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The middle weeks of July were everything a Newport, R.I. summer ought to be. A handsome young prince came to town, the sun shone day after sparkling blue-and-white day, the British gave a fairy-tale ball that Mrs. Astor would have envied, and out on Rhode Island Sound 10 beauteous 12-meter yachts raced and beat one another with no regard whatever for the winter-book odds. Everybody agreed this was the best America's Cup summer in years.
Then England's handsome Prince Andrew went home, the sun claimed a lay day or two, the Australians reportedly installed an electronic shield around the secret keel of Australia II (to deter espionage, they said), a Canadian, undeterred, was arrested while trying to photograph the keel, the New York Yacht Club up and charged that the keel in question was illegal, and out on the water the Twelves sorted themselves into top dogs, underdogs and just plain dogs.
Top dog among the foreign boats was Alan Bond's entry from the Royal Perth Yacht Club in Western Australia. By last weekend, two-thirds of the way through the third round-robin series to determine the challenger, Australia II had gone to sea 36 times and had come home the winner 33 times. Her losses, two in the first series and one in the second, were to Challenge 12, her Australian sparring partner from Melbourne, Victory '83, Peter de Savary's British entry, and Azzurra, the Italian newcomer.
Bond, the pugnacious, 45-year-old millionaire who heads the Australia II syndicate, is a high roller in the mold of Sir Thomas Lipton, the Irishman who between 1899 and 1930 tried unsuccessfully to capture the Cup five times. Bond has now taken the America's Cup plunge four times—with Southern Cross in 1974, Australia in 1977 and 1980 and now with Australia II—but so far, in spite of having spent an estimated $16 million along the way, he has yet to cash any chips. However, experience counts almost as much as money in the 12-meter game, and this could just conceivably be Bond's year.
As Australia II's string of victories lengthened, a few mutterings reached print to the effect that she was suffering from inadequate competition. But John Bertrand, the tall, slim Melbourne sail-maker who handles her helm, put the gripes in perspective. "Day before yesterday, I said to the crew that I was worried that we weren't being pushed enough," he said. "Then, bingo, we had two races, one against Azzurra and the next against Challenge, that were just fantastic. So you never know. We sail pretty hard out there, and even though the times look pretty good, we've had some very, very close racing."
Battling for positions behind Australia II were Azzurra, Canada I, Challenge 12 and Victory '83. Every time the challengers raced, which was every day, the standings from second through fifth place had to be rearranged on the big brown scoreboard outside the challengers' tent on Newport's Thames Street. France 3 and Advance, the third Australian entrant, were already mathematically assured of being sent home before the start of the challengers' semifinal on Aug. 11. But one more boat remained to be eliminated, and the four-way dogfight to avoid being that boat provided midsummer's best entertainment.
Poor Advance, which has won only two races the entire summer, had her misfortunes capped last Friday when her mast broke in heavy seas. "We hit a couple of big waves, the mast got out of column and exploded," said Iain Murray, her skipper, as he surveyed the wreckage. Designed specifically for light airs, Advance is a gamble that failed.
Australia II, with her radically different keel which has been shielded from public view every night by a jury-rigged contraption of plywood and green plastic sheeting, is another gamble. To make her extremely maneuverable in starts and tacking duels, while at the same time maintaining stability, Ben Lexcen, the 47-year-old designer of both Australia II and Challenge 12, created a keel that is much smaller than the conventional 12-meter's. The bulk of its weight is concentrated in a bulb of lead that sits at the bottom of the leading edge of the keel. Behind the bulb are swept-back "fins." That much everybody in Newport seemed to know, in spite of all the secrecy. What was unknown was precisely how the elements are put together and, more important, whether or not it is the keel that accounts for Australia II's extraordinary success so far.
The New York Yacht Club seems to think it may be. In a July 24 memo addressed to the International Yacht Racing Union, the NYYC contended that Lexcen's fins are illegal under the rating rule and measurement instructions of the 12-meter class, and cited the Australian's secrecy gambit as "conclusive proof of a "peculiarity" that gives Australia II "an advantage she would not otherwise have." The Australians replied that the only unfair advantage was that they thought of the fins first.
Fear of a design breakthrough is what keeps a lot of rich men awake nights in Newport. It doesn't happen often. The last legitimate breakthrough was Olin Stephens' Intrepid in 1967. Stephens was the first to separate the rudder from the keel in a 12-meter, moving the rudder aft and installing a trim tab on the trailing edge of the keel to compensate. Most changes in 12-meter design have been refinements rather than great leaps forward. And as boats designed to the 12-meter rule get better, it grows harder and harder to find ways to improve them.