As the America's Cup observation trials began last weekend, only half of the new U.S. aluminum fleet of two was observable off Newport. Present was Courageous. Absent with leave was Mariner, her hull being hastily rebuilt at a suburban New York shipyard. If Mariner's departure temporarily diminished competition, the question of when she would return—and how much faster she then might be—did nothing to reduce suspense.
There was plenty of that already, for in last month's preliminary trials on the choppy waters of Rhode Island Sound the wondrous wooden antique, Intrepid, supposedly made obsolete by 12 meters of the newly permissible metal, fought Courageous to a standoff and trounced Mariner as convincingly as Courageous did. So the battle lines were drawn: aluminum against wood, new against old, designer against designer. Both Intrepid and Courageous are the brainchildren of Olin J. Stephens II. Mariner had sprung from the drawing board of Britton Chance Jr.
To see Stephens shuffling around the dock one would not have guessed that he had designed all but one of the postwar cup defenders. A quiet, horn-rimmed little gent with a camera slung over his shoulder-"to study the boats' performance," an aide explained—the 66-year-old Stephens could have been just another tourist out sniffing the salt air.
Chance, 34, is a brash and brilliant college dropout whose work includes the swift ocean racers Ondine and Equation. He has been nipping at Stephens' elk-hides in recent years, admitting, "I want a clear shot at Olin—the crunch, the confrontation." Indubitably he has taken a clear shot with Mariner. While Courageous is only a refinement of previous designs, Chance gave Mariner a radical shape behind the keel, a configuration of abrupt, startling angles. Fittingly, Stephens' creation was painted white, Chance's a fire-engine red.
In his zeal to apply the crunch Chance at first resisted calls for modification of Mariner. But it became obvious soon enough that the only rival Mariner could outsail was her wood-bottomed trial horse, Valiant, a beaten Stephens-designed leftover from 1970 that also went back to the boatyard for revision. As a result of the modifications, Valiant returned to Newport for the trials as a semi-serious contender. There was virtually no hope Mariner would be ready for the racing this week or next. And if she was not, Chance would be taking her cold into August's final trials, when the U.S. defender will at last be chosen.
It was an unprecedented situation, rebuilding an America's Cup boat at so late a date, but then Mariner's bid had been marked by audacity from the start. It was easy to identify Courageous with the Old Guard, and this meant not only Olin Stephens but also her skipper, 56-year-old Robert N. Bavier Jr., publisher of Yachting magazine and a certified member of the waterborne Establishment. Mariner, by contrast, offered the relative youthfulness of Chance and, at the helm, Ted Turner. A 35-year-old Atlantan who numbers among his accouterments two television stations, Robert Edward Turner III is a handsome devil with a style so lusty that the New York Yacht Club did not see fit to make him a member until a few months after he was appointed skipper of Mariner last summer.
While Mariner was undergoing minor adjustments one afternoon during the preliminary trials Turner restlessly wandered into an eatery on Newport's waterfront called Mack's Clam Shack. He lunched on steamers and shot some pool, squealing like a schoolboy whenever he sank a shot. Walking back to his boat, he gave a sudden start to see Courageous and Intrepid heading out to practice.
"I'll be damned," cried Turner, his features tightening in frustration. "Well, if they're going out, so are we." The moment passed and Mariner remained in port, but given his boat's woes, Turner was surely entitled to anxiety about being left, as it were, at the dock.
If Turner was edgy, Courageous' Bob Bavier could afford to be cool. Bavier is a white-haired figure, tall and capable, with a ruddy face lined in all the nice places and large ears that appear to be holding up his yachting cap. He seldom, if ever, raises his voice. At dockside he contentedly smoked a cigarette and said, "Unless Mariner is greatly improved by modification, it's going to be between us and Intrepid all the way. And we're going to win."
Before that might happen, however, the New York Yacht Club selectors obviously meant to give every contender ample opportunity to show what it could do. There is no room for rash decisions. Theirs, after all, is an awesome winning streak, a 123-year record of unbroken U.S. success that began when the schooner
sailed away from a fleet of 14 British boats in 1851. The spoils of that race—a trophy named after the first winner—has become the target of a succession of wealthy foreigners who recognize that wresting it away would assure them everlasting glory, or something of the sort.