Like a doughty debutante who knows she will be noticed by sweeping into the ballroom late, Gretel II of Australia came down Narragansett Bay to Newport last week to complete the list for this year's America's Cup cotillion. She berthed opposite another well-bred foreign beauty, named France, who had been making small talk around Newport for quite a while. Not far away were a trio of Americans, Intrepid, Valiant and Heritage, each determined to win, each jealous of her chance to stand for her country. And so at last the August coming-out could begin in that most famous and most exclusive of yacht racing events, the challenge for the America's Cup, a trophy held for 119 years by the U.S.—so long that it has been for decades bolted firmly to an oaken table in the New York Yacht Club.
Intrepid is heavily favored to win the final U.S. trials, which will begin next week. Said trials will end at the pleasure of the gentlemen of the New York Yacht Club. It is all very ritualistic, very proper—cannons at sunset and all that—and before each trial race the white-capped men of the yacht club's race committee announce the boat pairings by showing placards bearing competitors' sail numbers along the side of the committee boat, which is called Incredible. As things now stand, that is the word which will come quickly to the experts' tongues if the winning number ultimately proves not to be 22, Intrepid. Nonetheless this is the first time in cup history that there are two foreign challengers, and no one really has a clue as to whether France or Gretel II is the better boat. They race a best-of-seven series, due to begin next Friday, for the right to meet the American defender in September, and ah, how the town longs for the foreigners to win even one race. Whatever happens, there will be a proper noise that both the uppitiest and the lowliest in that grand and strangely democratic old playground by the sea will feel in the deepest corners of their souls.
It is difficult to conceive of a place better suited than Newport to the pursuit and defense of the nicely gnarled and unmistakably genteel old pitcher that is the America's Cup. Newport is a gem of the ocean, plain and fancy, home port to the horny-handed lobstermen of Aquidneck Island as well as the working one-upsmen of Bailey's Beach; to the Vanderbilts and the Auchinclosses and the Firestones and the Van Alens of U.S. society as well as the Munsons and Langes and Strzymenkis of the U.S.S. Brownson. In the bleak lamplight of barroom pool tables on the waterfront main stem, Thames Street, gobs of the Navy may interrupt discussions of life's fondest subjects—girls, hometowns, departed shipmates—to fall into loud and obscene disagreement over the quality of seamanship aboard the cup boats, though the Thames Street Navy doesn't necessarily know spinnakers from spinach when it comes to sailing. In the gilded baroque ballroom of Marble House on Bellevue Avenue, patrician ladies with blue hair gracefully applaud a chamber music concert of a morning, then fall into well-modulated conversation about the chances of getting Baron Marcel Bich, leader of the French, to come to thé.
Newport is at home with the America's Cup as few other ports in the world might be, for within its quite limited geographical purview it long ago became accustomed to the lofty ways of the mighty as well as rousing exhibitions of barroom navigation, and some of the most beautiful vistas, both God-given and man-made, soothe the eyes of men.
Two men who are quite blind to all but the ocean off Newport for the time being—the men on the hottest spots—are Robert W. McCullough, organizer of the Valiant syndicate and helmsman of the boat, and William P. Ficker, the skipper of Intrepid. Each carries on his back his syndicate's hefty investment in his boat—at least $750,000 each (in all, this America's Cup year represents an investment of no less than $6 million). Each skipper will be held solely responsible for anything, however minor, that goes wrong at sea. And at Newport nothing is minor. Starting a race well is desperately important; the nature of match racing is such that a skipper who is badly outfoxed at the start tends never to catch up. And on Newport's six-legged, 24.3-mile course he has an awful long time in which to brood.
Except that it is not permissible to brood. A serene mind is what a skipper needs most. Concentration is so crucial, says Bill Ficker, that when he races he sees "nothing but the water ahead." Ficker, age 42 and hairless as Intrepid's hull, is a wealthy California architect. Outwardly, at least, he is imperturbable. He presides over a crew which has the unusually youthful average age of 23. Except in his single loss to McCullough in the July trials, he has started well and made few tactical errors. As most sailors know by now, his boat was created originally by the master cup designer, Olin Stephens II, for the 1967 defense, and has undergone major surgery below the waterline under the knife of a young pretender, Britton Chance Jr. Stephens, the designer of Valiant, would have to be inhuman if that knife has not pricked his pride.
When Ficker is asked why Intrepid has so consistently drubbed the newer Stephens boat, he fixes his pale blue eyes upon his questioner and quietly says, "I think, we are simply better organized. The boats are not that different." To a man, the Intrepid crewmen play bridge, and though Ficker is known as a disciplinarian ("We insist on absolute silence under way except for commands and essential working conversation"), he does allow his men to crack, a deck of cards belowdecks during deadly hours spent getting to and from practice or while waiting to start a race. Any visitor to the rambling mansion on Price's Neck where Intrepid's crew lives is offered an ornate glass bowl filled with green and white buttons that say FICKER IS QUICKER.
Bob McCullough, 49, the skipper Ficker has been consistently quicker than, is a thoroughly Establishment man—a Connecticut textile millionaire and rear commodore of the New York Yacht Club. His is the most experienced cup crew, averaging a relatively ripe 35 years of age. Any amount of waterfront gossip has taken Valiant's helm out of McCullough's hands and conferred it upon various others. The name of George Hinman, a wise old sea dog of 65 who has been having a grand time as helmsman of Valiant's trial horse, Weatherly, has come up repeatedly. The precedent of 1964, when Constellation was shifted from Eric Ridder to Bob Bavier, woke up and beat American Eagle and then the British, has not been ignored.
McCullough has endured all this with considerable grace. When asked last week if he might conceivably take himself off the boat, he said, "It's too late. There would not be time for another man to get the boat in hand." McCullough said there already had been too little time for the crew members—veterans though they are—to mesh with one another in the most efficient way. "We have had a lot of alterations on the boat," he said, "so many that I don't think, we've had one-tenth of the time for crew training that we did in 1967, when I had Constellation. I think the boat itself is now finally going as fast as possible, and it should not take us long to be in top condition. Now it'll be like the Kansas City Chiefs getting ready for the All-Stars; they knew each other so well they could do it in a matter of days."
As for Charley Morgan, the Florida boatbuilder who has put forth Heritage, he seems to be odd man out before the final trials even get going. The most poignant sight in Newport has been that of Heritage hanging just above the water at dockside as Morgan's men make change upon change.