For the first 20 minutes of the first windward leg of the first race the outcome of the 20th challenge for the America's Cup remained in reasonable doubt. Jock Sturrock, at the helm of the Australian 12-meter sloop Dame Pattie, started slightly to leeward and ahead of Bus Mosbacher on Intrepid, the American defender. Both skippers had their wind clear and could concentrate on getting their boats moving through steep, confused seas. Offshore the hurricane known as Doria was generating long swells, and a fresh northeasterly wind was putting tops on them. After a summer of foggy calm during the trials, the weather gods were providing a real test for the opening cup match.
At first the two yachts held even, almost as though they were attached to the same invisible towline. Silhouetted against a sky of cloudless blue, on a sea of darker blue laced with whitecaps, they provided a moment of beauty and excitement. Then several depressing truths became evident. Dame Pattie was heeling more than her rival, burying her lee rail deeply and scooping crests into her cockpit. At the same time she had begun to plunge violently, driving her bow into oncoming seas and shoveling them across her foredeck in cascades. Moreover, her sails of Australian fabric, an important question mark before the race, were now revealed as not up to the stresses imposed by the power of a modern 12. As one observer commented afterward, "You could almost see them go out of shape." The draft moved aft in the jib, spilling air into a mainsail that was too full except along the leech, a combination that not only killed Dame Pattie's drive but contributed to her heeling angle.
As the Dame's weaknesses revealed themselves, Intrepid seemed to be going along on rails. In the first real heavy-weather test of her career, she translated into visible reality the abstruse calculations of Designer Olin Stephens, who had prophesied that she would be at her best when it blew. Her stability was remarkable, a virtue achieved by keeping all necessary weight as low as possible. Intrepid's coffee grinders and crewmen were belowdecks, and all unnecessary weight in her hull and rig had been pared to the vanishing point in order to concentrate it in her lead keel. Her short ends not only contributed to this stability, but lessened any tendency she might have had to plunge. Rarely did white water come over her bow.
Aloft, Intrepid's sails provided the drive necessary to slash through the turbulence below. Sails provide the horsepower for a racing yacht, and Sail Cutter Ted Hood had harnessed a whole stable of stallions for the defender. It was later revealed that Intrepid's mainsail was of 7.5-ounce fabric, against 12-ounce material in the Dame's. Although Hood sailcloth is available in Australia, the secret of the amazing fabric on Intrepid remains locked in Hood's brain.
Gradually but inexorably the relative position of the two boats changed as Intrepid forged ahead, moving to the point where her wind shadow fell on Dame Pattie. There was nothing for Sturrock to do but tack. He did so, and added a few more tacks in the hope of wriggling clear, but it gained him nothing. He held on, while Intrepid continued to eat slowly out to windward and away. It was a familiar pattern to me in America's Cup competition. I glanced at my watch and found that 20 minutes had elapsed since the start. At that instant I felt certain that unless a miracle occurred, the Victorian pitcher taken from England by the schooner
in 1851 was destined once more to remain on its pedestal in the New York Yacht Club.
Such oversimplification is not intended to belittle Australia's truly magnificent effort to produce a worthy challenger. But since 1958 I have been a close-in follower of every final trial race and cup match, and I have yet to see it fail: the boat that has a decisive edge to windward in tough conditions has it everywhere else as well—except perhaps in a drifting match. On Intrepid, as on past winners, it seemed to result from cumulative efficiency in all departments: a hull that moved through the water more easily, aerodynamically perfect sails, better sail-handling equipment, a cleaner rig, gear less prone to failure, better helmsmanship and cockpit savvy, even a sharper deck organization, which proved itself in the cleaner handling of spinnakers.
The same factors that make a boat superior in a fresh wind hold true in moderate weather, in my experience, even though they are less evident. In previous years the curtain has been raised on the cup drama in zephyrs. The losing crew's cry then has always been, "Just wait until we get a blow." Each time the boat wanting wind has been clobbered worse than before when she got it. This time Dame Pattie, admittedly a yacht designed for lighter airs, was getting her baptism in nearly the maximum conditions under which 12s could be raced. The race committee had announced several days before that a start would be made if the tugs serving as stake boats could be anchored—and that was about it.
Yet, as I watched this first race, I felt that the second Australian challenger, like the first, was going down in defeat, not in disgrace. Veteran ocean racer Dick Bertram was standing at my side. He has been a close follower of 12-meter racing since he was in charge of Vim's foredeck in '58, and he echoed my thoughts when he commented, "Dame Pattie is sailing better with Intrepid in these conditions than any American contender would be." It seemed to both of us that she could give Intrepid plenty of trouble, and even win races, if they met in really light airs and calm seas.
The races, like the trials, were sailed over a 24.3-mile Olympic course, shaped like a squat isosceles triangle, with the base lying along the wind. Since this leg is sailed three times to windward in every race, 55% of the course is to weather.
In the first race Dame Pattie lost 1 minute 50 seconds on the first windward leg, 1 minute 36 seconds the next time it was sailed, but only 52 seconds on the final beat to the finish. Significantly, she did better as the breeze lightened from the mid-20s in the early stages to some 15 knots near the end. Combined with lesser losses downwind, the day's margin was 5 minutes 58 seconds. As Norman Wright, Dame Pattie's navigator, summed it up after the race: "We were fairly and squarely beaten by a better boat and better sails." He added, "We hope for less wind tomorrow."