Oddly, the American race was almost identical, minus the unscheduled excitement. At the fifth mark for Gretel, where she led by 2:04, we could see spinnakers as Intrepid and Valiant approached their last downwind turn. There the margin was 2:01. After watching Gretel and France slugging to windward in the freshening breeze and building sea, it was rewarding to move to the other course. Intrepid was on top, slicing smoothly through the whitecaps, not plunging but showing plenty of power and drive. To me, she had a belly-down flat-out look, using all of her waterline length for maximum speed and making very little fuss fore or aft. By comparison, Valiant seemed to hobbyhorse, and there was definitely more turbulence under the stern. While an 18-knot breeze is not enough to prove heavy weather ability, there was plenty of heft in the damp chill air, and Intrepid was liking it. She had already proved her ability in lighter airs. Now she won by 2:08, and again on Thursday, in a race shortened to five legs by a dying wind, by :40. On Friday the selection committee decreed no race for the American candidates, reportedly awaiting stronger wind. Thus there was nothing to detract from what most observers thought would be the fourth and final clash between Australia and France. Even Baron Marcel Bich must have shared the feeling, for he was at the helm as his boat approached the line. He had previously told friends that if his teams lost the first three races, he would skipper the fourth himself.
The baron came prepared to go down in style, dressed as no racing sailor has been in this era—white blazer, white slacks, white shirt, white yachting cap, even white gloves. As he passed the astonished Aussies, he doffed his cap with a courtly gesture. The start was a tragicomic anticlimax. The baron had invented a maneuver surely unique in yachting annals—he planned to lure Gretel far to windward across the line before the starting gun, then have his crew ready with a spinnaker. He would suddenly turn back, catch Gretel unprepared, duck across and be off.
The Aussies simply stayed between France and the line, dipped down first and were making knots to windward while the baron was still trying to get back under spinnaker.
Although visibility was at least a mile at the start, haze soon thickened into fog. Progressively the race became a test of navigators. France, four minutes 44 seconds astern at the third mark, trailed by 24:15 at the next after a period of groping. Australian Bill Fesq hit every mark on the nose. I watched as Gretel came charging out of the murk to cross precisely at the center of the finish line. Visibility then dropped to nearly zero. After more than half an hour of fruitless searching, France lowered sails. It was a sad ending for the French, but indubitably navigation is part of the test of racing. Baron Bich did not agree. On Sunday he called a press conference to criticize the International Race Committee for not canceling the race and declared that he would not return as a challenger.
Among the unanswered questions stemming from the cup trials, two will keep cabin stove gams hot for a long time. First is whether Intrepid, after modifications by Britton Chance this year, is faster than in '67; her time margins against Weatherly, never considered a world beater among the old guard, were not very impressive. How she would fare today against Constellation in top form is a matter of conjecture. This brings up a doubt frequently expressed: Is the entire present crop of Twelves overrefined and overdesigned, hard to steer, too sensitive to sails and trim? As George Hinman, Weatherly's 1970 helmsman, put it, "The new boats are such mechanical monsters the crew spends more time on nuts and bolts than sailing."
The second question is even more in the realm of imponderables, as it concerns touch on the helm and overall organization, but it is only fair to Olin Stephens, the designer of Valiant, to speculate if changes aboard could have resulted in improved performance. As of Sunday morning, July 26, 1964, during the New York Yacht Club Cruise, American Eagle had racked up 15 victories without suffering a defeat. Billy Luders was being complimented for a breakthrough design, and the helmsman, Bill Cox, was hailed with "epithets appropriate to Odysseus," in the words of one writer. Yet with a new helmsman and reassigned duties aboard, coupled with a few new sails and sail-handling techniques, Stephens' Constellation went on to defend the cup by winning almost every remaining trial race.
But the immediate question is how Gretel will fare as challenger. (Additional victories by Ficker on Saturday and Sunday clinched Intrepid's selection as defender and she was officially so named.) While no contest between complicated machines relying on so uncertain a commodity as the wind can be predicted, there seem to be a few hopeful indications of close racing. With Gretel, the technological gap between challenger and defender appears to have narrowed. The Australian mast is beautifully designed and fabricated; it has no welds and carries a fair bend for its entire length. Over 2,500 plastic pegs act as vortex generators, like the spoilers on a jet aircraft's wing surface, to improve the flow of air over the sails. Gretel's sails keep their shape better than those of any previous challenger, and the Aussie crew work and helmsmanship seem up to anyone's standards. So, while I think the America's Cup will still remain on its pedestal, it may rock a bit during September.