The baron stands apart from his men, sartorially as well as socially. He goes to sea dressed head to foot in white; his crew are all in blue. "When we are ahead in a race, Mr. Bich is very nice," helmsman Troublé says. "He cleans my glasses and peels an orange for me. When we finish behind, I get my plane tickets for Paris ready. Are the men tired? Not the chiefs, but the Indians, they are very tired, bored. I tried to get from Mr. Bich some days off for them, but he is a machine for work and cannot understand."
The French do seem to be suffering from an acute deficiency of esprit gaulois. Although their smiles are hard to find, they have one very valid asset to sustain them: for the first time they have a hull worth sailing. France 3 has a short keel that makes for difficult steering in heavy weather and tangled seas but keeps the boat quick and nimble in tacking duels. Most of France 3's workouts this summer have been against Sverige. The Swedish boat has proved better in winds over 17 knots. In the medium range it has been a fairly even go, but in light air, which often prevails off Newport in late summer, France 3 has been superior. The boats seem equal reaching, and France 3 has had the edge downwind.
Bill Ficker, the Californian who defended the Cup in 1970, when Intrepid fought off Gretel II of Australia in one of the toughest series of all, sailed much of last summer aboard France 3 and also on old Intrepid, which served as her trial horse. Since the mid-'60s Ficker has been at the helm of about a dozen 12-meters and it is his gut feeling that France 3 may be the best of the challengers. But a good hull alone does not a successful summer make. To win, one also needs a little fraternité, égalité, férocité and a damn good sailmaker.
Warren Jones, executive director of Australia's America's Cup effort, said recently, "I have a pet saying I keep repeating, 'Nobody will beat the Americans by copying them. Innovation will win the America's Cup.' " If innovation is the key to the vault, then the challenger this year will be Sverige or Lionheart. Pelle Petterson, designer and helmsman of Sverige, is the brainiest of the foreign skippers. On Puget Sound last September he won the world 6-meter championship in smashing fashion, sailing a boat called Irene, which he designed with a bump, or "chin," in her forefoot. Irene was a hellion upwind. This winter Petterson lopped the front 18 feet off Sverige, the same hull he campaigned three years ago, and reshaped her as best he could like his winning 6-meter. Will Sverige now prove to be a breakthrough hull like Irene! Probably not. What is right for a quick little lizard is not necessarily right for a ponderous dinosaur.
The Swedes are a sociable lot. If they have a fault as America's Cup men, it is a lack of hawkishness, a tendency to sail the course as if racing against a fleet rather than covering or attacking one rival. "Our teamwork, our tactics will be better this time," Petterson vows, "but I still feel boat speed is most important. If you have speed, you have confidence. You know you can always beat the other guy, and if he seems slower at one time or another, you capitalize on it."
Although she is the most distinctive of the challengers in both hull and spars, England's Lionheart already seems old and down at the heels. Her gold waterline stripe and her black topsides are so scuffed and scarred that she looks as if she had crossed the Atlantic on her own bottom, battling a pod of barnacled whales all the way. Lionheart's staunchest detractors say that her hull, though distinctive, is a step in the wrong direction and her super-bendy mast too radical a departure. Her mast can be bent six feet, and when she is romping over a sea with only a mainsail on, she looks somewhat like a giant Finn dinghy crewed by Lilliputians. Despite the suspicions lodged against her (some with a tinge of envy), in workouts against her customary training mate, Australia, she has held her own, significantly doing well in light air, where some thought she would not.
"There are many dinghy sailors in the English crew," Troublé of France 3 points out, "and you can never be sure of beating Englishmen who have been sailing around in small boats." Lionheart's helmsman, John Oakeley, has spent much of his lifetime in dinghies and small keel boats. He is an aggressive hawk who in the give-and-take of crowded fleet races has won his share of honors—and also protest flags.
Oakeley's first exposure to America's Cupping affected him not at all. He was invited to Newport three years ago to see Courageous defend against Australia. "Quite honestly, I went to sleep during one race, I was so bored," he says. "In England we have it in the press how exciting the America's Cup is, but in the first race the starting line was about a quarter-mile long. Australia started at the starboard end and America at the port end. While watching the race, I was listening to it on VHF radio, and the commentator said, 'Fantastic start. The most beautiful start in the history of the America's Cup, only one second between the two boats.' He failed to say there was a quarter mile between them. I have seen more exciting racing in club events. The America's Cup," Oakeley concludes, "is like English cricket: if you are taking part, it's not bad; if you are merely watching, it's diabolical."
An America's Cup quest, with its tedious months of preparation, its days of crisis and its hours of doubt, is not compatible with the temperament of typical Australians, who prosper on spontaneity and slambang action. Still, the Aussies have been at it for nearly 20 years, their fervor undiminished. In the three previous eliminations to select a challenger, the Aussies have prevailed, and this year they will probably win again, by beating out Lionheart for the right to meet the U.S. Before Australia got into the act in 1962, in 17 previous challenges British and Canadian boats had sailed 54 races against the Yanks and won only five. On their first go at it, aboard a downwind beauty called Gretel, the Australians won one race and, except for a premature spinnaker drop, might have had another. This success was almost their undoing. By their second challenge, in 1967, the Cup fever in some of the Aussies was running so high it addled their senses. They saw spies in the shadows and gremlins in the rigging. They were unnecessarily grim.
Today they still have the Cup affliction, but it is well contained. They know now how to be serious in purpose yet light in heart. Behind the desk occupied by Warren Jones at the wharfside office of the Australian team, there are two statuettes of owls and a gilded replica of an eagle of heroic size. Above them a sign reads: "If you want to soar with the eagles in the morning, you can not hoot with the owls all night." At the Candy Store, a Newport bistro largely given over to tourist yokels who thrill at the idea of mixing with the America's Cup men who have come from afar, in the '70s it was often hard to spill a beer without dampening an Australian. Today at the Candy Store—or "Kiddies Delicatessen," as it is derisively called by some America's Cuppers—the celebrity seekers still abound, but the celebrated Aussies being sought are hard to find.