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Like a breeze freshening from the sea, tension is rising in Newport. Offshore, tall 12-meter yachts are racing, and for once in America's Cup competition nothing seems certain, not even ultimate U.S. victory. Never have so many diverse elements and unanswered questions stoked arguments from stately mansion to waterfront pub. On only one subject is there universal agreement: the 1974 battle for the silver ewer won by the schooner America 123 years ago this week is potentially the most exciting in history. Not only do the final trials among the four American candidates for defense seem certain to culminate in a replay of the classic Columbia-Vim battles of 1958, but the winner is sure to meet a worthy challenger. Twenty-one times American defenders have turned back foreign invaders in the oldest unbroken string of victories in sport, but this year they will be up against the survivor of elimination matches being sailed by unusually strong Australian and French crews to determine the challenger. Far from being psyched out by the U.S. record, the Aussies are distributing bumper stickers and lapel buttons proclaiming: AMERICA'S CUP—AUSTRALIA'S CUP. The Aussies are assuming, of course, that their Southern Cross will not be surprised by a rejuvenated France , a possibility not wholly discounted by a few who have watched practice sessions.
Thus once again lean lithe vessels slip past the sloping lawns of Brenton Cove to meet in lone combat. The blue amphitheater off Newport is rare among the waters of the world: far enough offshore to eliminate most fickle slants of winds and swirls of tidal current; deep enough for untroubled navigation, yet shallow enough for committee and mark boats to anchor. In challenge years the special America's Cup buoy is positioned seven nautical miles south-southeast of Brenton Reef Light, allowing courses to be laid in any direction, as dictated by the wind at the start. It is an area that has a special character: smell of salt, damp of fog, glint of sun on short steep crests, smoky sou'westers in late afternoon muting distant headlands.
It is also water with history and a heritage, where the wakes of bygone ships have woven a tapestry predating the formation of the republic. Newport has witnessed the passing of the frigates and the clippers, the whalers and the working schooners, as well as the entire pageant of American yachting. And while the current contenders built to the 12-meter rule are small in comparison with the pre-World War II J-boats, they are no less lovely, nor is the drama diminished. Aboard there is a sense of drive, of power, of exultation in swoop and silent glide akin to soaring or skiing or surfing—other sports where the forces of nature are transposed into free motion. From afar they remain among the loveliest creations of man, majestic anachronisms, in their perfection of form perhaps the highest development of a doomed species.
Yet the pressures of the moment allow little time for esthetic contemplation by those involved. The U.S. final trials began last week and will go on until all but one contender have fallen by the watery wayside, the sole time limit being the clause in the rules stipulating that both challenger and defender be named at least one week before Sept. 10, when matches for the cup itself begin. Every move will be scrutinized by the New York Yacht Club's Selection Committee, an assemblage of ex-commodores who are also racing sailors, their single goal to choose the yacht most likely to keep the cup firmly bolted to a table on Manhattan's 44th Street. The knowledge that a plate with a correctly threaded bolt-hole has already been installed in Australia's Royal Perth Yacht Club has no doubt provided a special incentive this year to keeping close tabs on helmsman-ship, sail handling and the myriad other factors adding up to the go-fastest boat and crew with the least danger of breaking down under mounting pressure—and the stronger winds of September. While such evaluation has been in process all summer, past selections show it is the finals that count the most. In 1964 Constellation was chosen over American Eagle after a score of nearly zero against her in the early races.
Intrepid went into the decisive series with the best record. She was 6-4 over Courageous, 6-1 against Valiant and 2-0 over the hapless Mariner. Also, Intrepid won two NYYC Cruise races impressively. Although they do not officially count, it is hard to eradicate such evidence from the minds of the jury. And in her first match in the finals, Intrepid defeated Courageous again in a real Vim-Columbia cliffhanger.
Intrepid led at the start and around the first three marks. Then Courageous stormed past to lead for the next two buoys. On rounding into the last beat the spinnaker of Courageous slipped overboard to act as a huge sea anchor, and Intrepid went on to win by 31 seconds. The second race was even closer. Intrepid was first over the starting line by one second, but after 24.3 miles of uptight competition Courageous was victorious by two seconds. Watching the finish, no spectator in the 100-boat fleet knew which Twelve had won until the race committee's announcement of that breathtaking margin.
Should Intrepid Win the trials, she will have achieved a collection of firsts: first boat to defend the cup three times (her victories in 1967 and 1970 placed her in a tie with the early Columbia , which defeated Shamrock I and Shamrock II at the turn of the century); first defender from beyond the bounds of the Eastern Establishment; and first boat representing a sailing foundation largely financed by tax-deductible popular subscription—almost certainly the hope of the future. Skipper Gerry Driscoll, once Star class world champion and twice winner of the Congressional Cup, a series of match races not unlike the America's Cup except sailed in smaller boats, has proved worthy of wearing the mantle of his predecessors on Intrepid, Emil (Bus) Mosbacher Jr. in 1967 and Bill (Quicker) Ficker in '70. Alternate helmsman and tactician is Bill Buchan, Mallory Cup winner and twice world Star champ. Much credit for Intrepid's success is attributed to sail trimmer—and sailmaker—John Marshall, who heads Californian Lowell North's East Coast loft. Intrepid's sails have been the envy of her competitors, while Driscoll's discipline and ceaseless practice sessions have resulted in a razor-sharp crew. An Intrepid victory would strike a blow at tank tests, computers and inorganic materials. By 12-meter standards Intrepid is an old and therefore, in theory, outbuilt boat, constructed of wood before the rules were changed to allow the use of aluminum. This metal affords a better sail area-to-weight ratio and should be faster. Should has been the irony of the summer.
Intrepid's only real rival so far has been Courageous, the latest design by Olin J. Stephens II, who also produced Intrepid. As a new boat she might be expected to be later in attaining peak form; the West Coast contender had a two-month lead in crew practice, evaluation of sails and the perfection of details. When beaten, Courageous has never lagged far astern. Intrepid has got the better of several starts and has been superior to windward, a factor counting heavily on a 24.3-nautical-mile cup course that includes three beats of 4.5 miles each, but Courageous has been the faster off the wind. Crew members take this to mean that she has a higher potential hull speed, which will eventually be achieved on all points through the perfection of sails and the "little things."
Her skipper, Robert N. Bavier Jr., has shown in cup competition that he improves when the chips are down. In 1964 he took over the helm of Constellation when her cause seemed hopeless after a string of early losses to American Eagle and went on to "beat the Bird" and defend the cup. He is cool, as aggressive as the situation requires, and is not only a student of tactics but an acknowledged authority on the rules. Old cup hand Halsey Herreshoff is navigator. Daily practice sessions prior to the finals have undoubtedly helped—as might some newly delivered Lowell North sails aloft and sailmaker Ted Hood in the cockpit, at first glance an odd combination. Hood, a sailor as well as sailmaker, was at the helm at times in last week's matches, in which North sails were indeed used by Courageous.
So there is the prospect of a reenactment of those finals of 1958, when the closest and most exciting match races of all time were sailed: an older boat, Intrepid in the role of Vim, through aggressive and skilled starting tactics and smart sail handling, almost upsetting a newer and faster creation, read Courageous for Columbia , from the board of the same master designer, Olin Stephens. In '58 the newer boat finally proved her superiority and was selected. But this time? Only further competition can answer the question: is Courageous potentially faster, or did Intrepid represent a design peak that cannot be exceeded? In either case, nobody at Newport disputes Bob Bavier's prediction: "It's going to be a tremendous dogfight between us and Intrepid right down to the finish. I can't see it any other way."