In a moment of well-mannered climax in the harbor of Newport, R.I. one day last week, a small blue launch brought a group of blue-coated gentlemen alongside a white sloop. One of the gentlemen, wearing a solemn look and a rather rakish straw hat instead of the traditional yachting cap, climbed aboard the sloop and was met by a group of husky young men who looked equally solemn. In the silence Commodore Henry S. Morgan's voice was formal. "I have the honor to inform you that Constellation has been selected to defend the America's Cup," he began, but what he said after that was lost in pandemonium. Whistles blew, hands were pumped and backs pounded, champagne materialized and corks popped. Spectators swarmed along the dock, and lipstick smudges appeared on the tanned cheeks of winch pumpers. It was the end of a long watery trail for a boat and crew that had come from behind to earn the greatest racing honor that the New York Yacht Club can bestow.
The announcement was made soon after the sloped stern of Constellation had led the oncoming bow of American Eagle across the finish line by nearly three-quarters of a mile, and two days before a similar announcement by the selection committee of Britain's Royal Thames Yacht Club made Sovereign the official British challenger. The selections ended a summer of racing which may go down in history as "The Year of the Seesaw," for rarely have the fortunes of competitors in any sport swung so sharply from one pole to the other in the middle of a season.
In June the brand-new 12-meter yacht American Eagle swooped out of the Stamford, Conn. yard of her designer, Bill Luders, and pounced upon her adversary, Constellation, from the opposite shore of Long Island Sound. At the wheel of the Bird—as Eagle was soon to be called—was the redoubtable Bill Cox, a survivor of countless marine encounters and the winner of a formidable percentage of them. Opposing him at the helm of Constellation was Eric Ridder, whose recent sailing has been mostly in ocean racers. A decade ago Ridder raced with considerable success in 6-meters before that class was abandoned for the smaller 5.5s.
The two came together first in the NYYC spring regatta. There were two days of racing in waters almost equidistant from their respective home ports, and American Eagle won both. They met twice again in the June preliminary trials in the same sheltered waters, and Eagle had two more victories in her talons. Moving to the open sea off Newport in July, they sailed only one completed race in the observation trials, and Eagle won that. A second race, in which Constellation broke free for the first time to lead at the weather mark, was called off when heavy fog shrouded the course.
Then came the New York Yacht Club annual cruise. American Eagle took the first run, a heavy-weather buster from New London to Block Island, when Constellation lost an experimental mast constructed partially of titanium, a metal familiar to the aircraft industry but new to yacht fabricators. By this time Eagle was 6 up on Constellation, and her record became even more impressive if one added in her victories over the two older 12s, Nefertiti and
That night, as Constellation crept ignominiously to Newport under tow, American Eagle hung at anchor in Great Salt Pond on Block Island, serene in the knowledge that she had won 15 times and had never suffered a defeat. Not only did Luders appear to have come up with a breakthrough design, but Cox seemed invincible at the helm. As one nonyachting reporter commented, "Yachting writers have begun to assign him epithets appropriate to Odysseus." Headlines pointed to the near certainty of Eagle's meeting the British challenger at the America's Cup buoy come September, and an anticipatory caption writer even labeled a photograph of her "The Defender."
But the Constellation group refused to lie down and die. The crew scribbled BEAT THE BIRD with Magic Marker on their clothes and even on their skins, supporters wore political-campaign-type lapel buttons bearing the same motto, and the slogan appeared on flags flying from vessels in the spectator fleet, a practice that drew disapproving frowns from the New York Yacht Club when Eagle's fortune changed.
Two days later off Newport, Constellation was ready when the committee hoisted starting signals, carrying a conventional mast borrowed from her trial horse, Nereus. And over a course for the Caritas Cup—on Sunday, July 26, to fix the pivot date exactly—the lower end of the seesaw got off the ground. Constellation won her first race against American Eagle. She lost the next day (largely because she was over the starting line early and had to go back), but she then proceeded to rack up all three of the remaining cruise events. Now Constellation's score had moved to a respectable 4-7 for the season, but the main thing was the discovery that the Bird was vulnerable after all.
Immediately the chorus began: "What happened?" American Eagle had been one of those early front-runners who not only open a lead but do it so impressively that a change in the status quo seems unthinkable. The answer is probably best summed up in Olin Stephens' philosophy of "the little things"—the matter of perfecting and adjusting a myriad elements into a smoothly functioning whole—that he had first enunciated during the
campaign six years before. This time one of the little things was finding the right sails—and once Constellation's No. 1 Hood mainsail was brought to perfection it was carried in all but three winning races. Another was discarding an experimental genoa-changing device and spinnaker-jibing technique, while getting the bugs out of coffee-grinder winches so radical they have been likened in appearance to Project Apollo's moon craft. With the bugs out, the winches efficiency was so great that short-tacking became a decisive weapon. Another not-so-little thing was finding the best combination of talent in the cockpit.
In the early races Alternate Helmsman Robert N. Bavier Jr. took the wheel from Skipper Eric Ridder only on downwind legs. Yet as an old competitor and shipmate of Bill Cox in Lightnings—one year they finished one-two in the Long Island Sound championships, another year Bavier crewed for Cox in the Mallory Cup—it became apparent that Bavier was better equipped than Ridder to cope with what one observer called Cox's "devilish cleverness" in starts and tactics. So, in another parallel to the '58 campaign, when Helmsman Don Matthews stepped aside on Vim in favor of Bus Mosbacher, Eric Ridder switched to alternate, while Bob Bavier became starting helmsman.