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Equally important, at the beginning of the NYYC cruise, the incomparable Rod Stephens came aboard as navigator, tactical advisor, rigging tuner and jack of any other nautical jobs needing to be done. When he arrived, a dockside loiterer called down, "Say, what are you going to do to change her?" Rod looked up in surprise and answered, "Nothing." He spoke truly. Not a thing has been done since her launching to alter the basic boat that is Constellation. Even the controversial scimitar-shaped rudder, which looked so inadequate that Olin Stephens himself distrusted his calculations and had a larger spare built, has remained unchanged. The 19th defender is a design-table, tank-test dream that came true.
In the camps of the other contenders there was activity between the cruise and the commencement of the final trials on Aug. 17. Hoping to improve light-weather performance, Luders shaved some lead off the bottom of Eagle's U-shaped keel, achieving what he jokingly called "a poor man's V" and thereby moving toward the wedge favored by Stephens. Eagle's rudder area was likewise reduced.
For America's Cup candidates the final trials are as different from the earlier series as the cup matches are from the finals. Crews who have survived all of them find the final trials the most harrowing. Earlier there is a feeling that mistakes can be rectified, lessons stored against the future, but suddenly—as the boats approach the line each day for what might be a last starting gun—the tension that has been building through the dedicated months becomes almost unbearable. It sweeps out from the racing boats to the spectator fleet in waves almost as tangible as those lifting the hulls, and even touches the gentlemen of the selection committee, intent on spotting every error that the crews are so afraid of making.
On opening day, Monday, Aug. 17, Constellation was matched against Columbia, American Eagle against Nefertiti. And under a murky sky, in a light southeasterly bobble, the first strokes of doom sounded for the two older boats. Constellation trounced her elder sister soundly, while American Eagle simply flew away from Nefertiti. Next day, as the older and the newer boats sailed in pairs, what might have developed into a close race between Constellation and American Eagle was spoiled in its initial stages when a splice pulled out of the hitter's genoa halyard, dumping the sail into the water. By the time another jib was set and drawing, it was no longer a contest. Fluky winds turned it into a rout of 11 minutes 42 seconds—with Nefertiti heaping insult on the wounded Bird by finishing ahead of her, while even Columbia threatened to go past. It was the last moment of glory for the older boats, though. On Wednesday and Thursday both were again outclassed, and that evening the selection committee eliminated them.
While Nefertiti's skipper, Ted Hood, could have had no quarrel with the decision, he might be forgiven a round seaman's oath at the weather gods. In two years of final trials Nefertiti had yet to come to the starting line in enough breeze to blow a handkerchief off a deck. Co-Owner E. Ross Anderson accepted the decision graciously, merely commenting, "I wish we'd had more variation in wind"—the understatement of the season.
Now the stage was set for what has come to be called "the final finals," the ultimate contests when the choice has been narrowed to two boats, match-racing each day under cup conditions. A magnificent stage it is, possibly the finest in the world for round-the-buoy competition. Centered on a special orange-and-white mark placed nine miles south-southeast of Brenton Reef Light, it offers open water in every direction, shallow enough for anchoring, yet far enough offshore to be free of wind deflection and strong currents. As nearly as is possible in the tricky sport of sailboat racing, it eliminates luck and the need for local knowledge.
The first meeting was worthy of the setting. It was a day of morning haze burned away by a sun that still looked frosty, and a lazy silver groundswell riffled by a light sou'wester. Constellation started near the committee boat, Eagle near the buoy. Cox apparently was in the driver's seat, to windward and a little ahead. But then Constellation began to eat up to weather, pointing higher while footing faster. Within 10 minutes Bavier had achieved a position where wind bouncing off his mainsail was hurting Eagle, forcing her to tack. This might have been the end for Eagle, but instead there began a series of maneuvers as intricate and perfectly planned as moves in a game of chess, moves with which Cox maintained a slim lead over a faster boat and finished by forcing Constellation to dip under Eagle's stern and follow her around the mark by 12 seconds.
For two spinnaker reaches, the next windward leg and the dead run prescribed for the 24.3-mile Olympic course, the two boats were almost close enough to be covered by a circus tent. When they began the final beat Eagle had led around all five marks, but her nemesis was only 25 seconds behind. Now it was Bob Bavier's turn to join battle, which he did by inaugurating a tacking duel. Each time they came about, Constellation gained a trifle, and each time she had her wind clear her phenomenal ability to look high and go there was apparent. Nor did she seem to be slowed by the seas as much as her rival. She plunged noticeably less than Eagle—which helped to explain why her late-season performance in the open sea was better than her earlier showing on the smooth waters of Long Island Sound. As Briggs Cunningham commented, "Constellation looks like an eight-oared shell that shoots ahead between strokes. There is no jerking. She doesn't stop when she hits a sea—she cuts through." After 17 tacks Constellation had driven through in a series of maneuvers as brilliant as those of Cox on the first leg, Bavier attaining the point where Eagle was forced to break away. After a long starboard hitch, Constellation had gained so much that Cox in desperation started a series of tacks himself, but to no avail. He trailed across the finish line by one minute 8 seconds. That night no one had to sing the winch pumpers to sleep. Olin Stephens, watching from the tender Chaperone, recorded that Constellation had tacked 80 times in the three weather legs: 15 on the first, 21 on the second and 44 on the third.
It was this race that made me as an observer feel that Constellation would end on top, although the seesaw wasn't yet quite balanced. Eagle still led 7-6 for the season, but it was apparent that the cockpit triumvirate of Bavier, Stephens and Ridder not only was unawed by Cox but capable of giving as good as it got. Sails and sail handling seemed about equal, except that Constellation had the edge on the tacks by being able to trim faster and gather way more quickly. Most of all, I was impressed by the look of Constellation as she went through the water, even in comparison with what unquestionably was an outstanding design by Luders in Eagle. It seemed to me that Stephens' boat should have to pay for her close-windedness by moving more slowly than a boat driving off, but she didn't—-a tremendous advantage over the Olympic course, 55% of which must be sailed to windward.
This quality was painfully apparent to Bill Cox the next time they met, Monday, Aug. 24. Although Eagle had the best of the start, within 10 minutes Bavier had squeezed up from leeward to force Cox about, killed an attempted tacking duel by gaining on each hitch and led by one minute 29 seconds at the mark. Eagle got back some on the reaches, but Constellation sailed the next windward leg 2 minutes 32 seconds faster, added more on the run and wound up victor over a shortened course by 4 minutes 15 seconds. When the Constellation crew tied up at the Newport Shipyard it was greeted by a prophesy crudely handwritten on the wall of a storage locker by one of the yard workmen: "Eagle feathers for sale cheap." Underneath was pasted plumage from a molting sea gull. The Bird was flying high no longer.