The bolt that holds the America's Cup to a table in the New York Yacht Club on West 44th Street was loosened a bit last week by a white boat with a funny-looking keel. In four races, one of which was not completed, Australia II, Ben Lexcen's revolutionary 12-meter yacht, light, fast, maneuverable, stable and, in light air, virtually invulnerable, had proved two things: that she's faster than Liberty, the U.S. Cup defender, and that she has made all other existing Twelves obsolete. Now all she has to do to take the America's Cup away from the U.S. for the first time in the trophy's 132-year history is win three more races.
Australia II handicapped herself severely by losing the first two races of the America's Cup four-out-of-seven series because of a combination of tactical errors, two major mechanical breakdowns and Liberty Skipper Dennis Conner's vast skill as a 12-meter sailor. It all began on Tuesday, Sept. 13, when The Big Question—how fast is fast enough?—was to be answered at last. As it turned out, Day I was a bust—but, Newport being what it is. the bust was spectacular. The morning was clear and warm, and a light breeze of approximately eight knots was blowing out of the north as a spectator fleet of at least 1,500 boats formed a three-mile-long semicircle behind the starting area, 7.8 miles southeast of the mouth of Narragansett Bay. It was as large a gathering of boats as even the most grizzled America's Cup observers could remember. Three-masted schooners lined up next to multimillion-dollar floating palaces. Ketches, yawls, sloops and cutters bobbed about in the wakes of several hundred runabouts, and the destroyer U.S.S. Edson loomed menacingly in the near distance, her guns trained, some said, on Australia II, just in case. Overhead, a dozen or so camera-bearing helicopters circled like a squadron of dragonflies, and the Goodyear blimp hung over the gaudy scene like a fat silver sausage.
Shortly before noon a course was set, and Liberty and Australia II entered the starting area to begin the circling maneuvers that someone once labeled "the mating dance of the lead-bottomed money gobblers." But then the wind shifted sharply to the east, and with two minutes remaining until the starting gun, a postponement flag was raised on Black Knight, the N.Y.Y.C.'s race committee boat. For almost two hours the huge fleet rolled around in a chop of its own making, while the race committee waited for the shifty wind to settle on a direction so another course could be set. Conner took Liberty on a short but hair-raising jaunt through the spectator fleet to kill time, and finally, at 1:50, the international code flags went up on Black Knight, signaling a new course 56 degrees farther east.
The starting maneuvers began again. but once more the wind shifted. With Australia II in the commanding position and 1½ minutes left before the gun, the day's racing was canceled.
Day 1A dawned cold and leaden with an 18-knot wind blowing out of the north-east. The dark-gray sea reflected a dark-gray sky, and three-to five-foot waves had cut the spectator fleet by half. This time the race got off on schedule. At 12:10 p.m. Liberty and Australia II crossed the line, both on starboard tack and separated by only three seconds. Australia II crossed first, but Liberty had won the preferred right side of the line, the side of the course usually favored by the wind shifts on Rhode Island Sound.
After eight minutes, when the two boats crossed tacks for the first time, Australia II had the lead, but nine minutes later, at the next crossing, Liberty was narrowly in front. The two were, in fact, so close that Australia II had to bear off slightly to clear Liberty's stern. A quarter of a mile from the first mark, Australia II took the lead again and rounded the buoy eight seconds in front. The matchup may have been an apple against an orange, as someone had suggested, referring to the wonderful things Australia II's radical keel might do for her, but it was a matchup that clearly was going to provide some juicy racing. Australia II was proving herself no slouch in heavy air and seas, conditions in which she had previously been considered vulnerable. Maybe.
An America's Cup course begins with a windward-reaching-reaching triangle followed by a windward, a leeward and another windward leg. The whole thing adds up to 24.3 miles. On the first reaching leg of the triangle Australia II increased her lead by two seconds, but on the next reaching leg Liberty climbed up on Australia II's weather side and passed her when John Bertrand, Australia II's helmsman, failed to stay between Liberty and the mark, thereby breaking a basic rule of match racing. Bertrand later admitted his mistake. "On the first reaching leg Conner had worked up on our weather hip but had posed no threat," he said. "So when he did it again on the second, we thought again he was not a threat. It was a mistake to let him get past so easily, but we learn fast, and it's not a mistake we will make again."
As refreshing as it was to hear someone in Newport admit to having erred, Bertrand's mistake, combined with a breakdown of Australia II's steering mechanism on the last downwind leg, cost her a race she might well have won. The breakdown occurred near the end of the fifth leg, as Australia II was close to catching Liberty. Conner executed a beautifully disguised jibe onto starboard tack that seemed to take the Australians by surprise. Bertrand responded by trying to duck under Liberty's stern before jibing for the mark, but as he did so, a steering pulley collapsed under the strain. Suddenly Australia II was rudderless. Liberty rounded the mark with a lead that she never relinquished. Bertrand had been forced to steer around the mark—and for the first 10 minutes of the next leg—with only his trim tab while his crew jury-rigged a block and tackle below deck. "Steering was a bit scary around that metal buoy," Bertrand said later in his best Breaker Morant-style understatement. Liberty won by 1:10. Conner said afterward, "They were a little faster than we were, but the race doesn't always go to the swift."
Race 2 began on a breathtakingly beautiful fall day, a day made for college football and tailgate picnics—and one that served equally well for a 12-meter race. The spectator fleet, though still impressive qualitatively, was now down to the idle rich and the temporarily unemployed. The wind was 17 knots, with higher gusts, out of the northeast, and the surface of the sound was littered with whitecaps as Liberty took the start by five seconds. Immediately it became apparent that something was dreadfully wrong on Australia II. Her mainsail was not raised all the way to the top of her mast, and its leech, or trailing edge, was flapping wildly. During the starting maneuvers a pin that holds the peak of her sail, the headboard, into the headboard carriage—a metal sandwich that carries the main to the top of the mast—had snapped, and the main had dropped some 12 inches down the mast, where it remained throughout the rest of the race. As long as the wind remained strong, which it did for the first upwind leg, Australia II held her own. She even survived a fierce tacking duel in the last quarter-mile and rounded the mark with a 45-second lead. On the reaching legs that followed, the Australians sent Colin Beashel up the 90-foot mast to secure the main. On each leg Beashel worked for 10 minutes, swaying perilously nine stories above the water while he lashed the mainsail to the head of the mast with a strip of Kevlar, the fabric that, ounce for ounce, is reputed to be stronger than steel. Meanwhile, however, Liberty was gaining, cutting Australia II's lead to 31 seconds at the reaching mark and then 21 seconds at the bottom mark.
On the second upwind leg, with the wind beginning to ease and Australia II unable to tack with her usual efficiency, Bertrand sailed off to the left, looking for friendly wind shifts and leaving Liberty uncovered, which is always a bad idea. When a likely looking puff turned out instead to be a crippling header, Australia II lost the lead to Liberty and never got it back. On the final leg, Bertrand gambled one last time. He was hard on Liberty's heels but unable to advance under Conner's close cover, so he sailed out to the left again, seemingly in a direct line for Newport, looking for a shift that would carry him in a more direct line to the mark, free of Liberty's wind interference. But the wind shifted the wrong way and Bertrand finally was forced to turn back, by which time Conner had built a huge lead. "When you're behind at the end of a race," said John Marshall, Liberty's mainsail trimmer, "you don't really care whether you lose by two seconds or two minutes. It was a desperate move, but the only one available. We had the rest covered."