Why are they there? Why is Pelle Petterson, the talented Swede who already has enough worlds to conquer, messing around in the sloppy seas off Newport trying to win the America's Cup in his little, heavily canvased boat Sverige? Why is Marcel Bich, the ball-point baron of France, back for a third try in his old wood hull, France, which a few years ago spent the better part of a month on the bottom of a murky arm of the North Sea? Why is Alan Bond, the western Australian who spent a bundle and lost four straight to the Yanks in 1974, on hand again with a new boat, Australia? And why, oh why, is the eastern Australian, Gordon Ingate, a perennial second-stringer in 12-meter boats, trying in Gretel II, the wood Twelve that lost in 1970?
Not since the Christians met the lions in the Colosseum has there been such a one-sided sporting event as the America's Cup. Whereas in the past there was most often a single challenger willing to take his licks, now there are four, only one of which will have a chance to tangle with the lions. So why do they do it?
Pelle Petterson, the newcomer to the game, gives the simplest answer: "Because the America's Cup is one of the greater things in yachting."
"Why did I get in it again?" Alan Bond says. "Because I thought we could improve our performance based on our experiences last time around."
"Why do I do it again?" says Baron Bich. "When you are once involved in the America's Cup, it is difficult to get out. I do not have shackles on my legs, of course, but the races and the boats are fantastic toys to play with, giving you maximum problems to solve. We are all here because we like to solve problems. If you do not enjoy problems, you don't belong in the America's Cup."
Gordon Ingate is in it primarily because he is Australian. Ever since an athlete from Down Under won two events in the first modern Olympics 81 years ago, taking part has been the Australian style. As Ingate puts it, "It is better to compete and lose than not compete at all."
Early last summer when Bond temporarily canceled his challenge because of differences with his designers, and another Aussie challenge foundered for want of funds, Ingate was in a yacht club bar with friends who were deploring the fact that Sweden and France would be after the cup in '77 and Australia would not. As Ingate remembers, someone said, "Any boat is better than no boat," whereupon Ingate put a note on the bar pledging money in five figures and it was immediately covered seven times. "So here we are," Ingate sums up, "a secondhand crew with an old boat."
Gretel II, Ingate's "old boat," has been rejuvenated by her designer, Alan Payne, in the hope that she might beat her rivals if the winds stay light. Ingate's "secondhand crew" is beyond rejuvenation: their average age is about 40 years. Struck by the venerability of the Ingate team, the Australian magazine Modern Boating headlined its introductory piece on them, "Children of America! Lock up your mothers. The Australians are coming!"
To begin to determine which will meet the U.S. defender in September, the foreign contenders agreed to hold a round robin, each boat meeting each of its rivals three times to derive a seeding for a semifinal in which the boats first winning four races will go to a four-out-of-seven final. In the semifinal the boat with the best round-robin record will meet the one with the worst; the No. 2 and No. 3 boats make the other pairing.
On the day before the round robin began last week, luxuriating in the fact that foreigners finally had a wholesome competition to sharpen a candidate for the actual challenge, Bond, the prime backer and team captain of Australia, said, "All the round robin does is seed us, but in part because of it, I think you will find the top two will get into the finals both far better for it. If it is light weather, it should be between ourselves and Gretel. If it's heavy weather, it will be ourselves and Sweden. That's my tipping, but then this is the America's Cup with all its unknown factors."