Two decades have passed since the majestic sloops known as the J boats spread their acres of gleaming canvas out under the sharp fall sun off Newport, R.I. to race for the most treasured sports trophy in history—the fanciful urn known as the America's Cup (above). The return of the great race is now imminent—and once again the Old Mug will stand as a prize for the best skipper of the biggest out-and-out racing design in sailing. The excitement generated, even though the boats will be somewhat smaller than the huge J boats, may well be enough to send 50,000 spectators to sea to watch the battle off Newport as in prewar days. There is no doubt that the top sports story of September 1958 will be the Old Mug's revival.
The particular and enduring fascination of the America's Cup races is easy to explain. By the time they reached the starting line each J boat had cost its owner at least a half million dollars and sometimes a great deal more. They ran 135 feet long, carried enough canvas to cover half a football field and had masts that raked higher than the Brooklyn Bridge. And these boats were perishable stuff, outmoded by the time the next series rolled around. "They had their fun and then they scrapped them," as one observer said.
With World War II, the day of the J boats was irrevocably past. Boatbuilding costs soared; racing craft in large sizes became far less popular than before. The America's Cup was almost forgotten. To many, its revival will seem a miracle.
THE FIRST STEP
The first step was to reduce the size of the class to be used in the races. Among others, Henry Sears, commodore last year of the New York Yacht Club, which holds the cup, was influential in persuading members that the tradition—which started in 1851 when the schooner America took the cup away from a fleet of British boats in the English Channel—could be honorably continued in smaller craft. Sears argued for an America's Cup series in the 70-foot, 12-meter class (see drawing on page 41) and won.
The British had been waiting for just such a decision. Over the 86 years of rivalry, British yachtsmen had spent more than $20 million to recover the cup without once getting it back. They were, in the British tradition, anxious for another crack at it.
The Royal Yacht Squadron's challenge—promptly accepted—arrived last May. They announced that Britain was building a brand-new 12-meter, Sceptre, to represent her.
Immediately there was an outbreak of impromptu conferences and meetings over here among those who could have been expected to raise part of the $150,000 to $250,000 needed to put a 12-meter into action. Several West Coast boat owners indicated interest. There was talk of a syndicate from Texas with oil money to spend, and of another group from the South which wanted to build a ship named Rebel. "The eliminations to pick the American defender will have a fine nationwide flavor," said one yachtsman.
Nothing of the sort happened.
After two months, not a single new American 12-meter had become definite, and the reasons were not hard to find. Briggs Cunningham, an ex-12-meter skipper who had been expected to participate, put it very succinctly. "Frankly, the expense just appalls me," said Cunningham. "I'm not enthusiastic enough about the 12-meter to get that financially interested. I don't see any way you're going to get your money's worth.