All last week a three-ring circus was going on at Newport, and even if it did not live up to its gaudiest notices, for yachtsmen it was the greatest show on earth. The official billing of the star attraction was MATCHES TO SELECT A CHALLENGING YACHT FOR THE AMERICA'S CUP 1970. Nearby, around a special buoy put down for the occasion, potential U.S. defenders circled in the "final finals," the earlier troupe narrowed to two by the ringmaster, otherwise known as the selection committee of the New York Yacht Club. The third ring, ashore, took on sideshow overtones as crews juggled masts, rival spokesmen walked tightropes and forecasters scanned crystal balls.
The curtain-raiser came Monday, when Gretel II and France met for the second time. Their first encounter had been such an even struggle, with the Australians winning on what most observers considered a fluke, that a big spectator fleet of some 200 vessels went out to watch. Tension built during an initial race against time. Finally, just five minutes before the deadline for starting, a light southerly riffled the water, course signals went up and the two boats began some of the closest maneuvering seen all summer.
Jim Hardy, at the helm of Gretel, shaded Pierre (Poppie) Delfour by three seconds as both boats went across the line on port tack. More important, his safe leeward position backwinded France, forcing Delfour to tack almost immediately. Gretel covered. Two minutes later France again tried to clear her wind, beginning a duel which once more evoked the ghosts of Vim and Columbia. Side by side the two Twelves knifed through the lazy swell, Block Island bold on the horizon but a frosty haze muting the sun path on the sea.
Twenty-one times France tacked, forcing the issue even after Gretel had drawn ahead. When the first mark was rounded, Gretel led by 1:14. Before the series had begun, Designer Alan Payne had warned Hardy and Vice-Captain Martin Visser to beware downwind in light air. As proved the first day, it was France's best point of sailing. Soon the foredeck crew of France was breathing down the Aussie helmsman's neck. Before the next turn they had gone ahead by eight seconds, which opened to 17 at the beginning of the second windward leg.
France was on top by two boat lengths, thus reversing the situation at the start. It was now Gretel which had to break through the wind shadow of a boat ahead, and she wasted no time in doing so. Sailing full, Hardy walked through France's lee, squeezed up and forced Delfour to tack in less than five minutes. Then, inexplicably, the Australian boat continued on her way, without covering. France stood on for nearly a mile with her wind clear. When she tacked back to starboard and finally closed Gretel, the Aussie had to dip under her stern.
Thus presented the lead, France could not hold it. Jim Hardy had learned his lesson, fairly cheaply. He covered, and on the next meeting Gretel was again in front. There was another swap of position on the next downwind leg, making six times the lead changed hands, but Gretel was first to finish, by 1:32. It had been another close race, building up to even more interest in the next encounter, especially after it was announced that Louis Noverraz would be back on France's helm. Although there could be no criticism of Delfour, everyone was anxious for the Swiss master to have another chance.
Next day, Intrepid and Valiant sailed the first race of a boat-to-boat series that could only result in death for one candidate—and was to do so not so suddenly for Valiant. The breeze was light, a condition which has plagued racers and committees during past weeks, and the race was over at the start. Bob McCullough tried to force Intrepid on the wrong side of the committee boat, left too much room, luffed until Valiant was dead in the water, and fell off to leeward while Bill Ficker drove through and away. From far astern, Valiant inaugurated a duel on the second upwind leg, when 42 tacks brought the rival winch pumpers within two of the record set by Constellation and American Eagle in 1964. But unlike that classic battle, where Connie broke through to win—and in the process broke the Bird's heart and wings—Valiant steadily dropped astern to trail by 3:24 at the finish.
Wednesday provided more of a test under the big top of a hazy sky. A true Buzzards Bay smoky sou'wester finally blew in, a moderate eight knots at the start but freshening to a solid 18 near the finish. No child ever had more trouble choosing between rings than the enthusiasts in the spectator fleet, but as on Monday the big draw was the international stage.
Occasional whitecaps flecked the wave crests as France and Gretel sparred before the start. As before, Louis Noverraz and Jim Hardy were not afraid to mix it at close quarters. The Aussie finally led across the line by two ticks of the watch, although Noverraz had his wind clear. But soon thereafter all resemblance to the first match ended. Inexorably the white bow of Gretel slid out beyond the blue hull of France, forcing her around approximately five minutes after the start. Jim Hardy applied only loose cover, confident of his charge's prowess to windward. By the first mark France was well astern.
Just after the turn the Aussies put on a show to liven things up a bit. Main-sheet man David Forbes leaned outboard to flip the spinnaker sheet over the end of the boom. A surge decanted him overboard, where he was towed alongside, still holding the mainsheet. To a spectator on the lee side he looked like "an oversize sack of potatoes, churning up foam." Quick and husky crewmates hauled him into the cockpit. Had Forbes lost his grip, Gretel would have had to turn back, for the rules require a boat to finish with the same number in crew as she carried at the start. As it was, France whittled down Gretel's lead on the two reaching legs, although she lost it back to weather. At the finish Gretel was the winner despite a second weird mishap. When not far from the line, a faulty tack fitting parted, so she got the gun with her genoa jib kiting nearly to the masthead.