"What we may be looking at is that the 12-meter rule has been pretty much exploited to the hilt," says Owen Torrey, the performance evaluator for Courageous. "In 1958, let's say, the boats were 66 percent of perfect. You get up to where they're 98 percent of perfect and it's very hard to put another boat into those two percent."
America's Dennis Conner and his Freedom Campaign have tried to do just that. They have built three new 12-meters since 1981, trying to improve on Freedom, the 1980 Cup winner. At the 11th hour they settled on Liberty, a cranberry-red-hulled refinement of Freedom, and the choice seems to have been the right one. At the end of the July Observation Trials, Liberty had surged well ahead of Defender and Courageous, with 15 wins and five losses. Tom Blackaller's Defender took four of the July races from Liberty, but only two of them were wins on the water. The other two were the results of protest. John Kolius' Courageous managed to beat Liberty only once in July, on the second day of the series, but that was the race of the summer—and, some said, of several summers. It was a classic tactical duel fought over six legs and 19 miles. The lead changed back and forth, the boats were overlapped at two marks and never separated by more than 12 seconds at any of them, and at the finish, after almost three hours of racing. Courageous nosed out Liberty by eight seconds.
In preparation for August's Final Trials to choose the defender, the races that really count, Defender will go under the buzz saw at Newport Offshore, Ltd. Her stern will be reshaped in hopes of improving her performance upwind and in sloppy seas. Courageous awaits new sails that Kolius hopes will make the difference. And Conner, who now seems to have taken the measure of his two American opponents, can only wait and wonder just how formidable the Australia II challenge really is.
"There have been breakthroughs before and there will be breakthroughs again," says Conner. "But we can't wring our hands about it. The Australians certainly have our attention, but at this point we don't know what we don't know, and nobody else knows either."
With a 132-year-old winning streak at stake, not knowing can make people—especially members of the NYYC—testy, at best. And to make matters worse, the Aussies like nothing better than to talk about how things will be when they win the America's Cup. "The defense of the trophy would be held off Fremantle," says Bertrand, grinning at the discomfort he knows his words will provoke. "It is probably the most perfect 12-meter sailing ground in the world. It's glorious. The sun shines all the time. It's quite Utopian from a climatic point of view."
And quite unthinkable from another. Leave Newport? And funky old Thames Street? Never. But, by the way, just where is this Fremantle?