augured brisk competition when the races begin
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June 15, 1964

Of Two Better Boats, Which Is More Better?

Early trials between England's challengers failed to answer this question, but they augured brisk competition when the races begin

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In England the last week of May was characterized by the warmest spell of spring weather since 1848. For the crews of the rival 12-meter yachts Sovereign and Kurrewa V, as well as the assembled flag officers of the Royal Thames Yacht Club, this freak weather was anything but good. Each day the fleet streamed out to find the normally turbulent Solent a placid pond. The fog that is known as "sea mist" blotted out navigational aids. Committee and stake boats shifted courses in fickle cat's-paws, and races, once started, were turned into travesties by radical shifts of wind. What gave it all a sense of urgency was the universal determination that a "bad show" like the Sceptre fiasco of 1958 must not happen again. "We're like cogs that haven't quite meshed," moaned a member of Kurrewa's crew on the final day, "and we don't have any time to waste." Only one more series of trials is scheduled before the English boats are cradled and shipped across the Atlantic for refitting and the final trials to determine which will be the challenger.

The trials just finished were much too inconclusive to give even a hint as to which boat may be chosen. Above the water, the two are almost exactly alike, and below the waterline the difference is almost as minor. Designer David Boyd cast the lead on Sovereign's keel in the wedge shape favored by Olin Stephens; in Kurrewa he went back to the bulb shape to get more weight deeper down. But together they leave no doubt that the British have come a long way in 12-meter design since their challenge with Sceptre. On Saturday, when Sceptre was being towed to the starting line behind Sovereign for a race against the trial horse Norsaga, the difference was striking. Where Sceptre had the rounded entrance that was the target of so much criticism, Sovereign is sharp. Where the older boat had a low bow that gave her the appearance of a weak "droopy snoot," the newer one has a look of power that extends aft to a modern chopped-off reverse transom. It is an open secret that the tank tests of Designer David Boyd's models at Stevens Institute in Hoboken were, in the words of Olin Stephens, "better than anything tested to that time." Since this "anything" included everything but the two new U.S. boats Constellation and American Eagle, it seems certain the challenger will go to the line with a hull that is not outclassed.

Sails are something else again. Since the New York Yacht Club cup committee ruled that new challengers (unlike Australia's Gretel) may not use American sails or sailcloth, British observers have been evaluating the trial races in terms of sails almost more than helmsmen, hulls or crews. When, on the first day that a course could be completed, Sovereign beat her rival by a stunning margin of 14 minutes 59 seconds, it was considered a triumph for Bruce Banks, a relative newcomer to English sailmaking. It was only his third attempt at a 12-meter main. Kurrewa was using a sail cut by another English loft in that race but, prior to it, using an American mainsail by Ted Hood, she had been superior, especially in light weather.

The next day Colonel R.S.G. (Stug) Perry, at the helm of Kurrewa, came to the start with the Hood mainsail set. British calm among the spectators gave way to noticeable excitement. At the five-minute gun Perry put his bow on the stern of Sovereign, sailed by Peter Scott, and a race began in the best Vim-Columbia tradition. Perry rode his adversary away from the line, jibed and led a badly back winded Sovereign past the committee boat. Scott tacked as soon as possible, Perry covered, and the rival winch pumpers found themselves in a tacking duel that lasted to the weather mark, where Kurrewa rounded 43 seconds ahead.

During the spinnaker run Scott tried valiantly to break through in a series of maneuvers aimed at cutting Perry's wind. So well did he succeed that Kurrewa's margin was cut to 15 seconds. On the second windward leg another series of short tacks lost distance for Scott, with Kurrewa gradually opening out until the head of her genoa pulled away from the luff wire. Prompt setting of an interim jib and new genoa kept her from losing too much distance, and the race went to Kurrewa by 19 seconds. Since Kurrewa had been beaten by 15 minutes in virtually identical conditions the day before, there was ample proof of the importance of sails—and a feeling of satisfaction that, despite defeat, the home-grown mainsail had done very well against the Hood. "Now we're getting somewhere," said one rear commodore.

Next morning found the oncoming low-pressure cell still stalled over the Atlantic. In the early afternoon the boats were given a desperation start in a three-to four-knot southerly zephyr, going barely faster than the tide. After preliminary maneuvering Sovereign had slightly the better of the start, but Kurrewa's wind was clear. For many minutes the boats sailed side by side so evenly that it seemed they were being towed by invisible wires. Then Kurrewa inched out, and Sovereign tacked. Another tack and it looked as though she had regained her lead, as Stug Perry went about early rather than challenge. Then the wind died completely. Losing steerageway, the boats drifted apart. When a new slant struck in from the direction of the Isle of Wight, Sovereign got it first and led by 3 minutes 30 seconds at the weather mark. This would normally be the race, but not with the Solent behaving like Long Island Sound at its worst. On the last hitch of the last leg, after completing an Olympic triangle and sailing once more to windward, a shift of wind through 270� lifted Kurrewa into the weather berth. Starting her sheets, she reached down across Sovereign's bow and sharpened up to barely make the line. When Scott had to tack, it was Kurrewa's race by more than two minutes.

On Sunday exactly the opposite took place. After a drifting start, the only fresh breeze of the series filled in, putting Kurrewa ahead when Sovereign lost distance in tacking to make a headsail change. Kurrewa was leading by a wide margin at every mark, but as the boats approached the finish the wind dropped and shifted practically around the compass. Kurrewa went from hard on the wind on one tack, through a spinnaker set and jibe, to hard on the wind on the other side. This time it was the trailing Sovereign's turn to win in the last few hundred yards.

All hands agreed that such frustrating conditions could not continue through the final day, but overnight they went from no wind to too much. With squalls of gale force predicted and rain slanting down, the race committee signaled cancellation. Of eight races scheduled in the second series of trials only four had been sailed, and all but one of those in conditions that make the total score to date of seven victories to five in Sovereign's favor a rather meaningless statistic. Both of David Boyd's new boats are handsome, but he may still be behind the new designs of Olin Stephens and Bill Luders in not reducing wetted surface through pushing forward the rudder post and in not going to the extreme new look in rudders. Moreover, Boyd still favors getting his human weight down low when possible, so his T-shaped cockpits are larger than on their American counterparts, although neither so deep nor so oversize as Sceptre's.

Winning their spurs

The rival British helmsmen are as different as their boats are alike. Peter Scott is a short, stocky, balding man of many talents. One of the greatest living painters of waterfowl, he has the quiet calm of a bird watcher, which indeed he is. But he is also a top glider pilot, President of the International Yacht Racing Union and a successful racing skipper in the smaller classes. I glimpsed in his small black notebook beautifully executed drawings of every tactical situation encountered in both sets of trials, each annotated and analyzed.

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