It was a sure bet
that the 5.5-meter sloops—those exotic, ornery orphans of the racing
world—would sail smack into a storm of argument the minute someone got enough
of them together to stage a showdown. Controversy has been closing in on this
class for years, threatening to wipe it out entirely, like the six-meter before
it. And, sure enough, when 17 5.5s checked in at Newport Beach, Calif. last
weekend there were all the signs that this Olympic trial session might be the
climactic point that everyone has been predicting.
The 5.5-meter men
make for a tense scene by themselves—but this time there were a few new twists
and turns to the plot. For one thing, the 5.5s are stubbornly known as a
"development" class, unlike those other Olympians, the Stars, Finns,
Flying Dutchmen and Dragons, in which the boats are almost identical and top
premium is placed on the skill and stamina of the crew. In the 5.5s the
designers are just about as vital as the men who make the boats go. Within the
limits of a complicated rule system, they are free to fiddle and experiment
with hull shapes and rigs all the way to the limits of the client's pocketbook.
The result of all this is that no one 5.5 sloop looks like another, a situation
that makes Olympic officials uneasy, and boats are remembered more by their
shapes than their names.
Of all the
innovations introduced at Newport Beach there was one that stirred up just
about as much fear as the possibility that someone is going to stamp out the
whole class. It is a new device—a complicated system of gauges and valves—that
might not only revolutionize 5.5 sailing, it might set the entire sailing world
on its beam. That is, if the International Yacht Racing Union allows it. And it
may do just that.
The device is
installed just below deck and, in effect, it allows the entire length of the
mast to be cocked—not fore and aft, which is an old maneuver—but sideways.
Worked hydraulically, it thus permits the rig to cant upwind even though the
press of breeze is heeling the boat itself downwind. Advantages are all too
clear: not only are the sails presented to the wind constantly at their best
profile, but the boat is also given what amounts to additional ballast.
To the rather
tense envy of those who didn't have it, three 5.5s were outfitted with the
gear, called variously a "canter" or a "flopper." There were
Lowell North's Luv, Scott Allan's Outta Sight and Al Cassel's Savage. North and
Allan both turned up with an effective but comparatively simple apparatus built
of surplus pumps, a ground-down trailer hitch (in the case of Outta Sight) and
other bits and pieces linked together. But Savage carried the most
sophisticated and, at 115 pounds, the heaviest canter. As someone said at
dockside, it looked like it might have cost $10,000 and been built by
until a crowd of curious boaters had dispersed, then demonstrated his secret
weapon. "The engineer sits here," he said, propping one foot on a small
stainless-steel tank fitted with a handle. He leaned over and pumped it
vigorously and then twisted two valves on a neat control panel. Presto! He made
the mast and stays tilt first one way, then the other. "You see," said
Cassel, "instead of having the crew hike out as usual—you simply pump the
mast to windward a degree or two."
And while Cassel
was given little chance to win the trials—everybody was betting his mechanism
was too heavy—the swaying masts stirred up sailors for miles around. Principal
objection from rival skippers was not that the flopper was an illegal mechanism
but that it was tantamount to giving the boats the movable weight of a fourth
man as ballast. "Hell, it's like having a 250-pound man sitting out to
weather," grumbled one crewman.
In a spirited
effort to head them off at the mast before the races began, telegrams were
fired off to New York, Scotland and anywhere else the ranking members of the
union might be found. The first answers only fueled the tension; as far as
anyone could see, there was no rule that barred such mast-floppers.
By the time the
boats sailed out Sunday for the first key test everyone was in various stages
of despair. Shackles, masts, booms and, in one case, a whole boat were
missing—misplaced in, of all places, St. Louis.
The only scant
comfort, in the hours leading up to the first trial, was the statistical fact
that, for all their difference in design and rig, most 5.5s end up remarkably
evenly matched. "It really pays to take the start," said North, a
three-time world champion in the Star class and a bronze medalist in the
Dragons at Tokyo. "These boats are not like Stars, where you can build a
lead. In the 5.5s you've got to fight for every inch you gain."