Off Newport the name of the game was frustration. It had been bad enough to have the final trials to select a defender of the America's Cup hampered by fog and/ or lack of wind, but for the spell of freak weather to turn an anticipated slambang series between Australia's Southern Cross and the U.S. Twelve, Courageous, into drifting matches—or, worse, no races at all—was a malign prank of fate. In the opening week only two races were sailed, and those left much to be desired as true tests.
For three days prior to the ultimate hour of decision in their competition no races between defense candidates Intrepid and Courageous had been completed. And so it had come down to a sudden-death sail-off with the score in the final trials tied 4-4. Courageous won by 1:47 on the fresh wind and boisterous seas the selection committee had long been awaiting. Unfortunately, the issue of sheer boat speed remained unsettled when Intrepid parted a running backstay and blew out a jib. But Courageous' impressive performance in conditions that many had thought would favor Intrepid made her the logical choice, and Intrepid had honed Courageous to an edge she could never have achieved otherwise.
Streaming from Newport harbor to watch the opening of the defense came upwards of 1,000 spectator craft, all to be swallowed by fog far from the starting line. For three hours Southern Cross and Courageous sailed aimless holding patterns, but finally the fog thinned to thick haze and course signals were hoisted in an 11-knot sou'wester. Australia's Jim Hardy, the helmsman of what he probably believed to be the faster boat, made a perfect start on port tack: the Cross moving well toward the favored side of the course and able to come back on starboard, assuring right of way if neither boat was clear ahead. Dennis Conner, the starting helmsman on Courageous, crossed the line on starboard.
Courageous tacked to port two minutes after clearing the line, and for the next 20 minutes the boats sailed parallel courses, though widely separated. The challenger seemed to be moving faster, eating out into the haze, pointing high and footing well. When she tacked, onlookers held their collective breath to see if the defender could cross ahead when they met. She could not. As Courageous tacked to leeward of Southern Cross, cheers came across the water from Aussie boosters. For 123 years seekers after the cup had been trying to field a superior boat, and it appeared during those first moments that one had finally arrived from halfway around the world.
But now it became Courageous' turn to reassure her supporters. Under the hand of Skipper Ted Hood, who had taken over on the last day of trials, she began squeezing up on Southern Cross. The defender narrowed the gap to windward while moving faster. Meanwhile, both boats were nearing the lay line to the first mark; when they came to the point where they could make it, Courageous held on, forcing Southern Cross to sail with her and then fall dead in her wake when both bore off. The defender's margin was 34 seconds, but Southern Cross was within striking distance on the subsequent reach, heralded as her best point of sailing. Disappointingly, she dropped another 59 seconds on that and the following reach, and the gap grew wider at each successive mark as the wind lightened. At the finish Southern Cross trailed by 4:54.
Dennis Conner summed up the reaction of the American side when he said, "I think the race was misleading; we don't feel there was anything like a five-minute difference between the boats."
But the Aussies, victims of their own psychological-warfare campaign of proclaiming Southern Cross the fastest 12-meter yacht ever built, were in shock. Questioned the next day how he had slept following the loss, Hardy replied, "Like a baby—I woke up every two hours and cried."
The boats remained fogbound in harbor that day; the next brought a sou'wester of moderate strength. When course signals were hoisted the rival helmsmen began a cat-and-mouse chase through the privileged "flag" fleet—the tenders, syndicate members and press, allowed to cluster close behind the starting buoy. There was near disaster as Courageous on starboard tack met Southern Cross coming around the stern of a motor yacht. A collision was avoided, but protest flags went up in the rigging of both Twelves. At the start Southern Cross attained the safe leeward position, putting Courageous in her backwind, forcing the defender to tack almost immediately. The Cross covered, but Courageous was moving faster, for soon the challenger, falling back, was forced to split away. For the next quarter hour there were frequent tacks, with only loose cover by Courageous. At one point she went to the east on a long leg, letting Southern Cross go. Southern Cross continued to the west, found a favoring slant, and at 24 minutes after the start, coming back on starboard tack, forced Courageous to dip under her stern. Again cheers sounded from the Aussie supporters, but their joy was short-lived. In a tactical blunder that will long be the talk of the antipodes, Southern Cross failed to cover, letting Courageous continue unmolested into the same area which had favored her. On coming back, Courageous was ahead, and when both tacked on the lay line the challenger was once again forced to trail ignominiously at the buoy by the same margin as on the first day—34 seconds.
Applying "cover," whereby the leading skipper keeps his rival in the disturbed wind flowing off his sails or, if widely separated, stays between him and the next mark, is the cardinal rule of match racing. Now failure to cover had lost each skipper his lead, with the defender on the lucky end of the exchange. Yet superior speed can provide the possibility of recovering; if Southern Cross could close the gap to blanket Courageous, she might be able to pass. Gain she did, but not enough. At the next mark the challenger had shaved only six seconds off the margin, and Courageous took it back on the following leg. On the three remaining legs Courageous gained decisively on the pair to windward while Southern Cross managed to salvage a scant 11 seconds on the run. Significantly, the defender widened the lead on the last beat, when the wind was clocked at 16 knots, enough strength to give an indication of heavy-weather performance, and the final margin was 1:11. Thus although Aussie leader Alan Bond chose to lament tactical lapses, the race committee reports told a different story: of the 12 legs sailed in the first two races, Southern Cross had moved faster on only two. Bond went far afield in complaining that Aussie tacticians were at a disadvantage in playing wind shifts since they had not been allowed "to become accustomed to the waters," implying that the New York Yacht Club had kept them away. For many weeks the Australians had had freedom of the seas off Newport.
Finally a day dawned bright and clear, with 20 knots of wind from the southwest—ideal conditions to get a true reading on a pair of racing yachts. As the International Jury under the chairmanship of Italy's Beppe Croce had disallowed both protests, the score stood 2-0 in favor of Courageous. When the fleet reached the starting buoy, the wind was even fresher and a steep sea had built. The committee boat anchored and hoisted course signals. Then—anticlimax: a solid wall of fog rolled in from seaward. For two long hours boats groped and wallowed in nearly zero visibility until it became too late to make a start.