SI Vault
Carleton Mitchell
September 28, 1970
Down one race, Australia's "Gretel II" fought back to win the second—only to be disqualified on a foul
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September 28, 1970

Grim Week For A Battling Lady

Down one race, Australia's "Gretel II" fought back to win the second—only to be disqualified on a foul

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When the 21st series of matches for the America's Cup got under way off Newport last Tuesday, the boat flying the flag of the New York Yacht Club race committee was named Incredible. The name was prophetic. Never in history have there been so many firsts, so many bizarre episodes, or so many frustrations for all concerned.

The weather set the stage—sky gray, water gray, relieved only by ebony squalls and the white teeth of breaking wave crests. Spectators clad in yellow and orange oilskins clung to flying bridges and peered through intermittent flurries of rain. After a windless summer there was wind aplenty: a chill 20 knots from east-southeast. It was a day when a sailor's instinct forewarned that anything could happen to tautly stressed craft and crews, heightening the tension that always builds when two unknown quantities come together.

The first first was recorded when the two Twelves hoisted sail before the race. Australia's Gretel II was the first yacht in 119 years to earn the title of challenger by besting a foreign rival in an elimination series, having defeated France two weeks earlier. The second first was not long coming. At approximately seven minutes before the starting gun the yachts approached each other from opposite ends of the line, Gretel on starboard tack, the American defender Intrepid on port. A series of maneuvers brought them together. At two boat lengths apart, when it appeared Intrepid would clear Gretel, the Aussie luffed head to wind, thrusting her sharp bow within 10 feet of Intrepid's quarter. For a quick heartbeat it seemed a collision was imminent, but then Helmsman Jim Hardy swung onto port tack. Soon after a red flag appeared in Gretel's rigging, to be matched on Intrepid. These were the first postwar protests.

At the gun, honors went to Bill Ficker. The margin was only two seconds, but Intrepid was on top. Gretel, although to leeward, had her wind clear. Now came the test: the comparative abilities of the two yachts to windward. In every prior meeting of challenger and defender in the 12-meter class, there swiftly had come the revelation of an awful truth. Within minutes the eventual outcome of the series could be predicted with tedious certainty. Not this time.

Although Intrepid gradually, almost imperceptibly, edged out to weather, Gretel was moving well, too. Her purple Vectis cloth mainsail was keeping shape beautifully, even though her jib was too full for the weight of wind. She seemed to be taking the seas better than Intrepid, plunging and weaving less, apparently easier to steer. At the weather mark Gretel was 1:03 astern, a margin partially accounted for by the advantage almost always accruing to the boat that gets the start. It was still a race.

Intrepid smartly set a spinnaker, a white bubble riding high against the dark sky. Then Gretel turned into her wake—and disaster ensued. The genoa came down according to rote, but the spinnaker wrapped around the headstay in the dread hourglass form. Crewmen scurried, trying to get it either up or down, before finally setting a second spinnaker. While nothing is said in the record books on the subject, it was probably the first time that a boat sailed downwind for more than six minutes without a headsail.

Surprisingly, Gretel lost very little but face. Intrepid gained only five seconds on the leg, probably because in the strong wind Gretel was already moving at close to hull speed, and Intrepid had slightly lengthened her distance by making a downwind tack. At the second mark it continued to be a race, but then the Australians racked up another first. Paul Salmon, the foredeck chief, was returning aft after securing the spinnaker pole. Suddenly Gretel stuck her bow into a sea. Salmon's feet were swept off the slippery deck, and overboard he went. While Gretel turned back to pick him up, Intrepid continued on her merry and untroubled way. It was no longer a race. At the finish her margin was 5:52.

Although for almost a day Gretel remained a potential winner (before the committee disallowed both protests), the press Down Under promptly headlined Gretel the "Blunderboat." Many American observers obviously agreed, even though they expressed it more politely, yet to me Gretel remained the strongest challenger in recent memory. Intrepid, Bill Ficker and his crew had all been so impressive in conditions supposed to favor the Aussies that some of the factors in the defeat were overlooked: Alan Payne had obviously produced a fast hull, sails were vastly improved and the crew was not likely to make such blunders again. Nothing warranted writing off Gretel as a formidable opponent.

If proof was needed, it came at the start of the next race. Gretel had requested Wednesday as a lay day, to repair winches dunked in salt water, and Thursday was so calm that a water skier zipped among the spectator fleet—probably another first—until the committee gave up for lack of wind. But when the gun sounded on Friday, in conditions similar to the first race except for less breeze, it was Gretel that led across the line in a perfectly timed start. Other challengers have done the same, only to quickly fade. Instead, Gretel steadily walked out on Intrepid. Consternation more tangible than the impending fog settled over the watching fleet. Bill Ficker tried to force a tacking duel, to no avail. Gretel was simply the faster boat to windward in the nine-knot breeze and she rounded the mark 1:54 ahead. It was another postwar first. No challenger since Endeavour in 1934 had managed that feat.

Usually Twelves are so evenly matched downwind that the boat astern cannot overcome a generous lead. But nothing in the book seemed to be applying to these matches. At the second mark Intrepid was only 20 seconds behind. On rounding, Co-helmsman Martin Visser made no effort to luff Intrepid as Ficker held high, blanketed the Aussies and swept ahead. For the moment the cup stopped trembling on its base. Intrepid began the second windward leg with a lead of 100 yards. What Gretel might have been able to do will never be known. The fog progressively grew more impenetrable and shortly before 3 o'clock the race was abandoned, the fleet groping back to port. Another first: the first cancellation of a cup race in mid-course.

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