SI Vault
Robert N. Bavier Jr.
August 16, 1965
A racing sailor's shoptalk is often as incomprehensible to a landsman as the chitchat of the tack room is to those unfamiliar with horse racing. Yet in any race, over land or over water, the problem of getting to the finish line ahead of a desperate rival is the same. When the race is a close one, the tensions, the suspense, the thrill of winning and the heartbreak of losing are comprehensible in any language.
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August 16, 1965

The Race That Broke The Bird

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Rod had the stadimeter going and called, "A hundred thirty yards," as we crossed Eagle's stern. A bad margin, but we knew we had gained. She tacked square on our wind, and we tacked away again, our men grimacing and grunting at the winches, the tailer flailing at the genoa sheet. "A hundred twenty yards," Rod fairly shouted as we crossed the next time. Three and a half miles to go! We could catch them yet.

The tacks were coming every minute or two now. Buddy and Dick were taking their turns at the coffee-grinders while two of their men grabbed a rest. I began to wonder just how much more they could take. "How you guys doing?" I shouted. "Give us a hundred more," bellowed Bob Connell, who had never been spelled. They heard Rod calling ranges of 110, 100, 90, 83, 75 and finally 55 yards. They could look ahead at the ever-closing gap.

Three miles to go. Up ahead I could see Bill Cox crouching lower and lower over his wheel, casting quick glances to leeward as he crossed us, glancing at the main, the seas to windward and back again to us. Always back to us. I saw him swing up sharply this time—too sharply. He was making the same mistake I had made on the first windward leg. Sure enough, as we swung through our tack I could see Eagle full and by on her main with her genoa still not sheeted home. "Slow and easy now, Bob," I muttered half aloud. "Thirty-five yards," hollered Rod.

On the next tack we were still closer, too close for Rod to get stadimeter readings. Still he held it up, appeared to take a reading and, facing toward Eagle, shouted, "Another 10 yards, Bob." On the next tack it was, "Cut it in half again, Bob." It dawned on me these readings were not for me but for Bill Cox, to give him all possible worry.

A moment later we matched Eagle's tack and drove off onto port tack. She was crossing us by less than a length, and Constellation was smashing through the seas, throwing spray and exuding power. We were up to 8 knots as Eagle crossed us—too close to tack on top.

"This time we hold," I shouted, not caring if Eagle heard. The crew dropped on deck like so many logs, their faces trained on Eagle as she tacked broad off our weather bow. We were abeam when she was sheeted home and we were flying. "All full," our crew shouted and then, "Bye-bye," accompanied by eight hands waving at our desperate foe. We all knew this was it, all knew we would drive through and stay there.

Eagle hung on grimly, but in one minute 15 seconds that seemed like an hour we squeezed up under her bow, forced her to tack and followed suit a moment later. There were about two miles to go and we led by only 50 feet, but Constellation was moving.

No one said much during that last couple of miles. Rod and I both gave Constellation a loving pat, but when we crossed at 17:36:36 the spectator fleet tore the air apart. Constellation's crew leaped into the cockpit howling like wolves, grabbing at my hand, at Eric's, at Rod's, pounding each other, and all 11 of us talked, shouted and screamed at once.

We were quiet when Eagle crossed a minute and eight seconds later, then broke into a rousing cheer as the spectator horns spoke again with equal volume. On Eagle the crewmen slowly got to their feet, lowered jib and walked aimlessly about.

Suddenly I felt tired. For over four hours I hadn't noticed the slightest fatigue. Now my knees were literally shaking, and as I sat on deck, feet draped into the cockpit, I found it hard to draw an even breath. A moment later, with a beer in hand, I began reliving the past four and a half hours, all compressed into a minute's thought. The many mistakes I had made on that first leg flashed before me, the long chase condensed itself into seconds and finally, as I thought of that last leg, I found myself smiling.

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