SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
July 22, 1974
Designing a 12-meter is an iffy proposition and none looks iffier than 'Mariner,' which is ashore having her bottom fixed while her two main rivals resume the America's Cup trials
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July 22, 1974

One If On Land, Two Ifs On Sea

Designing a 12-meter is an iffy proposition and none looks iffier than 'Mariner,' which is ashore having her bottom fixed while her two main rivals resume the America's Cup trials

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This impulse explains the imminent return to Newport's cobbled Colonial streets of Marcel Bich, the French baron who got lost in the fog in 1970 and vowed jamais plus—"never again." It also accounts for the presence of Australia's Alan Bond, whose Southern Cross is favored to defeat Bich's four-year-old wooden-hulled France for the right to challenge and is given a fair-to-frightening chance of winning the America's Cup itself in September. If successful, Bond plans to defend the cup at his seaside Yanchep Sun City resort in Western Australia, using the attendant publicity to peddle vacation homes.

Such commercialism naturally horrifies right-minded Newport, which regards the America's Cup as its promotional tool. "This is an event that brings a lot of people to town," says Maria O'Malley, head of the Chamber of Commerce visitors' bureau. "I like to call the armada of spectator boats at the races our very own version of Dunkirk."

When necessary, the old seaport does know how to compensate for lost attractions. The Newport Jazz Festival has been transplanted to New York, yet visitors flock in growing numbers to the mansions of the Gilded Age, that fabled time when at least one member of Newport society bathed in the sea wearing a monocle and white straw hat. Attendance is up, in particular, at Rosecliff, fashioned after Versailles and favored by tourists ever since scenes from The Great Gatsby were filmed there. Newport is also surviving the withdrawal from Narragansett Bay of the floating Navy; the Blue Moon strip joint and adjoining pawn shops have given way to a shopping mall. With the sailors gone, the town's only surviving tattoo parlor caters to longhaired youths, including one couple who blew in from Boston to celebrate their second anniversary.

His was a buck, hers a star. "If we're crazy enough to get married, we're crazy enough to get tattooed," shrugged the husband.

But loss of the America's Cup would be hard to take. "I shudder to think of it," says Newport car dealer Mike Bove, who has given the skippers of all four U.S. boats—but significantly, neither the French nor the Aussies—free use of El Caminos. Bove's sentiments are echoed, of course, at the New York Yacht Club, where the potbellied Victorian trophy is as much a part of the furnishings as the whirring fans and red-leather couches. Financed by large syndicates, the U.S. defense effort has an institutional flavor in contrast with the one-man crusades waged by such foreign moneybags as Bond and Bich.

Given its faceless nature, the defense has a well-nigh perfect candidate for hero in the shy, painfully reticent Olin Stephens. An erudite man, Stephens is more at ease at the drawing board than in the drawing room. His office at the Manhattan firm of Sparkman & Stephens has exposed pipes, linoleum floors and bare radiators, and Stephens invariably reports to work in a dark suit and bow tie. His administrative assistant is his 88-year-old father. To suggestions that his office is musty, Stephens replies, "I don't want a fancy place. That's just putting on the dog."

For Stephens this amounts to a speech. After the launching of Courageous this spring, The New York Times was reduced to printing this exchange:

Reporter. How do you feel seeing one of your Twelves launched?

Stephens . Great.

Certainly Stephens is more guarded than Brit Chance. In the days before their boats first tangled off Newport, Stephens relaxed over a biography of Frederick II, the 13th century Holy Roman Emperor, while Chance could be found astride Mariner's bow admiring the lines in a Playboy centerfold. The scion of a yachty Main Line Philadelphia family—his father won a sailing gold medal in the 1952 Olympics—Chance seldom criticizes Stephens directly. But he tends to credit the older man's successes to "the bright young assistants Olin has hired." And his irreverence goes to bedrock when he insists, "My office is dingier than Olin's." He may be right, too. Chance & Co. is in the Long Island yachting center of Oyster Bay, above a Goodyear tire dealer.

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