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THE RACE THAT BROKE THE BIRD
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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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.

On these pages, in terms as technical as any sailor could wish yet with a dramatic intensity that is certain to stir partially baffled landsmen, one of America's foremost racing sailors describes the contest pictured above. It was the fifth race in the final series to pick a defender for the America's Cup a year ago. A month earlier the Bill Luders-designed 12, American Eagle, had seemed a shoo-in. "Beat the Bird," was the battle cry at Newport then, but nobody thought it could be done. In race after race against Columbia, Nefertiti and Olin Stephens' new Constellation, Eagle had been victorious. Then, in a gesture both wise and sporting, Eric Ridder , Constellation's skipper and part owner, appointed Bob Bavier, an old rival of Eagle's skipper Bill Cox, to take his place at the helm of the Stephens boat. Suddenly the legend of the Bird's invincibility began to fade, and on the day this race was sailed it flickered out entirely.

As we threaded our way out to the start through the spectator fleet of more than 100 boats I went forward to join our foredeck gang, Buddy Bombard, veteran of two cup campaigns, Dick Goennel and Fenny Johnson. Their small talk was doing a pretty fair job of quelling the butterflies that always come to me before a big race, when I noticed the committee boat dropping anchor. It was 11:30, half an hour before our scheduled start. Time to go aft and check the line and wind direction. "Dazzle 'em at the start, Reynard!" was Buddy's parting remark. "Sure, no problem at all," I answered weakly.

Back in the cockpit Eric Ridder, Rod Stephens and I had a brief conference on which jib to start with. If the present 7-knot wind held, it would be three-ounce weather. A knot or two more and we would need the five-ounce. We decided to gamble on the three-ounce, hoping it would give us an early jump before the wind increased.

Right on the dot of 11:40 a gun was fired and course signals were hoisted smartly on the committee boat, Alicia. Course 225�, they said, indicating the direction of the first mark, 4� miles upwind. I climbed over the traveler horse and took the wheel. Eric muttered, "Go get 'em, Bob," and took his station by the backstay winches.

"Check the intercom, Rod," I said, more to have something comfortable to think about than because of any real need. There was something cheery about hearing Buddy's voice crackle through from the bow: "Hear you loud and clear. How are things on the dry end?"

Word was passed forward about our jib choice. "Lead No. 26," I called to Don Wakeman, who was setting the genoa slide in that very hole.

"Five-ounce No. 2 in the chute, Buddy," Rod called forward on the intercom, "and make sure the three-quarter-ounce 45 is ready." The three-quarter-ounce 45 was our favorite spinnaker for this weight of wind. Seven other spinnakers were also ready, but Rod's warning gave the foredeck gang some indication of priority so that the 45 would be one of four most accessible to the hatch the chutes were set out of.

Constellation felt lively as we reached back and forth below the line. Eagle was keeping her distance off beyond the leeward extension. My mouth was getting dry. "Got some gum, Steve?" I asked, and Steve Van Dyck, our 21-year-old coffee-grinder tailer and spinnaker sheet man, produced two sticks.

Our watches showed the 10-minute gun approaching. They were stopped and reset to zero in order to time the gun exactly. We saw the smoke and a split second later heard the gun's bang. Rod hollered, "Ten minutes." Eagle was off beyond the buoy end of the line and tacking back toward us as we cleared the committee boat and reached for a spot 100 yards to leeward of the buoy. In a bit more than a minute, if both boats held course, we should meet about 100 yards to leeward of the line and near its midpoint. Just right for position, I thought, but if we hook up there it will mean nearly eight minutes of exhausting tailing. I decided to do it anyway. "We'll hook up as we come together," I shouted so all could hear. No complaints even by a glance. All hands knew these races were for real, and I especially wanted to start the all-important circling process at the midpoint of the line, where there was less chance of being blocked should Eagle get on our tail.

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