The second of the three series of round-robin races to pick an America's Cup defender is officially known as the Observation Trials. This means, in a sense, that during this series the committee is only window-shopping; it does not plan to buy until the shop doors are almost closed at the Final Trials. There is still a month to go before these trials begin, but the shoppers off Brenton Reef were finding their choice narrowed considerably. Of the five boats competing for the honor of meeting England's challenge, only two seemed worth bidding on at all, and only one bore the look of a real bargain. That one was the Aurora syndicate's American Eagle, a slippery racing boat named for the chunky square-rigger that brought the first immigrant Du Pont to the U.S. from France on New Year's Day of 1800.
In 12 races during the first two sets of trials, just concluded, Eagle was never headed officially. With onetime Lightning and International Class champion Bill Cox at her helm, she beat the Hovey family's slickly varnished Easterner, the veteran defender
and Ted Hood's reworked Nefertiti with regularity. This was hardly surprising, since Eagle is newer than any of these three and thus presumably a better boat. What was a surprise, and a big one, was Eagle's apparent superiority over the other new boat, Constellation, the latest potential defender to spring from the fertile mind of Olin Stephens, designer of two previous winners.
Once again Stephens has designed what is obviously a very fast boat, and the fact that Eagle beat her in every official meeting could be blamed more on steering than on design. Cox outmaneuvered Constellation's Eric Ridder at every all-important start. And though Constellation's crew handled her sails with machined precision, her course upwind invariably left a wake reminiscent of a snake's progress across a desert. It was significant that in the latest meeting between the two boats Constellation—with relief helmsman Bob Bavier in command—was leading by a wide margin before the race was called because of fog.
This seems to indicate that, with a new skipper at her helm, the Stephens boat could come back into strong contention against American Eagle at the final trials. Until then, however, the battle cry at Newport—as stenciled on the pants of Constellation's crew—will remain "Beat the bird!"
The bird to beat is the sleek brainchild of a quiet, modest naval architect named Bill Luders, behind whose gentle blue eyes lies what may be the greatest store of information about the International Twelve Metre Rule ever assembled in one human brain. If the name Bill Luders, or, more properly, A. E. Luders Jr., is less familiar to laymen in connection with America's Cup racing than names like Hood, Hunt, Stephens, Rhodes and Burgess, it is largely Bill's own fault. Public relations is a large part of yacht design, and Luders is a man seemingly determined to keep out of the limelight. Few knew it at the time but, as Corny Shields said later, "Bill Luders was the unsung hero of Weatherly's successful campaign in 1960." Weatherly was the boat that beat out the Shields family's own
, a proven champion, for the honor of defending a second time. She was a Phil Rhodes-designed boat, but she was built at Luders' yard and Bill knew her well. "You ought to shorten those spreaders and cut down her weight some and she'd move faster," Luders told those who were campaigning Weatherly, in essence if not in those exact words. The result was that they did and she did, but few outside the inner circle knew that Bill Luders was largely responsible.
Although he has never learned to lead the cheers for himself, Bill Luders, now 54, is a born competitor. If he had not grown up in the yachting business (his father owned the shipyard Bill now heads), Luders might easily have made his mark in the world of tennis or on the ski slopes. He is still a rabid skier, and he has enough tennis-won silverware stuffed in a closet in Stamford, Conn. to ballast a good-size racing sloop, but boats were his first and have always been his main sporting interest. At 16 he won a class championship in a six-meter named Hawk, a fact made the more interesting because he was at the time, in Yachting magazine's prim phrase, "the youngest sailor on Long Island Sound racing in a regular class."
Luders, who decided some time after his prep days at The Hill School that further formal education was a waste of time, began his apprenticeship in naval architecture with one of the most complex of all design problems: that of wresting actual speed out of theoretical restriction.
The International Rule which, in various forms, has governed the design of racing sailboats in the 5.5-, six-, eight-, 10-, 12-and 14-meter classes is a complex mathematical balance of such factors as length, girth, sail area and freeboard measurements within which all boats of one class must fall. The rule is to Bill Luders what the chessboard is to Bobby Fischer, a precisely outlined field of competitive challenge. He has designed to the Cruising Club of America Rule as well, and some fine ocean-racing boats have come from the Luders drawing board, but he himself has never raced them offshore, nor is he likely to. Ocean racing is a hit-or-miss proposition where hot bunks and cold food take the place of precision and accuracy. Ocean races are sailed in sudden spurts at the start and the finish. Betweentimes the racers find their fun in hours of idleness and the excitement of sudden storm, in tall sea stories and gusty, lusty laughter. "It's all right for them," says precise Bill Luders with some distaste, "but leave me out of it."
When Bill Luders races a boat he races to win and not for the fun of getting wet and talking about it later. His racing instinct finds its challenge on the drawing board, on the slide rule and on a precisely marked triangle of buoys, where wind and tide are predictable within reasonable probability. Whether his boat is still a blueprint or afloat with him at the helm, no detail that can affect that probability is ever overlooked. Back in the 1940s, when he won the International One-Design championship from such skilled competitors as Bus Mosbacher, Corny Shields and Arthur Knapp, Skipper Luders had a standing order with the crew of his IOD Surf that her bottom must be rubbed smooth as satin with a piece of chamois before every weekend race. Since haul-outs were permitted only three times a season, nobody but fish could know for sure whether the job had been done. But Luders knew. One day before a race in particularly light air, he double-checked with the bottom-scraper of the week. Had the job been done properly? he asked. "Yes," came the prompt reply.
"Are you sure?"