SI Vault
George Plimpton
October 29, 1956
'Ranger,' the crowning glory of a great tradition; the mystery of her design revealed; a near disaster; a decisive victory; exaltation in a violent sea
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October 29, 1956

The Ultimate Triumph

'Ranger,' the crowning glory of a great tradition; the mystery of her design revealed; a near disaster; a decisive victory; exaltation in a violent sea

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At 6:45, the dawn breaking on roughening seas, the mast snapped with a cannon-shot roar that frightened off two circling sea gulls and collapsed all but 35 feet of its length into the sea to leeward, dangerously close aboard. From below decks, like a pirate crew answering the cry "boarders away," men poured out of the companionways and attacked the rigging, cutting loose the three-ton mast, which sank into the Atlantic. Incredibly, the only damage its enormous length inflicted was a dent amidships where its heel had taken a parting thrust at Ranger.

Naturally, Ranger's timetable for that summer's racing was seriously upset by the accident. Three series of selection races had been arranged for the Cup defense candidates, and more than half of them would be over in the month necessary to build and install a new mast. Primary in Vanderbilt's mind when he heard the news and flew to Marblehead to take his first look at the stump remaining of his mast was how to get Ranger under sail again as quickly as possible. Other J boat owners offered all possible assistance. Two spars were made available: Rainbow's 1934 Duralumin mast and her 1936 steel mast. The J boat storage lockers in Bristol were placed at Vanderbilt's disposal for his choice of standing rigging. After eight days of hard effort and long hours of overtime work the temporary rig, Rainbow's Duralumin mast, was stepped in Ranger and stayed with Enterprise's wire shrouds. It was an amazing accomplishment, considering the odds and ends of material that had to be used and the meticulous work involved in calculating and arranging the lengths of shrouds and stays and installing their attachments to the hull and spar.

Thus Ranger was re-rigged; but still only in temporary fashion. A new and permanent mast still had to be built for her, and down in Tennessee, the Aluminum Company of America rolled out aluminum mast plates, heat-treating and shaping them in record time for the 2,000-mile journey to the Bath Iron Works in Maine. There the mast fittings were set in place, and the whole of Ranger's new mast riveted together. Not only an exacting job, it was one with peculiar difficulties; to buck the rivets, for example, a small boy lay flat on his back in a tiny cable car that inched along in the darkness inside the 165-foot spar. And yet, with the combined efforts of Starling Burgess, Ranger's afterguard, the Bath Iron Works and a dozen manufacturing and trucking companies which sympathetically accorded priorities, the entire job was completed in 25 days. The mast, transported from Bath to the Herreshoff Yards in Bristol on the upper deck of Vanderbilt's yacht Vara, was stepped two days later. Within a week of the second series of trials—the observation races—Ranger was again complete.

Her temporary rig, meanwhile, performed well. In the first series, the preliminary races, she won all of her four races. Her performance indicated that she was faster than either Yankee or Rainbow, her rivals for the honor of defending the America's Cup.

With her new mast and new bar shrouds installed, Ranger's windage was greatly reduced and she completely outclassed the opposition. She swept the observation races, and in the final series—the trial races—showed her extraordinary class by sailing over the 30-mile America's Cup course faster than any boat had ever sailed it, averaging 11.01 knots in beating Yankee by 14 minutes.

In contrast to 1934, the America's Cup committee had no difficulty selecting the defender. On July 6th, Vanderbilt's birthday, he received official word that his "Ranger had selected herself," as the chairman of the America's Cup committee put it, to defend against Sopwith and the blue-hulled Endeavour II.

A month remained in which to tune up Ranger. A racing J boat was never quite finished. Though built with extraordinary precision (the clearance between Ranger's rudder and her hull, for example, was a mere 1/32 of an inch), constant improvements were necessary for top performance. "A J boat," says Vanderbilt, "reminds me of a lovely woman who is constantly in need of some little attention."

In charge of the grooming operation was the afterguard, the five-man braintrust to whom Vanderbilt gives such credit for Ranger's success that he would repeat the selection should he ever race a J boat again.

The only member of the Ranger afterguard who had been with Vanderbilt aboard Rainbow in 1934 was the navigator and timer, Zenas Bliss, professor of engineering at Brown University. His equipment included two rather inaccurate speedometers, a compass, polaris, charts, parallel rules, stopwatches, an accordion which he played on the way out to the starting line and the knack of always having an answer ready for the steady stream of questions thrown at him by Vanderbilt: "How does the mark bear? How far away is it? How much is the current setting us? Are you sure? Are we running into shoal waters? When do we have to tack?"—as many as 10 questions asked in as many seconds and all requiring some sort of response. His was a job which required considerable adaptability, and few could have done it. On one occasion when Bliss was on duty in the National Guard, his place was taken by Kenneth Davidson, who had been in charge of the tank at Stevens Institute during the testing of the J boat models. He was, in his own right, a brilliant navigator. But he had never navigated for Vanderbilt. "I remember," says Vanderbilt, "that I threw a whole barrage of questions at him, and, suddenly realizing I wasn't getting any replies, I looked to see why. There was Davidson just smiling at me. I didn't feel I could do anything but...well, smile back at him."

Sharing the helmsman's duties with Vanderbilt was Olin Stephens, Ranger's designer, who, bespectacled, solemn-looking and the calmest member of the afterguard, never fussed in moments of crisis. He supervised the trim of the main sheet, steered when Ranger was sailing off the wind and, when he wasn't at the helm, acted as chairman of the committee on tactics, a position Vanderbilt filled when he wasn't steering. Members of the afterguard recall that the power of the committee on tactics was supreme when Vanderbilt was its chairman but somewhat less so when he was at the helm and the recipient of committee advice.

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