- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
As August faded toward September, twin dramas were playing simultaneously off Newport. Like most double features, one side of the bill was weaker. When it became apparent that the action between Australia's Southern Cross and France's France could only be captured on a super-wide screen, the audience drifted away from that series to determine the America's Cup challenger to close in on the performances of Intrepid and Courageous. Culminating a summer-long struggle for the role of defender, they were pushing drama to the point of cardiac difficulty for their supporters.
For France the curtain went up and, in a sense, down on the same day. It was a clear one, sunny and warm, with a light easterly breeze barely riffling the sea—exactly the conditions the French thought suited them best. As a courtesy to the visitors, the U.S. trials were canceled, so the entire spectator fleet formed a giant horseshoe behind the starting area. At the 10-minute warning gun Southern Cross and France were far apart; they came together to circle well behind the line at the five-minute gun, then broke apart again, each helmsman going his unhindered way. Southern Cross was one minute, 43 seconds late crossing the line after the starting gun, yet still four seconds ahead of France. Both boats had clear air. It soon became apparent that the Australian was pointing higher and footing faster, a devastating combination. At 10 minutes after the start the French skipper, Jean Marie Le Guillou, attempted to force a tacking duel, but Southern Cross' Jim Hardy applied only loose cover. France seemed to sag farther behind on each tack, so the effort was abandoned. At the first windward mark Southern Cross led by 2:26, and she gained on every following leg to finish a whopping 7:32 ahead. Although later margins were less lopsided, this first meeting set the pattern for four consecutive decisive victories.
France's embarrassment was prolonged by the time limit expiring in one race and thick fog canceling another. The latter provided a measure of consolation for Baron Marcel Bich, backer of the French effort—this year it was the Aussies who did not find the mark. There were surprises, notably France's utter inability to match paces with Southern Cross in light air despite the fact she had done so well against Gretel II in 1970, and the lack of aggressiveness shown by either helmsman at the starts. Hardy could be excused for conservatism, as superior boat speed would soon take him in front, but to be on top at the gun was Le Guillou's sole hope.
On their side of the watery amphitheater, Intrepid and Courageous were putting on a very good show indeed. They had gone into the decisive series with Intrepid having a 6-4 lead in earlier trials, and they split their two races before Mariner and Valiant were excused from further competition. This brought them into the "final finals" with the '67 design of Olin Stephens enjoying a 7-5 margin over his latest creation. Then Courageous appeared to hit her stride. All summer her supporters had been saying that what the newer boat needed was time—time to perfect sails, to sharpen the crew, to acquaint helmsmen with idiosyncrasies inherent in an ultrarefined design, and now everything seemed to be coming together.
On the day before the Australians and French began their matches Courageous overcame a 16-second deficit at the start to sail through Intrepid on the first windward leg. In fact, she simply murdered her rival, arriving at the mark 3:07 ahead. The wind was a scant five knots, the sea smooth, and Courageous not only seemed to be moving faster but profited when Intrepid violated the first commandment of match racing: "Thou shalt sit firmly on the wind of thy neighbor." Long tacks coupled with slight shifts in a fickle breeze were the West Coast contender's downfall, and although Intrepid gained on every remaining leg, she lost by 1:31. Next came another pair of victories for Courageous, the first in virtual drifting conditions over a shortened course, by 4:51. It brought the seesaw to dead center: the score was 7-7. In the second win Dennis Conner, who had been drafted from Mariner as starting helmsman, was on top at the gun by 32 seconds, and Courageous protected her lead all the way, although much of the time a large circus tent would have covered both boats. The winning margin was 10 seconds and the seesaw had now tipped in favor of Courageous. More important, she had won four out of five in the finals. Hopeful eyes began to keep watch for the launch bearing the selection committee.
Early last week a change in the weather brought a shift in fortunes. Gray skies and a sea laced with graycaps awaited the fleet. For the first time in the final trials the wind had gone heft, a 15-knot southerly. Like gladiators, Intrepid and Courageous rushed toward each other at the 10-minute gun. A 12-meter yacht consists of tons of lead below the waterline and an eggshell-fragile skin above; the helmsman stands some 50 feet behind the spear of his bow, and there are no brakes. Yet the start is so vital in match racing that the intricate circling maneuvers called by some the "Mosbacher Waltz," and by others the "Dance of Death," are almost mandatory for boats evenly matched. Nothing in sport requires more nerve, judgment or teamwork. The exercise ends when one skipper thinks he has an advantage; he peels off to cross the line—ideally as the gun fires.
On this day the start was nearly a standoff, Courageous slightly ahead and below, a safe lee bow position that forced Intrepid about seconds after the gun. Her skipper, Gerry Driscoll, countered with a tacking duel, and this time it was Courageous' Bob Bavier and his brain trust who made the tactical error. While able to cross ahead on port tack, Courageous kept going back to the east, enabling Intrepid not only to work to the west, generally favored as the wind hauls clockwise, but to maintain the advantage of the right of way starboard tack on coming back together. Halfway up the first weather leg Intrepid forced Courageous about, and went on to win. The next day, in similar weather conditions, Intrepid led all the way and on the following day, in lighter air, she won again. The seesaw had tipped back, and now different eyes began watching for the selection committee's launch.
Intrepid was clearly the people's choice, the darling of the docks. Each night her return to shore was hailed with cheers, whistles and fireworks by crowds assembled along the waterfront. She had been a bit sluggish in drifting conditions, but became the equal of Courageous as soon as the breeze freshened. She appeared to improve the harder it blew, heeling and pitching less to windward and weaving less on spinnaker runs. Yet unless a real 25-knot buster came along it would be impossible to be sure Intrepid could retain her apparent edge in rugged going—vital should the defense against Southern Cross include an equinoctial nor'easter.
Continuing light airs, crew changes and unresolved questions were complicating the choice of a defender right down to the last moments. On Saturday, with only three days of trials still possible, Bob Bavier announced he was leaving the cockpit of Courageous. Sailmaker Ted Hood took over, with Conner remaining as starting specialist. Last week, in a blast unparalleled in cup history, and at a time Courageous was looking her best, Aussie chief Alan Bond attacked Conner's transfer from Mariner, citing early fouls and accusing him of employing "rodeo tactics afloat." Bond also said, "We deplore this approach, which is degrading to the dignity and prestige of the America's Cup [and] are most concerned that this style of racing could be condoned by the New York Yacht Club, to seriously disadvantage our efforts." Coming from a chest-beating leader who demanded that his crew cultivate a "killer instinct," an attempt to dictate the choice of the other team's quarterback as well as to control how the game should be played is rather astonishing. Many feel that Bond is worried about the ability of Southern Cross to cope with a defender before the starting gun, and is either trying to set up an alibi for home consumption or ready the stage for protests. The challenger has neither a trim tab to assist the rudder in tight turns nor experience in the aggressive starting maneuvers routinely practiced by U.S. match-racing sailors.
Yet even if Bond injects a discordant note, it does not detract from Southern Cross as a beautiful creation, and one likely to push the defender to the limit. Bobby Symonette of Nassau, chairman of the International Jury in the elimination matches between Australia and France, shakes his head when evaluating coming events. He had a close-up view of the foreign contenders from the committee boat and later watched several U.S. trials, and he says, "For the first time I'm convinced someone has a chance to lift the cup. Downwind may be the decisive area, where a faster-reaching boat can attack even if she loses the start and is blanketed to the first mark. Once ahead, she can retain control. So at this point I think it's an even-money bet." There are many around Newport who agree.