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When Baron Marcel Bich appointed Paul Elvstrom helmsman for his 1974 assault on the America's Cup, the flamboyant Frenchman caused a good deal of concern in the New York Yacht Club. The legendary Dane was unquestionably the greatest helmsman, the most accomplished yachtsman the world had ever seen. His presence aboard a cup challenger would have posed perhaps the gravest threat ever to the club's unbroken 123-year grip on the "auld mug." Elvstrom's subsequent argument with Bich and his resignation from the French campaign put an end to his immediate America's Cup hopes. However, Elvstrom is still convinced he could have won the cup in '74 with a revolutionary concept in design, a 12-meter with a bulbous underwater snout beneath her bows.
Elvstrom's long, slender, elliptical bulb had emerged after a six-month tank-test program in Copenhagen in 1973-74, reported to have cost more than $500,000. Using four-meter-long models in a 250-meter tank, he examined their performance with computers and a battery of complex electronic gear. He was adapting principles already established in commercial shipping. The bulb works simply. It sets up its own wave slightly in front of the vessel, and the valley or trough from this false bow wave tends to neutralize the wave that would normally surge up around the bows of the boat.
The result is less drag around the hull and therefore greater speed. Elvstrom and his design partner, Jan Kjaerulff, were convinced the bulb could boost a boat's speed to windward by 5%. They claimed the downwind speed could be pushed up by 8%.
At the time, those claims appeared to be fantastic. Elvstrom was harshly criticized by some of the biggest names in international yacht design. And yet he remained convinced. Even though he saw no immediate prospect of an America's Cup challenge, he set out to vindicate the bulb with the determination that had won him four Olympic gold medals.
The Elvstrom 12-meter never left the drawing boards, but a fortnight ago in a match-race series sailed on a boisterous Pacific Ocean course off Sydney, Australia, those extraordinary theories were tested in a radical Australian Six-meter yacht named Prince Alfred, a half-size model of the boat Elvstrom originally conceived for the cup. The fact that Prince Alfred was walloped four to nothing by the conventional American Six-meter St. Francis VI will undoubtedly be accepted as proof that Elvstrom's sailing genius does not extend to yacht design.
That is an assumption that could ultimately lead to the loss of the America's Cup. Prince Alfred was well and truly thrashed, there is no doubt about that, but let no one underestimate the value of that weird white torpedo beneath her bows. The consensus, even among the most hard-bitten cynics, was that it worked. Prince Alfred was beaten by a combination of factors other than the bulb. Her tiny teardrop keel, only one-third the size of the Americans' keel, came in for particular criticism. It simply could not grab the water the way its opponent's did. While St. Francis sailed high and fast in the violent seas, the Australian boat tended to lurch forward and sideways like some drunken crab.
But Prince Alfred consistently took time out of the American lead on the fast surfing rides downwind under spinnaker. And unlike what occurred in an elimination series between Prince Alfred and the Swedish world champion May Be X, St. Francis was usually so far in front at the first windward buoy on the Olympic course that the Australian boat had no chance of catching her.
The American-Australian Challenge Cup has been since 1967 a biennial series run alternately by the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco and Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club. This year a Swedish challenge was accepted. May Be X had defeated a large fleet of the world's best Six-meters, and the Swedes came to Australia expecting not only to beat Prince Alfred but to dispose of St. Francis as well.
By defeating May Be X four races to one, Prince Alfred showed how devastating her downwind power could be: the Australian boat three times took the lead after being outclassed to windward. But the series also showed how vulnerable she was. The Australians moved their mast aft 9� inches in a desperate attempt to improve the boat's pointing ability—and there was improvement—but even as they worked, a storm called David was whipping up the big seas and winds that eventually knocked her flat. Here was a boat designed specifically for the relatively light breezes of Rhode Island Sound in summer, not the wild rough-and-tumble of an Australian seaway.
During her early trials in comparatively calm conditions late last year she proved extremely fast, slipping along with an eerie, effortless grace, with virtually no bow wave and only a flat bubbling stream to mark her path through the water. If those conditions had prevailed through January, Prince Alfred might today be hailed as a breakthrough.