- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Viewed from a quarter mile away—which is about as close as any spectator gets to them—the big, handsome 12-meter boats look too dainty and immaculate for the job at hand. Battling to windward, they lean together on one tack and then the other, then split and go their separate ways. The sun flashes off the spinning winch arms of one boat as it comes about and, as if cued by that wink of light, her rival wheels over to the opposite tack. As they converge and cross paths and separate and recross, the motile violence, the clangor and clatter, the screech of steel cables on steel drums are all wasted in the wind, so that from afar the boats do not seem to be rivals dueling but graceful partners engaged in a courtly dance—provided, of course, that a lower spreader on one of them does not buckle suddenly to send the mast and 1,800 square feet of sail kerplunk over the side.
For all the seeming ease, the pressure and tensions are immense on both the machines and the men who sail them. When a 12-meter is heeled 30 degrees in a hard blow, the tug on its shrouds is about 20 tons, and the total pressure exerted at the foot of the mast is nearly twice that. The pressure on the skipper and the tension in the crew responsible for the $1 million racing baby are obviously considerable. When a boat is busting through lumpy seas in 25 knots of wind—taking the bone in her mouth, as they say—she may outfoot a rival, but if on a single tack the skipper and crew fail to come about smartly enough on an opponent's lee bow, the race can be lost. On the other hand, when skipper and crew are playing their parts perfectly on the wind and off, even in modest air, an interior tang or some other piece of hardware carefully handcrafted of the best Swedish steel by a cottage factory in Schmaltz, Switzerland can suddenly part. When something like that happens—snap, crackle, pop!—over goes the spar and with it the fortunes of the day.
To judge by the Preliminary Trials staged last week off Newport to select the U.S. defender of the America's Cup, 12-meter men take the strain somewhat better than their boats. In the process of winning squeakers and occasionally losing big, the three skippers and their crews remained sober in purpose but light in heart, while their taut ships showed the temperament and brittleness of highly trained thoroughbreds.
Not surprisingly, the most ebullient and vociferous of the helmsmen was the leader in the competition, Ted Turner. His Courageous, the hull that defended the cup three years back, was on her way to winning seven races and losing but one—and that by only seven seconds, the equivalent of half a length in the Kentucky Derby.
It had been thought that Courageous would surely be no better than equal to the new 12-meters, Lowell North's Enterprise and Ted Hood's Independence. For starters, the new boats were being skippered by men who were not only the world's finest sailmakers but eminent sailors as well; North's reputation as a Star class racer is legend.
Turner, admittedly, is an exceptional ocean racer, acid-tongued and demanding, with a remarkable ability to keep his crews keyed up through days and nights of competition. They are never allowed to become bored or sloppy. Instead of mutinying at his continual rasping, his crews respect and admire Turner and in fact, many of his ocean-racing regulars had been recruited for his America's Cup effort.
As a skipper of Twelves, however, Turner was suspect. In the 1974 cup trials he had been stuck with a dud, Mariner, a boat so slow in the preliminary races that her radical after sections were cut away and rebuilt on more conventional lines by her designer Britton Chance. When Mariner returned in August, Turner was replaced at the helm by Dennis Conner, a notable starter and a fine sailor. Turner was then handed Mariner's poor old trial horse, Valiant. Though his boats were outclassed, it was also thought that Turner, with all his bellowing, did not concentrate well enough to be a successful match-racing skipper.
In Turner there is some of the ambidextrous genius of da Vinci as well as the quick wits of an alley cat. Tilting against the very best in a secondhand boat—if indeed Courageous may be called that—is an experience Turner can relish. Yet, as he paced the dock between last week's races, he did not always seem to be his usual, unusual self. Winning big is not his style. He thrives on squeakers. He loves to battle with his back against a wall. If there is no wall close by, he will go miles out of his way to find one. After he beat Hood convincingly by about a minute in two shortened races of 10 and 11 miles, he was somewhat moody. When he beat North by 45 seconds in one race, then poked two feet of his bow across the finish line (the equivalent of a whisker in a horse race) to take another, he was more cheerful. On another day, after he slowly ate away a one-minute 35-second deficit through five legs and lost to North by seven seconds, and then in the second matchup changed leads with North twice to win by 22 seconds, he was jubilant.
Turner and Courageous duplicated the 1967 Preliminary Trials match-race record of Intrepid (which went on to two successful defenses of the cup). On that occasion the competition was notably weaker, because Intrepid's most promising rival, the redesigned Columbia, did not take part. But Turner's foes are far from conceding the 1977 defense to Courageous.