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The 25th America's Cup season is upon us. Ordinarily that would portend another long, leisurely summer filled with elegant boats and even more elegant parties that would build slowly in its own anachronistic way to an early September climax when the defender of and the challenger to the longest winning streak in the history of sports are chosen.
However, this America's Cup summer, only one month old, has already taken on the character of a genuine battle, especially on the domestic front. Courageous, the grande dame of postwar America's Cup competition, successful defender of the Cup in 1977 in the hands of Captain Outrageous, Ted Turner, has reemerged, with new underpinnings, as the star of the early trials, stealing the spotlight from Defender, her teammate, and Liberty, the debutante from the rival American camp. Furthermore, a decidedly unyachtsman-like war of words has erupted between two contending American skippers that promises to provide entertainment if the proceedings on the water should pall.
And in the meantime a record number of foreign challengers are engaged in a struggle of their own on Rhode Island Sound. But that's another story. For the moment let's look at the home team.
Newport Offshore, Ltd. is just one of several boatyards on the crowded waterfront, but this summer it is the busiest. Because it is newer than the rest, it is less picturesque, if your preference is for old salts and barnacle-covered pilings, but it is big and well-equipped enough to handle six of the nine foreign and domestic Cup syndicates with plenty of room to spare.
At the heart of the action at Newport Offshore is the Defender/Courageous Group, the "other" American syndicate. Its compound, alongside those of the French, the Italians and the Australians, is surrounded by a six-foot-high chain link fence that would look forbidding if it were not for the fact that the gate stands open and unguarded. People wander in and out of the compound, some of them tourists who stand, quiet and respectful, just looking around and being careful not to get in the way.
At the water's edge four boats are parked—two tenders and two 12-meters with masts eight stories high. Defender, the blue one with narrow racing stripes around her hull, is a new boat and the one that Tom Blackaller, 43, will steer. The other, with the white hull and a deck painted "seafoam" green, is Courageous, the winner in 1974 as well as '77. Her skipper this time around is John Kolius, 32, a pleasant sailmaker from Houston who looks no older than his crew.
Next door at the Williams & Manchester boatyard, established 1858, are berthed Dennis Conner's two boats. Liberty, the newest of the three Twelves he has had built since 1981—his syndicate's two-year budget is $4 million—and Freedom, the 1980 defender. No other Twelves are berthed at Williams & Manchester. And that suits Conner's style, just as lots of people and boats suit the Defender/Courageous Group. The gate of Conner's compound stands open, too, but it is harder to find, and any tourist who happened upon it would know he was off limits without being told.
And if the same tourist were out on the water during June's preliminary trials, he would have known without being told that something exciting was going on. In all but four races the margin was less than a minute. Indeed, after Victor Romagna, a member of the New York Yacht Club committee that will choose the defender in late August, watched Defender beat Courageous by a mere six seconds on a shortened, two-leg course one afternoon, he said, "It was just the greatest race I ever saw, the greatest."
The biggest surprise of the preliminary trials was that Conner's Liberty lost its first three races, one to Courageous and Kolius, and two to Defender and Blackaller. In the 1980 trials the Conner-Freedom juggernaut rolled to 43 wins against only four losses, and since then he has worked so hard and spent so much money building boats he hoped would be better than Freedom that people, understandably, had come to think he was unbeatable. But then Liberty charged back and won five of her next seven races, defeating Courageous three times and Defender twice, and the ball was back in the Defender-Courageous court.
The selection process for the defender is whatever the New York Yacht Club's selection committee wants it to be. The club has held the America's Cup ever since one of its members brought it home from England in 1851, and what the club would like to do is keep the Cup for another 100 years, at least. So it chooses the boat to defend it very carefully. The selection committee will keep track of the results of the trials for the rest of the summer, but it will also be making note of the way each boat behaves in a variety of wind conditions, the way its crew behaves under pressure and even, it appears, the way the crew dresses. One hot day during the June trials, a committee member admonished the crew of Courageous, most of whom are new to the game, about racing with their shirts off.