"The roses have wilted, the days of hope and excitement are things of the past," wrote the yachting correspondent of The Times of London in bitter disillusionment last week after one of the worst defeats ever suffered by a British challenger for the America's Cup. "In the hot September sunshine Sovereign has been written off as yet another expensive failure, and one of the world's great spectacles has entered the realm of farce." "The debacle at Newport," wrote Jack Knights in the
, "is disappointing the victorious Americans even more than it is our routed selves. Those two new $600,000 yachts American Eagle and Constellation were built quite needlessly. Sovereign could have been well taken care of by any existing American yacht sailed by a few close friends of the owner. Sovereign has let down more than her own team. Our standard of yachting is higher than her performance indicates." "The defeat of Sovereign," wrote David Thorpe in the
, "was staggering and humiliating." In contrast to these journalistic diatribes from overseas was the tone of U.S. yachting writers, who were almost polite as they reported the fiasco that took place off Newport; yet there was scarcely one who did not feel that the whole sport of yacht racing had been in some sense shamed by this one-sided contest. On the next page Carleton Mitchell offers his evaluation of what happened.
HOW A TERRIBLE TRUTH BECAME CLEAR
Before the last spray settled off the Rhode Island coast after the races for the famed America's Cup, a terrible truth had become clear: Sovereign, like 15 predecessors from the British Isles, would not go home bearing the grail of yachting on her shield, but prone upon that shield herself.
The challenger had entered the lists confident and unafraid, crimson roses emblazoned on her bow and stern. Her crew was deployed on deck, their red shirts reminiscent of the red coats of an earlier invasion in this same locality. Her blue flanks lifting to the swells, her aluminum mast glinting in the sunshine, Sovereign looked a champion. True, a few sharp eyes perceived flaws in her armor—a droopy main boom topped by odd-shaped sails, for instance—but she nonetheless appeared fully capable of giving a stalwart account of herself in combat.
Circling to meet her came the defender, Constellation, a white charger tended by men in blue. There was something prophetic in the way her sharp bow sliced through the confused sea—a deadly intimation of power. Her sails might have been hammered from a single sheet of white metal, satin-smooth and curved into near-aerodynamic perfection. On her deck were winches of strange design. Above all, there was an impressive efficiency in the way she responded to the man at her helm, Bob Bavier, through tack and jibe as the encounter was joined.
There were no polite preliminaries. Both contestants were eager to have at each other. Closing at the 10-minute signal before the first race, they circled bow to stern as each awaited an opening. They broke apart briefly and closed on approaching the line with less than a minute to go, Constellation on starboard tack. Sovereign's helmsman, Peter Scott, tacked ahead, seeking the lee bow position, where his sails would backwind his opponent, but Bavier foiled the maneuver by swinging sharply up to take the weather berth with clear wind.
A long swell—a memento of the offshore passage of hurricane Dora—set across the course on Tuesday. It was crisscrossed by small whitecaps from the moderate west-southwest wind and the wakes of the spectator fleet. The result was a nasty bobble that seemed to bother Sovereign more than Constellation. As in the final trials, Olin Stephens' latest creation stopped for nothing, while pointing higher than seemed possible. Within eight minutes after the start the American boat had gained enough to blanket Sovereign, forcing Scott to tack. The defender covered and gained on each of several succeeding tacks that were inaugurated by the challenger as the latter struggled to clear her wind. Soon Bavier was so far ahead that he came about at leisure, applying only casual cover against a wind shift.
Still, at this point it could not be said that Sovereign was hopelessly outclassed. The margin of one minute 49 seconds at the first weather mark was no worse than many defeats meted out in the American trials, and Constellation added only one second in time to her windward lead during the two reaches that followed. The second upwind leg, in a breeze that had lightened, could hardly be considered a fair test. Despite a Coast Guard patrol plan for the course that looked like a battle attack chart, the British boat sailed most of the leg in the wash of the spectator fleet. Constellation, in less disturbed water, gained one minute 10 seconds, added another one minute 51 seconds downwind and a modest but decisive 43 seconds on the final beat for a margin of 5 minutes 34 seconds.
It was a bad defeat, and most of the British contingent was stunned. Ever since 1958 the battle cry had been, "There must not be another Sceptre!" Untold effort had gone into producing not one but two British challengers, they had raced down to the wire as had the American candidates for defense, and it seemed impossible that Sovereign could not make a close match of it. Nevertheless there was a ghostly image on the horizon that was not the Flying Dutchman. The specter of Sceptre had risen.
The next day found the fleet back at the buoy waiting for a breeze that never materialized. As a fitting climax to Newport's windless summer, the race committee for the first time in 44 years was forced to call off a race. Overnight a front moved in, and on Thursday a chill south-southwest wind varying between 16 and 20 knots laced the gray sea with whitecaps. With little preliminary sparring, the contestants settled down to business at the starting gun. Both were late, but Sovereign was favored by being almost the entire length of the line to windward. Almost immediately, however, Constellation began her amazing act of squeezing up from leeward. This remarkable boat points so high that she seems in the process of coming about, yet she simply hangs and keeps going, a trick comparable to the bumblebee flying when the scientists' slide rules say that it cannot.