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Bob Ottum
August 31, 1964
Skipper Bill Cox of the would-be cup defender 'American Eagle' is strung as tight as the standing rigging on his boat and, like its spars and stays, defies the wind with unobtrusive force
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August 31, 1964

Tense Sailor For A Taut Ship

Skipper Bill Cox of the would-be cup defender 'American Eagle' is strung as tight as the standing rigging on his boat and, like its spars and stays, defies the wind with unobtrusive force

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It was one of those Newport parties where everyone shows up in a dark-blue blazer. The governor was there, and the mayor, and someone else who was running for governor. Practically everyone on the terrace at old Marble House mansion had the calico look of late sailing summer—faces deeply burned, salt-sprayed and chapped. A three-piece band played, hot Rhode Island johnny-cakes were served at tables on the lawn and about the time the whole thing was over the key man arrived. He had missed the governor's reception line and he moved like a wraith in crepe-soled deck shoes, his face set firm. People pointed him out. "That's Cox," they said, "of the American Eagle."

In Newport this is like saying, "That's Queeg of the Caine" or "Jones of the Bonhomme Richard." Skipper Cox of the 12-meter yacht American Eagle is a hero or a villain—depending upon which 12-meter crew you talk to—and he is likely to remain so even after the America's Cup races are done. At the Newport party he dodged the receiving line because he did not have anything to say to the mayor or the governor. He didn't mean to be rude. He really doesn't have anything to say these days to anyone not directly connected with racing.

Bill Cox's whole being is tied so tightly to the business at hand that if someone slapped him on the back—which is unthinkable—he would ring like a tuning fork. He has been building himself up to this condition since he quit his publishing job in New York City last January 3 and started thinking about racing for the cup. Nowadays in cup-conscious Newport crowds are always standing thickly along the piers where the 12-meters come in, but they part like the sea and fall silent when Cox walks by. Two weeks ago, when he headed out along the worn planks toward the Eagle, head thrust forward and walking with tense, whip-like strides, a reporter called out cheerily, "Good luck, Bill." Cox jumped visibly. "No, no," he barked. "Don't talk to me now. Not now."

Skipper Cox is unrelaxed for two reasons: 1) it is his nature, and 2) the hopes and dollars of a lot of people are resting on his deceptively frail-looking shoulders. It takes roughly $1 million to put a boat like Eagle into a cup campaign, and that estimate is so rough that around Newport the oldtimers say it could be low by a quarter of a million. Eagle's million is split among 41 members of a well-heeled organization that calls itself the Aurora Syndicate. Some of the 41 shares are even divided into anonymous subshares. Eagle was designed and built by Bill Luders (SI, July 27), whose name is a household word among sailing men, and many of them say she is the best thing ever to come out of his shipyard. Even when tied up at a dock, Eagle looks as if she is going about 30 knots, and in race after race with her archrival, Constellation, she showed that her look of speed was not illusory. As Eagle's reputation grew, Cox drove his crew through racing drills from early morning until night—packing enough food aboard in hampers to keep their energies fed: 36 half-pints of milk, two gallons of lemonade, a case of soft drinks and sandwiches, all of which are prepared at the Eagle's Nest (an impressive old Newport mansion that serves as their HQ) lest some flu germ from some alien kitchen get to them.

Out on the rolling swells off Newport—a capricious area with wind that shifts and clouds that turn the sun on and off—Skipper Cox communicates with his men in terse hand signals. Sometimes when Assistant Helmsman Eugene Stetson relays some vital information, such as how much water is under the keel, Cox will give no sign of acknowledgment whatever. "Am I talking loud enough?" Stetson will say worriedly, and Cox will answer, not looking aside for a moment, "I hear you." They sail on in silence, eyes on the sails and trim.

It is to Cox's credit that he did not break his silence when John B. Nichols, a keen and thoroughly liked sailor who had been in charge of Eagle's deck gang, dropped out of the crew at the end of the preliminary trials. Newport insiders were badly jolted by the change; yachting reporters called for explanations and, when none were forthcoming, went off speculating on their own in a manner not flattering to Cox. On the rival Constellation, Foredeck Chief Buddy Bombard voiced the general feeling: "I'm glad I am not on Eagle. I've sailed with Cox before." But Bill Cox only said, "These things happen in racing, and we don't like it any better than anyone else."

" Cox is no hair-puller," growled portly, rumpled Clayton Ewing, one of Aurora's members. "He knows that shouting doesn't get anything in this thing. Some people think we made a daring move in signing Cox as the skipper of Eagle," Ewing went on. "Up to that time his experience had been largely in small boats, and this was an awfully big step up." Nevertheless, the syndicate, forming last October, gambled—and won—on Cox's status as a two-time international Lightning class champion. "The result," said Ewing, "is that Cox steers this big 12 like it is a Lightning. The fact that it is so much bigger does not scare him, and it shows in the results."

Sailing has been Bill Cox's life since he was a boy, according to his pretty wife Libby. He has raced boats from the time he went to prep school in Avon, Conn., through a year at Exeter and even while he was a psychology major at Princeton University in the class of 1935.

"Bill was very serious, even as a schoolboy," says Libby Cox. "But one night at Princeton—I'll never know how they managed to do it—some of his classmates taught him to shoot craps, and I guess he showed a flair for it. In any case, he played all night and was winning heavily. The game lasted until about noon the next day, and Bill got out of it with about $400 in cash, enough to take a vacation in Bermuda. That was in 1934, and he met me there and we fell very quickly in love. Ever since that time he has said that he really won me in a crap game."

The Coxes were wed in August 1935, and Bill, who was then a $15-a-week ad salesman for The Bride's Magazine, got a $10 raise. His earnest, steady, firm, blue-eyed approach sold more ad space than anyone before or since at Bride's, and before long he became assistant to the president. After Bride's was swallowed up by Cond� Nast Publications, Cox became business manager for the latter.

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