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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 Boeing.
Cassel waited 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."