While not quite so well guarded a secret as la force de frappe or nuclear tests on a remote island in Polynesia, French preparations leading to a challenge for the America's Cup off Newport next summer have proceeded behind a discreet curtain of silence. If this seems uncharacteristic, it is symbolic of an effort most un-French in popularly superficial terms. For not only is the Holy Grail of yachting being pursued with Gallic ardor, but all clues lead to the conclusion that finally a challenge is being mounted with an efficiency to match past American measures for defense.
As I snuffled along the trail from the shores of the Mediterranean to the bastions of the New York Yacht Club, with a scouting expedition to Switzerland and 007ish contacts in darkest Paris, the magnitude and thoroughness of the French preparations emerged bit by bit. The more I learned, the more I was impressed. In the words of Bob Bavier, helmsman of Constellation during her victorious defense at Newport and afterward on practice races off Marseilles, "If the French don't make it, it won't be for lack of trying. Nothing is too much trouble to do, no detail is too unimportant to follow through." After a pause he added, "And no expense seems too great." Indeed, by the time the French get to Newport next summer they will have spent between $1.5 million and $2 million on the quest.
Since 1964, the year Sovereign was defeated in four straight races by Constellation, the French challenge has been in the making. That autumn Sovereign was bought by Baron Marcel Bich, an industrialist who had created a worldwide empire through the ubiquitous ballpoint pen labeled with his name minus the "h." Never the isle so little, never the kiosk or stationer so remote, but over the clutter of merchandise the sloped block letters BIC leapt forth from a display. With a current worldwide production of six million pens per day, Bic is the unquestioned sales leader in the United States and throughout Europe.
The story goes that Bich became involved in 12-meters through a casual conversation. On a hunt his Dutch shooting companion, Pierre Goemans, mentioned he was going to England the following week, and Bich is reported to have requested that he buy for him a "joli bateau," which turned out to be Sovereign. This canard is apparently the earliest vintage of an astonishing crop of rumors surrounding Bich, stemming partially from his steadfast refusal to talk to any journalist. Not only is the story out of character but, according to his son Bruno, the baron first became fascinated by the beauty and power of Twelves through a picture story published by Paris-Match in 1962. He was also intrigued by the symbolism of the cup and its history of exclusive Anglo-Saxon rivalry.
Ostensibly Sovereign was to be a day sailer for the Bich family, which includes nine children, and indeed it was thus that her career under the tricolor began, as a replacement for a cruising boat of ancient vintage. During the summer of 1965 the family toasted on deck in the Mediterranean sun and swam over the side when the breeze died. But when the wind blew Sovereign came alive as only a 12-meter can.
It is impossible to say just when the baron was bitten by the America's Cup bug, but certainly by fall he was a victim of that most insidious and costly of sporting diseases. According to one version, his thinking about a challenger soon reached the stage where he conferred with Andr� Mauric, a leading French designer. Mauric confessed knowing nothing of the class: to familiarize himself the quickest way possible, by taking off lines which would give him a point of departure, the ideal solution would be to have access to the fastest hull in existence, Olin Stephens' Constellation. "You will have her for Christmas," Marcel Bich is supposed to have answered.
Negotiations were carried on by the same Pierre Goemans, who is still listed as the owner. In the spring of 1966 Constellation was sailing practice matches against Sovereign. To assure adequate manpower, Bich made an arrangement with the army to borrow conscripts. In peacetime, promising athletes are sent to the Bataillon de Joinville, a training center near Paris, where they can contribute to French achievement in world arenas rather than peel potatoes in some remote post. Not many of those assigned to Bich had had much boating experience, but practice was rigorous.
When Bob Bavier was flown to Marseilles at the end of summer in the baron's private jet for a replay of his role as helmsman of Constellation against Sovereign, he found "a good crew—dedicated and very enthusiastic." Asking for beer to take along in the best American tradition, he detected shocked expressions, but only gradually did he realize anyone else would have been thrown off for such a breach of training. Bich ran a tight ship. "You sure as hell knew who was boss," Bob reminisced recently, "but at the same time he was a very charming guy with a good sense of humor. He told some funny stories on himself about his early experiences with Sovereign, like carrying a spinnaker down a narrow channel ending in a mud flat, without knowing quite what to do, while his mother-in-law chatted about what a lovely day it was. Incidentally, Bich was good on the helm of a Twelve, yet he never fooled himself into thinking that with more practice he could do the job himself. A less realistic man might have gotten delusions of grandeur. Bich is not only self-deprecating but never kids himself. Maybe that is his strength."
On boarding Constellation in '66, Bob Bavier was surprised to find her rigging festooned by electric wires, planted by Sud Aviation—builder of such jet transports as the Caravelle and the supersonic Concorde—to measure stresses and strains in the hope of designing a better mast. Concurrently, Andr� Mauric was beginning to test 12-meter models in the French navy's tank, when miniatures of the atomic submarine Le Redoutable were not being towed. At Lyons, center of the textile industry, the firm of Ferrari, specialists in production of material for parachutes of all weights, was busily experimenting with synthetic sail-cloths. Afloat, the quest for the best helmsman and crew continued.
That winter Bob McCullough offered to charter Constellation for the American trials preceding the Australian challenge with Dame Pattie, and she became paired with Olin Stephens' newest, Intrepid, although raced independently. It was a perfect ploy for Bich and Goemans, to say nothing of Mauric: Constellation would be campaigned all summer against the best America had to offer, giving the French a yardstick to measure improvements in the class.