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Coles Phinizy
June 20, 1977
Two sailmakers with new boats and one wavemaker with a winning oldie begin trials off Newport to determine the defender of the America's Cup, the nation's oldest sports prize
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June 20, 1977

Setting Sail For The Defense

Two sailmakers with new boats and one wavemaker with a winning oldie begin trials off Newport to determine the defender of the America's Cup, the nation's oldest sports prize

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In their soft-air practice races this spring, Enterprise beat Intrepid 24-7. Busting around in heavier air off Marblehead, Independence and Courageous split even in two dozen matches. Considering how closely matched Intrepid and Courageous were in 1974, from these preliminary contests Enterprise would seem to be the best of all, but picking a winner on the basis of preseason scores—a shaky system in any sport—would be particularly deluding in this case. Intrepid seldom had her kind of wind and, more significant, six of the crew who served on her with Gerry Driscoll in 1974 are now aboard her rival. This spring Driscoll not only had to put together a new crew, but also use old sails—notably headsails that, despite some recutting and luff tucks, no longer retained the shape they had had at the start of the long, hard summer three years ago.

There is still another reason why Enterprise should not be picked as the favorite this soon. In between the three sets of elimination trials, Independence and Courageous will continue testing against each other—and, in similar fashion, during the lulls between their three series to pick a challenger, the Aussie boats, Australia and Gretel II, will be working out against the Swedes and French. Because Intrepid will not be going to Newport, Enterprise will have to go it alone, depending on team experience and computer readouts to evaluate her sails and handling. Twelve-meter boats are fast, but contrary to some of the blather published about them, they are not nimble and quick. When brought about competently to windward in moderate air, a 12-meter needs about a minute to get back to speed; in light winds of, say, six knots, it needs two minutes or more. Yet, playing ring-around-the-rosy and chase-tailing a rival before the start, and tacking upwind, are important aspects of the game, and the collaboration of helmsman, tactician and deck apes in such maneuvers is not easily digested or analyzed electronically.

Ironically, Intrepid's absence from the scene is in large part a result of her immense popularity—both practical and sentimental—over a decade. Never has an expensive sailing lady been so much in demand and led so wayward a life because of it. Indeed, such has been the demand that, except for some peculiar twists of fate, there might have been two Intrepids in action this year.

After Intrepid won 23 of 24 match races in her first cup campaign in 1967, the French wanted her to serve as a trial horse in their first attempt. Her syndicate, feeling there was still lots of life in the old girl, declined the bid. After Intrepid's second successful defense of the cup, the syndicate deeded her to the International Oceanographic Foundation in Miami so that it could peddle her and use the profits for marine science education. A West Coast syndicate bought her for $95,000 and turned her over to the Seattle Sailing Foundation, which campaigned her to the brink of glory in 1974. In early 1975, to bolster their 1977 challenge, the Swedes offered $171,000 for Intrepid but were outbid by Robert Fendler, a savings and loan proprietor better known for the loud, brawling hydroplanes he has backed on the thunderboat circuit. When Fendler's financial bubbles burst, Intrepid became a ward of the U.S. courts, eventually being sold to a Hawaiian marina and condominium developer, Bob Miller. When Miller missed the payment deadline, the Enterprise syndicate got Intrepid for $102,000.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast Ted Hood was offered the chance to skipper Courageous again in 1977. Both Hood and Lee Loomis, the 1948 Olympic gold medalist and sailing-team manager who was called on to handle the business end of the effort, felt that taking Courageous would be worthwhile only if a good trial horse could be had. They tried unsuccessfully to charter or buy Intrepid from Fendler, who at the time apparently was still solvent. Failing there, they considered building an aluminum Intrepid, but by that time Intrepid's designer, Olin Stephens, was already involved in Enterprise and obligated not to abet rivals. For want of a trial horse, Hood and Loomis decided the only alternative was to build a new defender and let her fight it out against Courageous—a costly venture that was considerably moderated because Hood volunteered his services as designer and sailmaker without fee. And so it came to pass that, although she will not compete this summer, Intrepid has already served the U.S. cause doubly—as preseason rival for one of the new Twelves and, in effect, as spiritual mother of the other.

Through the U.S. eliminations, the same sort of nip-and-tuck battles Courageous and Intrepid waged three years ago should be repeated, this time in a three-sided war. Because Lowell North, one of the world's foremost sailmakers, is skipper of Enterprise, and because his only sailmaking peer, Ted Hood, is serving both Independence and Courageous, the three contenders should be quite even in sail power. Olin Stephens, who designed four of the five successful 12-meter defenders, confesses that his new Enterprise does not differ greatly from his old Courageous. Ted Hood also confesses that his design, Independence, is quite like Courageous.

If sails and hulls prove to be as equal as logic suggests they will be, then the crews, which are the most malleable link in the chain of success in any prolonged match series, will tend to equalize through the long summer. Anyone searching for an advantage in one of the contenders this early is hard put to find it, even in the three skippers. The men are of established excellence, albeit very different in their ways.

Lowell North of Enterprise is a perpetual noodler, constantly in motion. During a sail and rigging evaluation, one moment North is in the aft cockpit and in the next he is at the bow or eyeballing the mast. He suddenly disappears down one hatch and after several minutes of rummaging around pops up in another, exclaiming, "I've found our trouble. I forgot to turn the switch on." In comparison, once committed to a trial run, Ted Hood of Independence rarely quits his post at the helm. In anything short of a gear-busting crisis he is as steady-going as a bargeman taking the town's garbage out to deep water. He is practical New England economy, both in his actions and his words. Ted Turner, skipper of Courageous, uses words the way Niagara Falls uses water. He is one of the world's finest examples of perpetual emotion, but behind his labial flaps there is quite a brain. During the longest training period Courageous and Independence had together, Turner's Atlanta baseball team was well on its way to a string of 17 consecutive defeats. Niekro was winless, Matthews was injured, Messersmith was ailing—laments of that sort poured so constantly from Turner that one would never have thought he cared a whit about the America's Cup. But Turner's mouth and mind do not always travel in the same direction. At the end of one day in hard, steep seas, he won one start and race from Hood, then lost the second. Back at the dock he observed, "Things could be worse. I could have a good baseball team and a bad boat."

When examined carefully, the distinctions among the skippers turn out to be more apparent than real. North, the noodler, always has one eye cocked on reality. Hood, the pragmatist, is quite a noodler. Turner, the man who seems to be going several ways at once, is actually the best leader and organizer.

The battles to pick the U.S. defender have customarily had more drama than the America's Cup challenge series. It may not be good show biz to present the best action first, but again this year it looks as if the preliminaries will outshine the finale.

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