SI Vault
Britannia rules these waves
Clive Gammon
August 25, 1975
Hearts of oak and doughty boats sailed away with the Admiral's Cup
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 25, 1975

Britannia Rules These Waves

Hearts of oak and doughty boats sailed away with the Admiral's Cup

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The winner is a loser. In the first hour of darkness of the warm August night the black lean shadow of Charisma came sliding into Millbay Dock in Plymouth, England, on her motor, tall sails collapsed on deck. Minutes earlier she had crossed the line off Plymouth Hoe, the first of the Admiral's Cup yachts to finish the Fastnet race, and although her teammate Tenacious would be alongside shortly, it would be two hours before Italy's Mandrake joined the two U.S. boats at the quay.

But there was no exultation. For Charisma and Tenacious, both big boats, a couple of hours' lead was all too little. Under the acid-yellow dock lights crewmen tumbled their duffels ashore and swore at the sou'westerly breeze that was still freshening, blowing smaller, more lightly handicapped yachts into Plymouth. The skipper of Tenacious, Ted Turner, sniffed at it. "I don't think we'll get the break," he said. He sensed correctly that the wind was not going to die and leave the rest of the fleet to drift slowly in on the tide.

"So there you go," said Dennis Conner, the sailing master of Charisma. He had already cut his losses. Others found it harder to be philosophic, Mrs. Ann Marshall, for example, who crewed aboard Charisma on the 4�-day, 605-mile haul from Cowes, Isle of Wight, to the Fastnet Rock off the coast of County Cork and back again to Plymouth. "You work so hard," she said, voicing what the men were reluctant to say. "You work so awfully hard, and then you come out a loser...."

That was last week. Almost two weeks earlier she had looked a lot happier, putting in a bulk order for four dozen serious-sized currant buns at Ruth's Bakery in the main street of Cowes, a midmorning snack for Charisma's crew. That was on the eve of the first race in the Admiral's Cup series in which the U.S. entered the most powerful team it has ever assembled for the most prestigious of ocean-racing contests. Albert G. Van Metre, the nonsailing captain, spoke of the U.S. might:

"We've got Ted Hood on Robin, right? A lot of people would say he's the best sailor in the world. He's just won this year's transatlantic race. There's Dennis Conner on Charisma, the best helmsman in the America's Cup. Ted Turner on Tenacious, who won every race in his class in last winter's SORC. Conner and Turner aren't trying to beat each other's brains out as they usually do. They are cooperating. This is the most important competition in the world for cruising boats, and this is the best team we've ever sent."

The Admiral's Cup was first staged in 1957 in an attempt to revive the failing fortunes of yachting at Cowes, the little Isle of Wight resort where Czar Nicholas II of Russia once anchored his yacht and the portly figure of King Edward VII footed it lightly at the Royal Yacht Squadron ball. (This year, well in tradition, a Brazilian gentleman challenged the secretary of the RYS to a duel to the death after he and a group including his chum, Don Juan of Spain, were turned away from the ball.) The object was to encourage overseas yachtsmen to race in English waters, and it was achieved almost from the start. In that first year just Britain and the U.S. competed. This month 19 national teams, each with three yachts, gathered at Cowes. Along with the U.S., which won in 1961 and 1969 (the cup is biennial), Britain (five wins), Australia (winner in 1967) and Germany (winner of the last Admiral's Cup in 1973) were favored. London bookie William Hill was offering 3 to 1 on Britain and Germany and 6 to 1 on Australia and the Americans.

The Admiral's Cup consists of a minimum of four races. The first was the Channel Race, approximately 225 nautical miles down to Cherbourg on the French coast and back to Cowes. Then came two 30-mile inshore races in the Solent, a whirligig of tides between the Isle of Wight and the mainland. And finally there was the Fastnet. Points scored in the Channel Race are doubled, those in the Fastnet trebled, and in most years you can see why. The Fastnet is called "the Grand National of sailing." As in that famous steeplechase, the hazards usually are diabolical. Tearing sou'westers are the rule. You beat into them down-Channel and out past the Lizard, Land's End and the Scilly Isles. And once you've rounded the Fastnet Rock, off the Cork coast, you hurtle back in front of them, in seas that can be mountainous. The archetypal Fastnet image is of Australia's Ragamuffin surfing home in 1971 before a 40-knot gale, broaching crazily with her spinnaker still flying while others in the fleet had prudently gone to poled-out headsails.

It didn't happen this August. England sweltered under a windless heat wave. During Cowes Week, with temperatures in the 90s, the little town was hotter than Casablanca. It looked bad for the Channel Race, especially for the U.S. with its two big boats—Charisma and Tenacious—carrying heavy handicaps and less able to cope with light airs than the smaller German and British yachts. But there was more breeze in the Channel than forecast, and though the British yacht Noryema was overall winner on corrected time, U.S. boats took third, fourth and 23rd places and led the Admiral's Cup fleet on points with 292, six ahead of the Germans.

"It was a beautiful, beautiful race," exulted Jesse Philips, owner of fourth-place Charisma, but Ted Turner, aboard 23rd-place Tenacious, was less euphoric. "We could have done better," he said. "That damned Noryema. These are the world's best sailors with the world's best boats. Maybe the Germans have the best boats, but man for man, as sailors, I worry about the British." Turner's words would prove to be prophetic.

Next morning, though the schedule indicated a free day and both had come in from the Channel Race at dawn, Charisma and Tenacious were out practicing. "We got in at 5 a.m.," Turner said. "Hell, we got an hour's sleep. We don't want too much of that. Makes you tired."

Continue Story
1 2