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Ranger's speed is said by many to have "killed" the J boat class. Vanderbilt himself admits that he would rebuild her from her original designs if he were again to enter a J boat in an America's Cup race. Her speed was such that Sopwith found it "unbelievable." She walked away from his Endeavour II with an ease which prompted Sopwith after the second race to put his boat on the ways to see if her keel hadn't picked up a lobster pot. It hadn't. Endeavour II was simply outclassed. Fast as she was herself, she never won a race in American waters in which Ranger was entered. She performed creditably in the struggle for second place (she held 11 seconds that summer) but 15 times she suffered the indignity of seeing Ranger's stern at the finish. The only cup Sopwith won in competition against Vanderbilt was the Arthur Knapp Jr. International Brutal Beast Challenge Trophy, presented by the small-boat champion, for which the five J boat skippers—Vanderbilt, Sopwith, Chandler Hovey of Rainbow, Frederick Segrist of Endeavour I and Gerard Lambert of Yankee—contended one day off the Eastern Yacht Club at Marblehead in little 12�-foot "Brutal Beast" cat-boats. Sopwith won both races. Vanderbilt finished last in each.
Though the Brutal Beast series is hardly indicative, some yachtsmen have often wondered what the result might have been in the Ranger-Endeavour II series had not Vanderbilt had at his disposal the world's fastest yacht. An indication was given the following year, in 1938, in what Commodore W. A. W. Stewart of the New York Yacht Club has called " Vanderbilt's finest hour." Van S. Merle-Smith, off on a fishing trip, offered Vanderbilt his 12-meter Seven Seas for a week's racing on Long Island Sound. The Seven Seas was an old 12-meter, in need of tuning up, and inferior in speed to competitors, which included the two new Sparkman & Stephens 12-meters Northern Light and Nyala. Vanderbilt sailed Seven Seas to a series of victories which dismayed opponents out for his scalp and heralded the start of his successes with his own 12-meter Vim, constructed shortly thereafter. "I was awfully glad when Merle-Smith took his boat back," says Vanderbilt. "Our luck just couldn't have held out any longer."
Vanderbilt's explanation of his success in yacht racing is summed up best in his statement: "It is not brilliance which wins races as much as the lack of it which loses them." When he describes the most memorable races of his yachting career he often picks such races—races in which the human element is brought to account—as if to substantiate that despite the innate perfection of the beautifully machined yachts, it is still man upon whom the boat's performance depends. Regardless of his boat's speed, a yachtsman's reaction in moments of stress may mean the difference between victory or defeat. Vanderbilt himself, as his afterguard recalls, was a bundle of nerves in periods of relative inactivity, jittery as a plucked wire; but given the tangle of a start, or coming up with other boats to a mark, his performance was as calculated and controlled as if he had a year to mull over and provide a solution to the crisis at hand.
One of Vanderbilt's own favorite examples of performance in a crisis occurred in the fifth race for the America's Cup in 1934 between Rainbow and Endeavour I. Vanderbilt credits Rainbow's win to a quick-thinking member of his crew who, in a situation that could have caused the loss of the race, came up with the right solution.
Rainbow was halfway down the leeward leg, ahead of Endeavour I by about 2� minutes, when the bottom of the spinnaker, chafing against the headstay, ripped so badly it had to be doused. Since the wind was hauling aft, Vanderbilt decided to jibe before breaking out another spinnaker. He had no sooner completed the jibe when he heard a strange gurgling sound abeam to leeward—a noise which gave the impression of something heavy dragging in the water. He turned to see a sailor he recognized as Ben, Vara's mate, being dragged at the end of a wire at better than eight knots through and mostly under the water some 10 feet out from the lee side.
Ben had gone overboard when Rainbow jibed. He had unhooked the lee backstay whip, a wire which ran up through a block 40 feet above the deck and down again to its fixed point forward, and was bringing the free end forward when the main boom nudged him just enough to throw him off balance. To keep from falling, he held onto the dangling wire in a quick reaction which was perfectly normal but also unreasoned, since the boom continued on its way and swept the whip, with Ben hanging on, far out over the side.
Knowing that time lost in picking Ben up would certainly cost Rainbow the race, everyone on Rainbow's deck joined in the cry, "Hang on, Ben!" Yet it was obvious that he couldn't hang on for more than a few seconds. Vanderbilt, keeping off before the wind and trimming his mainsail amidships to reduce Rainbow's speed, was prepared to execute a man-overboard maneuver to pick the mate up. But at that moment a member of the crew—Vanderbilt doesn't know to this day who he was—jumped forward to the fixed end of the backstay whip. Calling to his shipmates to help him, he hauled Ben 10 feet clear of the sea where he hung suspended above the water until, as Rainbow came back on an even keel, the whip landed him gently back on the deck from which he had been swept less than half a minute before. "It was remarkable thinking on that sailor's part," says Vanderbilt. "If Ben had been hanging onto the hook of a lifting crane, all hands would instantly have used the crane to lift him out of the water. But backstays are for holding things down, not lifting them up, and the mind, if it works in such a crisis at all, usually follows grooved lines. Ben's reaction—an instinctive one of self-preservation—got him swept overboard; the unknown sailor's reaction—inspired and immediate—saved us the race."
In the most thrilling race of his career, Vanderbilt again attributes victory to human inspiration, to a maneuver he invented called the "tack-jibe," an innovation so startling for large yachts that it can be compared to the feat of the aviator who first attempted the outside loop.
Vanderbilt, racing Rainbow against Charles Francis Adams' Yankee in the last trial race in 1934 for selection to defend the America's Cup, approached the windward mark five lengths ahead of his rival. At that point Vanderbilt first tried in competition the maneuver which, on assurances from Starling Burgess that it wouldn't take the mast out of the boat, he had been practicing despite objections from those who said "it can't be done" and "an unseamanlike maneuver."
Rainbow was close-hauled on the starboard tack when she passed to leeward of the windward mark. She had to tack around it, bear away, jibe and head up about four points to complete the 281� turn necessary to get on the right course for the finish. The tack-jibe maneuver amounted to spinning the yacht in a three-quarter turn without the delay normal in tacking and jibing of slacking and trimming head-sheets and stays. As Rainbow neared the mark her port backstays were taken forward and men were stationed ready to douse her quad, break out her genoa on the port side and ease her main sheet. Vanderbilt did not give the usual commands of "ready about," "hard alee" and "stand by for a jibe." As he approached the mark he shouted out: "All hands sit down, no one is to move, speak or touch anything until ordered to," and, spinning the wheel hard right, he held it there—the lee backstays holding the mast, the headsails trimmed to windward, speeding the bow around—no movement aboard, no rasping of winches, hardly the flap of a sail until, as Rainbow jibed, Vanderbilt gave the order to break out the genoa.