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Most sailors see the America's Cup as a sort of waltz, a stately number done in ponderous slow shuffle between two big boats. That one is for the old salts of the Eastern Establishment. Then there is the Congressional Cup: a lot more rock and considerably more roll—cannons blast, bells ring, tanned and beautiful girls scamper about in white blazers and a younger set of skippers battles it out in three fast days of match racing through the technicolor smog off California. And that is, as they demonstrated last week, what sailing action is all about.
The boats create much of this difference in tempo. The Congressional Cup this year was fought out with 10 skippers aboard 10 virtually identical Cal 40s, those lively fiber-glass sloops that have seized almost every major ocean-racing trophy and have come to be considered classics in their class. And the actual competition also quickly gets right down to the basics. No dull elimination trials followed by cocktails on the terrace at Marble House. Just three frantic days of racing outside the Long Beach breakwater: three series a day with five two-boat races per series. And this is not followed by cocktails. It is followed by some real serious boozing at such spots as the London Deli in Newport Beach, a hole-in-the-wall place noted for spaghetti, pizza, wine and beer.
With all this, it was no wonder that a racing notable like Bill Ficker of America's Cup fame might have felt he had wandered by mistake into a discoth�que rather than a ballroom. The 44-year-old Ficker, more than anyone else on the Long Beach Yacht Club scene, seemed fated to represent the solid Eastern old line, in spite of his background as a onetime West Coast commodore. He had been invited, of course, for his sailing celebrity: winner of the 1970 America's Cup aboard Intrepid, defender of the New York Yacht Club escutcheon, all of that. But still, he had not laid hand upon helm of a Cal 40 for six years, and he was admittedly rusty. "He's crazy to get mixed up in this thing," said one burly young opponent. "He's got everything to lose here."
As if that were not bad enough, at the other end of the sailing spectrum was handsome, black-jowled Argyle Campbell, 23 years old, winner of the Congressional Cup in 1970 and one of the new West Coast breed of hang-it-all-out skippers. Ficker had thoughtfully brought along three of his stoic sober crewmen from Intrepid, and they all set about their work with a steady will. Campbell had surrounded himself with an aggressive collection of hell-raisers who trained on mai tais. At one point in the series, Skipper Campbell rose from a two-hour sleep after a big night on the town and counseled his men: "I feel so bad I know we're gonna do well."
The spread between these two racing titans was filled with a fearsome collection of competitors, every one a winner. There was, for example, world ocean-racing champion and the 1970 Yachtsman of the Year, Ted Turner, having his fourth run at the Congressional Cup. There was World Star Class champ Dennis Conner, 28, veteran Hawaii titlist Cy Gillette, Commonwealth Cup winner William Widnall of Marblehead, Mass. and three international all-star entries representing Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
And off they went to rig up their borrowed boats.
The great leveler in racing Cal 40s is their willingness to sail alike, a factor that cut out any excuses even before the first gun went off. But to further put the skippers head to head, their sails also were drawn by lot. Still, despite this equalizing process, after two practice runs aboard his donated craft Pantera, Skipper Ficker was clearly having a bit of trouble getting it all together. His long layoff in that class, he allowed, had left "a few scales of rust around the edges" And when the series officially started, the rust was showing, sure enough: his spinnaker came out of its turtle as if it were tired. Once a genoa was held aback a touch too long and Ficker nudged his opponent Conner—bump! bump! bump!—right into the committee boat. Foul. Then, in a dramatic duel with Ted Turner, 52 short tacks left Ficker's crewmen so exhausted that they were forced to let up, thus losing another round.
Anyone not showing just the proper amount of sympathy after such a disastrous day might well be expected to catch a punch in the nose from Ficker—and when he stalked into the yacht club bar that evening, an appropriate, respectful hush fell over the crowd. But Ficker, enjoying the effect, remained imperturbable. "I have no compulsion to win," he said. "In 1970 I didn't let winning the America's Cup destroy the real fun of racing, and I still feel the same way now."
Campbell, meanwhile, went on about his novel training program. Campbell is a four-time All-America intercollegiate dinghy sailor, among other things, a recent graduate in finance at USC and an unabashed enthusiast of the social side of sailing. Every night was party night—blaring music, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, mai tais going down like orange juice. And every day, the Campbell crew scrambled up to beat everybody in sight.
Well, every day but one. And, with a certain touch of ironic justice, the man who outsailed the hung-over crew was Cap'n Ficker, the one man they most wanted to overwhelm. Next night, the eve of the final series, the Campbell crew drastically revised the training schedule. This time only half the crew partied all night. The other half, reports said, was in by dawn. Naturally, they went out on the 2� mile, twice-around course and won three straight.