Wooden-hulled Intrepid, twice defender of the America's Cup, took a major step toward making it three in a row by dominating the observation trials that ended last week off Newport, R.I. Although there is a long way to go before the selection committee makes its final choice—probably early in September—Intrepid has a lead that will not be easy to overcome.
As in the earlier round of trials in June, Intrepid's closest rival was Courageous, the new aluminum-hulled Sparkman & Stephens design that is backed by the old guard of the New York Yacht Club. And again wood vs. aluminum badinage was much in evidence, including the pious comment from an Intrepid partisan that "If God had intended us to sail aluminum boats, he would have given us aluminum trees."
Perhaps Courageous' group would be better off if Dacron grew on trees. The July trials ended with the syndicate intrepidly ordering four sails from the loft that made the ones used on the wooden boat. That loft is the East Coast branch of San Diego's North Sails, and is managed by John Marshall, one of the key men aboard Intrepid. Marshall now finds himself in the position of making sails for the boat he has been trying to beat. The decision is an indication that the Courageous backers' faith in Marble-head, Mass. Sailmaker Ted Hood has been shaken. That is the America's Cup equivalent of the Pope wondering if he should become a Presbyterian.
When the yachts first met in June, Intrepid had the advantage of having started crew training and sail evaluation months earlier in the Pacific. By the time serious battle was joined on the East Coast her hands were honed almost to America's Cup sharpness and her sails were in top form after weeks of testing and recutting. That she retained this superiority through the July trials is of paramount concern to Courageous' people.
And there is possibly another big worry on the horizon for both Intrepid and Courageous. Absent from the latest series of races was Mariner, the aluminum Britton Chance Jr. design that represents the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. She had been returned to the builder for major surgery on her aft underbody but comes back to Newport this week to begin the formidable task of starting virtually from scratch with less than a month remaining before the final trials.
The July racing was by no means a series of uninterrupted triumphs for Intrepid. She lost a couple of races to Courageous, and there was a sobering note when 4-year-old Valiant, runner-up to Intrepid in the 1970 trials, beat her old rival by 28 seconds in 18 to 22 knots of wind and rough seas. This was the type of solid air in which Valiant, heaviest of all the 12-meters, had proved a match for Intrepid in the long 1970 campaign and indicated that, although the 1974 American boats may be an improvement over the 1970 crop in light to medium breezes, they are no better in brisk winds.
In the 1970 defense Australian challenger Gretel II was a faster boat than Intrepid in moderate air. She failed to become the first foreign winner because she was disqualified from one race she had won and was outfoxed in two others. Gretel II's advantage in speed indicated that Intrepid—and all the other 1970 U.S. boats as well—were too long and heavy for their sail areas. The power-to-weight ratio, which yacht designers call sail-area-to-displacement ratio, was too low. This error could have cost the U.S. the cup.
It is no wonder then that this year's 12-meters are smaller and lighter and have proportionally more sail area. In fact, the startling similarity between Courageous and Gretel II has caught the eye of even the uninitiated. And the revamped Intrepid has taken on a Gretel-like look in her aft underbody. There is little doubt that Courageous and the new Intrepid are a considerable improvement over the 1970 boats in moderate air.
Intrepid won or broke even in all but one of her starts against Courageous and that lone failure was costly. Skipper Gerry Driscoll made a miscalculation in light air as the boats maneuvered for the start. Courageous' Bob Bavier capitalized on the error and went on to win by 4� minutes. That race followed the heavy-weather contest in which Valiant scored her only victory over Intrepid.
The losses left the previously high-flying West Coast sailors on a downer entering the final two-race slugging match with Courageous. They knew the pair of July races could put one of the yachts in the driver's seat going into the August showdown series, and the race committee gave the duels additional significance by taking the Twelves all the way out to the America's Cup buoy to sail full cup courses of 24.3 miles. Intrepid led at every mark to methodically win both races. Her superiority was achieved on the upwind legs, and Courageous was not enough faster on the offwind legs to make up for her rival's windward superiority.