A high-priced and extremely exclusive band of sailors, including seven past, present or likely America's Cup skippers, waged fierce battle off the Southern California coast last week in what was supposed to be four days of head-to-head racing. But before the 21st Congressional Cup ended, the four days turned to five, thanks to an unprecedented three-way tie that was resolved on Sunday by a sudden-death sailoff won by Rod Davis, the helmsman for Eagle, which is the Newport Harbor ( Calif.) Yacht Club's challenger for the 1987 America's Cup. In out-dueling and outlasting a strong Congressional Cup field of 10, Davis received a valuable foretaste of the match-racing rigors he will face two years from now in the rough seas off Freemantle, Western Australia.
Since there is little that is sudden even about sudden-death sailboat racing, Davis took close to four hours in the waters off Long Beach to eliminate his sailoff rivals, John Kolius, skipper of America II, the America's Cup challenger from the New York Yacht Club, and defending champion Dave Perry, a Yale alum who went to sea wearing a Cub Scout cap. But Davis's victory was as conclusive as it was drawn-out: In beating first Kolius and then Perry, he led at every mark.
It was by the luck of the draw that Davis drew Kolius for the first race of the sailoff, while Perry got a bye. In their race, a late tack by Kolius on the first leg left him covered by Davis, and that spelled his doom. With Kolius retired, Davis and his crew met Perry in the final race. Both boats crossed the starting line early, but Perry was slower recrossing by 30 seconds and Davis was on his way to victory; Perry was unable to make up the difference.
The Congressional Cup drew such a formidable field partly because it is sailing's most prestigious skippers' race and partly because preparations for the 1987 America's Cup are already heating up. Dennis Conner was there, still one of the world's most feared match racers, in spite of his loss to Australia II in 1983. So, too, were Ted Turner, Atlanta's media tycoon and Captain Courageous of the 1977 America's Cup; Mauro Pellaschier, the Italian from Trieste who skippered Azzurra in '83 and will do so again in '87; Harold Cudmore, the irrepressible Irishman who helped steer Victory '83 in Newport and is also skipper-to-be of the next British effort; and Chris Dickson, the young Aucklander who will be at the helm of New Zealand's challenger in '87.
What drew all this talent to Long Beach was a series of races over short windward-leeward courses in matched Catalina 38s, sailboats more often used for cruising than racing. The object of a skippers' race is to test people not boats. Each contestant is provided with identical equipment by the host club, and all but minimal tinkering is outlawed. The boats are borrowed from local owners and are assigned by draw at the start of the week. In spite of heroic efforts by the Long Beach Yacht Club to equalize the fleet, some boats always turn out to be more equal than others. This year, to quell the usual wails of outrage from those disadvantaged by the draw skippers, crews, spinnakers and jibs were rotated en masse to a different vessel each day.
The new scheme met with general dockside approval, but not from Conner, who drew the two slowest boats in the fleet on successive days. He was able to win one race out of five on those days when his dog-of-the-day was matched against the other dud, but his handicap was more than any amount of smart sailing could overcome.
With Conner out of the running, Davis, Kolius and Perry set about disposing of the rest of the fleet. Kolius, who recently returned from three months of sailing America II in Australia and then stopped off in Florida just long enough to take first place in Class 2 of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference, lost only to Davis in his first six races. Davis lost his first race to Conner, but after that he, too, was at the head of the pack. Davis, who took the Congressional Cup in '81, won a gold medal as a crew member in the Soling competition at the Los Angeles Olympics, adding that to the five world championships in four different classes he already had. He is a new star in the 12-meter firmament, but he is not a new face. He was a young hotshot from San Diego in 1977, when Lowell North picked him for the crew of Enterprise, and in 1983 he sailed with Tom Blackaller on Defender. Eagle, however, will be his first experience as an America's Cup skipper. Perry, a blithe spirit who made his name in intercollegiate racing at Yale in the late '70s and finished second to Davis in the 1984 Olympic Soling trials, lost his first race to Kolius before winning four straight.
Entering the seventh race on Friday, Kolius and Davis were tied at 5-1 with Perry at 4-2. Kolius might then have taken the lead alone, except for an alltimer of a screwed-up spinnaker douse at the first leeward mark of the seventh race. Dickson slipped past him and held the lead until the finish.
Davis, too, missed his chance in the seventh race. If he had beaten Perry in their matchup, which was the tightest race of the week, he would have been the sole leader at the end of the day. He stayed close on Perry's stern, never more than 19 seconds behind at any mark, but finally lost by two seconds. That set up the three-way tie at 5-2 going into Saturday. As Kolius motored back to the dock late Friday afternoon, he shouted across to his opposition, prophetically, "No matter how bad you guys want us to win this thing, we're not going to do it."
Two more races on Saturday merely extended the tie to an unbreakable 7-2, unbreakable because Kolius had previously beaten Perry, Perry had beaten Davis, and Davis had beaten Kolius. Upstairs in the clubhouse the Trophy Dinner proceeded on schedule Saturday night, but the actual presentation of the trophies had to wait for Sunday and Davis's decisive victory.