Sverige of Sweden, Lionheart of England, France 3 of France and Australia from Down Under. For seven weeks, on days of dismal fog and days of bluebird weather, these 12-meter beauties have been working together, dancing hand in hand through the seas off Newport. This week the music stopped, and the dancers started scrapping to determine which will meet the U.S. for the America's Cup in mid-September.
All four countries have been involved in the impossible dream before. This is Sweden's second try for the Cup. In the modern era of 12-meter boats, it is England's third attempt, France's fourth and Australia's sixth. Some of the mainsails and jibs on the four prospective challengers do not look good; some of their spinnakers look godawful. For all that, they are an impressive lot. None of the hulls is a dud; none of the skippers is naive enough to believe he has a decisive edge.
The foreign competition should be the closest yet, and as a consequence the eventual winner should be the best ever to challenge the U.S.
Still, it is doubtful that the Cup is in danger, for the U.S. defense effort has also been intense. Before the foreign racing began this week, the three prospective American defenders, Freedom, Clipper and Courageous, had sailed 47 races in the Preliminary and Observation Trials, only two fewer than the contending boats sailed in the entire summer of 1977. The results have been lopsided. Freedom, a boat that has been hard at it for more than a year, finished the two sets of trials with 32 wins and three losses. Clipper, the bargain-basement beauty that did not go into the water until last April, won nine and lost 24. Courageous, the two-time defender, busted her mast on the fifth day of the July trials, and ended up with a 6-20 record.
Although the other boats often gain on Freedom on leeward legs, to windward and reaching she is far and away the best on every discernible count: the action of her hull in both slick and sloppy water, the helmsmanship of her skipper, Dennis Conner, the work of the crew in jib changes, tacks, spinnaker sets and drops. Freedom has the capacity to attack as well as defend.
Ted Turner, who won the Cup as skipper of Courageous in 1977 but is losing badly now, has always had a hard time getting through any sort of campaign, be it a winning or losing one, on land or on sea, in business or in sport, without letting at least one imp out of a box. There are two biographies of Turner that explain 95% of him with candor and charm, but there is 5% of Ted that probably not even he understands. Three days before the U.S. July trials were to end, Turner asked an old friend, Ben Lexcen, to race on Courageous and counsel him on spar problems. Who is Ben Lexcen? He is a brainy iconoclast, a laughing boy, a gentleman who is not impressed with his own many achievements. He does not wear his yacht-club burgee on his neckties. He is, in brief, one of those rare mortals who help decongest the ordinarily stuffy America's Cup scene. Lexcen also happens to be the co-designer and tactician of Australia. Turner did ask the New York Yacht Club's America's Cup Committee for permission to have a 12th man aboard, but in his hasty phone call failed to say that the guest consultant on Courageous would be Australia's Lexcen.
Back in 1815, did Napoleon consult Wellington's engineers about the problem of the sunken road at Waterloo? Did the Greeks seek any Trojan's advice about how to build a wooden horse? Turner was certainly acquainted with the policies of the America's Cup Committee, notably that secrecy is an essential part of the effort. After the committee learned that Lexcen was aboard Courageous, it expelled Turner from the balance of the July trials—and justifiably so.
"I wasn't trying to hide anything," Turner says by way of explaining his gaffe. "I did it in front of God and everybody. Let's face it, if you're a doctor and you are sick, you call in another doctor. Australia is going to be the challenger, but we have nothing new. They've been watching us from 50 feet away in rubber boats. They're faster than they were last time, but the America's Cup is as safe as it could possibly be. We're also faster; we're just not fast enough."
Will Australia indeed be the challenger once again? If time and money were the only essentials, then for certain the winner of the foreign eliminations, and the Cup itself, would be France. If France should emerge as the challenger, it would be an honor well deserved and statistically overdue for Marcel Bich, the ballpoint-pen baron who has bankrolled the effort since 1970. In its first three attempts—in 1970, 1974 and 1977—the baron's team sailed in 20 foreign elimination races and lost them all. The attempts of Sir Thomas Lipton, the lovable old dispenser of tea bags and Gaelic charm, to win the Cup in five tries from 1899 to 1930 seem almost trifling compared to the effort of Baron Bich. At one time or another Bich has owned eight 12-meter boats of varying worth. Since 1970 he has probably spent more than $7 million. His present campaign, which began about two years ago, has already used up more than $2 million.
After shuffling skippers about to no avail in the 1970 foreign eliminations, the baron himself took the helm in the final race against Australia and sailed off the course lost in a fog. After excoriating the officials, he withdrew into his shell. Seven years later, when France almost beat Australia in one elimination race and Sweden in another, the baron was, if not as lovable as old Sir Tommy, at least approachable. This year he is back in his shell. His customary exchange with gentlemen of the press consists of two sentences: "I do not give interviews. See my son Bruno." On upwind legs in practice races this past month, the baron has been sharing the wheel with his appointed helmsman, Bruno Troublé, prompting one Australian to comment. "It looks as if the baron is back to his old habit of spitting in his own drink of whiskey."