Intrepid had barely put her bow across the finish line off Newport when a crew member rushed forward to hoist a flag to the masthead. A last fitful puff of a dying northerly breeze unfurled it against gray autumnal skies, and emblazoned for all to see were the words, "Ficker Is Quicker." It was a fitting tribute for a race well sailed and a victory well deserved, but perhaps on this final day of the 21st America's Cup challenge it should have read, "Ficker & Co. Are Slicker." For it was less a matter of Bill Ficker or the American 12-meter Intrepid being quicker than a triumph of crew work, accurate navigation, sound tactics and good helmsmanship. The strongest—and longest—challenge had just culminated in the most exciting race of the 4-1 series, and Intrepid had won in conditions that all observers had come to believe favored the Australian challenger, Gretel II.
The winds were tricky offshore slants of eight knots and under, and more than ever it seemed the start might be the decisive factor, but Jim Hardy, on Gretel's helm, got away on top. Within two minutes Intrepid was forced to tack under the Aussies' stern. Twice Intrepid came back, unable to cross, but on the third try Gretel was forced to go onto starboard tack under Intrepid's lee bow, close enough to backwind the defender. Onlookers assumed Intrepid would tack clear, but evidently Ficker sensed a slight lift, which he utilized to pinch out into clear air.
This was perhaps the decisive point of the race, for Ficker made a perfectly timed tack to fetch the first mark while Gretel had to make two tacks. Intrepid now led by 44 seconds, and needed every tick. On the ensuing reaches Gretel shaved off five seconds. Much of the second windward leg was sailed in even closer quarters than the first. One mistake by Intrepid's deck gang or winch pumpers would have been fatal.
And so they came to the final downwind turn only 20 seconds apart, with the breeze falling ever lighter. Intrepid reacted like a champion. Gretel repeatedly tried to force an error; Intrepid responded by opening the longest lead of the day, 1:44 at the finish. Ficker & Co. had made no mistakes.
But for a parallel to the gaffe which had kept the series alive into the 14th day, it was necessary to turn to the records of a landbound sport, back to 1941, when in the fourth game of the World Series Dodger Catcher Mickey Owen dropped the third strike for the third out in the ninth inning. The Dodgers were leading but Yankee Tommy Henrich reached first base, and the rest is history. The Yanks rallied to win the game and the Series. On Thursday, when Intrepid, leading 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, failed to cover Gretel while far ahead on the last lap it seemed to some observers that a few echoes from Ebbets Field were drifting through the fleet.
Their Tuesday meeting had been peaceful and gentlemanly. YACHT RACE RETURNS TO ROUTINE read The Providence Journal's headline, although the global outcry following the second-race disqualification of Gretel had barely quieted. Intrepid made a perfect start, gaining a lead that she sorely needed all around the course. Gretel pressed close astern and finally was defeated by only 78 seconds after 24.3 miles. One mistake anywhere could have reversed the result, but Bill Ficker and his crew sailed a flawless race.
And so Thursday's contest began. Again Ficker got the jump at the start—almost the key to victory between two boats so evenly matched. Intrepid's lead was a scant 29 seconds at the first mark. Painfully she eked out another 33 seconds on the next four legs to come to the final upwind turn 1:02 ahead.
Gretel tacked before going far, and Intrepid applied loose cover. Then Gretel tacked away again, and Intrepid let her go, violating the golden rule of match racing: stay between your adversary and the mark. All afternoon Intrepid had been covering late to avoid getting into a tacking duel with Gretel, which could accelerate faster in the light breeze, but this time there was no excuse. A tack not only would have kept her ahead but almost on the lay line to the finish; Gretel could not have forced a duel.
About halfway up the leg the wind veered slowly, lifting Gretel first. Ficker and Tactician Steve Van Dyke responded too late. Intrepid had stood into lighter air, then had tacked after she in turn was lifted, and so slowly headed back almost to Gretel. It was a replay of Ficker's error in the first race of the final elimination trials against Valiant, but this was a World Series, and on this occasion Intrepid had dropped the final strike.
At first onlookers could not believe what was happening. Changing angles made relative positions uncertain, and it seemed like an optical illusion as Gretel took the lead. Some 200 yards from the finish there could be no doubt. To cross, Intrepid was forced to tack. With agonizing slowness in the dying breeze she gathered way, and sagged astern of Gretel. Although she was little more than a length behind at the line—the closest finish in America's Cup history—the time margin was 1:02. That was the same as Gretel had trailed at the last mark.