Of all the diseases now afflicting sailors the world around, the quest for the America's Cup is the oddest by far—a perverse contagion that addles the mind, drains the wallet and warps the sporting soul. When the America's Cup distemper is raging unreasonably in them, men of vision often lose their bearings and wander off the mark. In the words of the original Deed of Gift set down 117 years ago, the America's Cup is "perpetually a Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries." In the years since, the original aim has often been slighted, the competition frequently more rancorous than friendly. Possibly the most gracious thing that could be done today with the cup would be to melt it down for Amazon tribesmen to use as spearpoints.
The fever for the cup almost died 10 years ago when the luckless English came challenging for the last time aboard Sovereign, an embarrassing hull that never had a chance. America's Cup challenges are often dull affairs—the striving among potential defenders is typically where the fiercest action is—and the Sovereign series was the drabbest of the lot. In four races poor Sovereign, a plodder with a bulbous bow ill-suited for the slop-chop off Brenton Reef, never led at any mark. When she slogged to the finish of the final race 15 minutes, 40 seconds behind the defender Constellation, cup fever was at a low. The contagion might have ended there, conceivably for the good of all, if Australians half a world away had not already contracted the disease.
One does not need to resurrect the feisty old Earl of Dunraven or rekindle any fires of the long past to appreciate the droll effect the America's Cup has on men presumably endowed with restraint. In recent challenges there is evidence enough. In 1962 Gretel, the first 12-meter hull designed, built and sailed by Australians, took one race from the U.S. defender Weatherly—a triumph of sorts considering that only seven of 72 races have been won by challengers in 104 years. Following the Gretel challenge, as if fearful that the prize was slipping away, the New York Yacht Club, trustees of the cup, tightened the rules: whereas Gretel had been allowed to use sails made in the U.S. by Ted Hood, future challengers could not even use American fabrics. This decree prompted the late Sir Frank Packer, prime backer of Gretel, to observe that if Australia ever won the cup, the Deed of Gift would be altered to limit competition to boats lined with kangaroo hide.
In 1967 the next Australian challenger, Dame Pattie, lost four straight races, in part because its sails of Australian Kadron were no match for those of the defender Intrepid. When they suspect a stacked deck, gamblers get out of the game, but not Australians. They are irrepressible plungers, tantalized by long odds. Despite the fact that the judges and jurymen, as well as the lawmakers of the competition were all Yanks, the Australians came back in 1970 for a third try aboard Gretel II, a splendid hull that was about as easy to steer as a teak raft but proved able on all points of sailing and remarkably quick in tacking duels.
As anyone who dotes on overblown controversies may recall, Gretel II beat Intrepid to the finish in two of five races, but was disqualified in one for colliding while sailing above close-hauled after the starting gun. When a counterclaim of barging by the American boat was disallowed by the all-American jury, Sir Frank, who also financed Gretel II, opined, "It was like complaining about your wife to your mother-in-law."
All manner of people of slight yachting knowledge made the Gretel II controversy their business. The disqualification was raised in both houses of the Australian Parliament, one Labor senator suggesting that because of the unfavorable decision his government should withdraw from Vietnam. Australian Prime Minister John Gorton maintained the collision had actually given the U.S. boat an edge at the start. Walter Rice, U.S. ambassador to Australia, was so "shocked and disappointed" that he started rooting for Gretel II. Fifty-one U.S. college athletic directors—among them the salty old Coast Guardsman Otto Graham—declared that the disqualification race should be resailed. The U.S. National Observer editorialized: "The rules of the America's Cup races are designed to make it just about impossible for any sailboat in the natural world to beat the entry of the New York Yacht Club. And that is why we are up to our scuppers [sic] with the attempts of American millionaires to make the welkin ring over their little game of boatsy-poo. America's Cup? Ha! The Humbug Cup, more likely."
Most Australian skippers who have seen film of the 1970 incident consider the verdict of the stacked jury just. Despite this and despite the fact that the New York Yacht Club, after a century of lopsided involvement, has given over the role of judge and jury to impartial members of the International Yacht Racing Union, the 1970 controversy lingers. This past February, 3� years after the fact, the losing skipper, Jim Hardy, told a lunch group in Perth that in the next campaign Australia should take along a video recorder and a lawyer. Just how Hardy expected to persuade a U.S. court that a sailing spat was a proper cause for the docket is not clear.
Whereas it took the gambling Australians three hard challenges to reach their present state of irrationality, sailors of France have come about as far after one disastrous campaign. For the right to challenge for the cup in 1970, Australia's Gretel II first had to meet a French hull, grandly called
, in an elimination series. Marcel Bich, the ball-point baron who financed the French boat, is not known for his winning ways socially or nautically. By switching skippers and shuffling crewmen like marionettes, Baron Bich succeeded in dropping the first three races convincingly, despite the fact that his Australian rivals lost a man overboard in one race and finished it with a runaway genoa. For the final race, as if determined to do no better, the Baron himself took the helm of
, got lost in a fog and never found the finish line.
Having done about as badly as a man can on a 24.3-mile closed course, Bich behaved worse ashore, lighting into the international committee in tricolored style because they had dishonored him, his boat and his country by continuing the race in fog. Speaking for the committee, Commodore Frederik Horn of Norway replied, "I believe that Bich has some things to learn: the rules of racing, how to sail as well as navigate, how to handle his crews and how to behave like a gentleman instead of a spoiled child...it may be a credit to the sport of sailing if Baron Marcel Bich does not return." Baron Bich, in his final huff, told the press that he would never try for the cup again.
So here we are once more in early June, in the last bright days of spring when the high sun starts softening the sharp edge of the Atlantic wind off Brenton Reef. And, dear God, here they come again after the America's Cup. Here come the Australians, back for the fourth try, fevered as ever, ready to battle at the gun and already threatening to go to court on any minor count. Here come the French on their second quest sans peur, sans reproche and sans a new boat, but not sans Baron Bich. After hotly promising three years ago to quit forever, why is Baron Bich back? The French have a saying, "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne commit points." For Frenchmen of passion this is perhaps reason enough, but why do the Australians persist? Because. Because why? Because.