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Through the last dark shades of winter and all this spring, on the Pacific off Point Loma, Calif. two handsome 12-meter hulls, the old Intrepid and the brand-new Enterprise, tested their worth against each other, loping over long swells in easy wind for mile after monotonous mile, first on one tack, then the other, then changing headsails and doing it all over again. On the Atlantic Coast, in heavier weather and lumpier seas off Marblehead, Mass., the new 12-meter Independence and the old Courageous were doing the same.
On one fair day in light air aboard Enterprise, Skipper Lowell North had his crew tighten the leech cord of the main a mere half inch and adjust the lower runner and permanent backstay a tad. As a consequence, in five minutes they had moved out almost two boat lengths on Intrepid. Aboard Intrepid, Skipper Gerry Driscoll had his mainsheet man take a fraction of a turn, and in another 10 minutes Intrepid had regained a length and stolen another to windward. Back East, after Courageous had rounded a leeward mark, her slack running backstay caught a lobster pot, and Skipper Ted Turner and his crew lost two lengths to Ted Hood and the men of Independence. On the second downwind leg, Independence's spinnaker fouled and the pole poked a hole in it, robbing Hood and his crew of the margin they had freakishly gained.
Thus it has gone all spring: hours and hours of solid testing and training, pocked with occasional disasters. The crews have been working unremittingly. The riggers and wrench monkeys have been busy, tweaking this and that about, trying to wring another sliver of a knot out of hulls and spars. The sailmakers have been hard at it, cutting and recutting. Compared to the slick, smooth Dacron and nylon that propel these four 12-meter yachts, the sails of ordinary pleasure craft look as messy as an unmade bed.
One recent evening, a lady unfamiliar with the complexities of ultrasailing strolled the docks of the San Diego Yacht Club, looking first at Intrepid, then at Enterprise. At the time. Intrepid had been washed down and tied up after a day of toil. Because she was built when the rules allowed winches and most of the other mechanical clutter to be tucked belowdecks, she lay at rest on her lines looking as pure and clean as a yacht can. Enterprise presented quite a contrast. In compliance with the new rules, most of her machinery is aboveboard. Her deck is a profusion of cockpits and mini-cockpits connected by hatches and hatchlets that lead downward into her resonant aluminum bowels. If no better use can be found for Enterprise when her campaigning days are over, she will make a dandy jungle gym for kids. As is the fate of many hulls that fall into the hands of Lowell North, Enterprise already bears the scars of modification. In her boom alone there are so many abandoned drill holes, it looks as if a Mafioso has been potting away at her. At the sight of Enterprise, the strolling lady exclaimed, "Are you telling me that Intrepid, that beautiful thing over there, is the old boat, and this poor creature is the new one?"
Esthetics aside. Enterprise and Intrepid looked very even in their practice tiffs and so did Independence and Courageous. A fortnight ago Intrepid was withdrawn from the cup when sufficient funds could not be raised to modify her. To the superficial eye, the three remaining boats appear fit enough right now to defend the America's Cup; in the minds of the skippers and of the two syndicate managers responsible for the defense this September, none of the hulls is as ready as she should be, and the days of reckoning are at hand. This weekend the first series of elimination trials to select the U.S. defender begins off Newport, R.I.
Intrepid defended the America's Cup against Australian challengers in 1967 and 1970, and Courageous prevailed against a third Aussie boat in 1974. Because Enterprise and Independence have proved in practice to be, at the very least, as good as the veteran defenders, it can be safely said that the U.S. has a competent squad. So why are the two syndicates uneasy? For a multiplicity of reasons, the most significant being the intensity of the opposition and the freakish weather that has been upon us for the better part of a year.
This summer Australia will be back with two challengers in its fifth quest for the cup. Australia , a new hull, has been working out on the windy west coast of her homeland, while Gretel II, the famous old light-air boat, has been training off Sydney, where sailing would be endemic even if the wind blew only straight down. For their third try, the French have come up with a boat, France II, that on the basis of structure and configuration can be fairly described as a bold compromise between the best of yesterday and tomorrow. On their first challenge, the Swedes are coming with a small boat, Sverige, that, though light in displacement, has a high ballast ratio and a large sail area.
For certain, in this array of challengers there is disparity, and the American defender must have the versatility to excel in a variety of sea and wind conditions. There's the rub. To date, the American boats have not had a chance to test themselves over a range of conditions. The cold frontal winds that plagued most of the country this winter left a balmy pocket hanging over Southern California. As a consequence, in February and March when the winds off San Diego are often fresh. Intrepid and Enterprise too often got zephyrs. In four months there were only five days with the wind over 14 knots.
In three America's Cup campaigns stretching back 10 years, Intrepid met 11 other 12-meter hulls—six of them of later vintage than herself—and beat them all. Her total match-race record was 71 wins and 17 losses. Against her only true peer, Courageous, she won 11 and lost nine. Because of a poor headsail choice and subsequent rigging failure, with the score tied 4-4 in the final eliminations in 1974, Intrepid lost the decisive race—and the chance to defend the cup a third time. Except for that fateful match, she lost only one other race to Courageous in winds steady over 12 knots, and that by a mere two seconds. She is, in brief, as fine a medium-and heavy-air yardstick as any new boat could want, but thanks to this spring's quirky climate, her talents were largely wasted. Such was his desperation by mid-May that Skipper Lowell North contemplated towing Enterprise 30 miles offshore where in constant sea breezes he could at least evaluate some of her sails by computer, if not against her stablemate Intrepid. "We have accomplished most of what we wanted to do in light air," North said, "but we really wanted heavy work. You don't like to go into the first round short in any area."
By contrast, Independence and Courageous had more heavy wind and fractious seas than they needed. In April and May they were scheduled to work out against each other a total of 29 days. On five of these days, high winds kept the boats on their moorings. Out of the balance they had only four days of wind under 12 knots. On one fine soft day about noon, just 10 seconds before the starting gun of a practice race, the wind swung 160 degrees, turning the start into a downwind farce. By the time the windward mark was reset, the wind was up so smartly it widened a crack in Courageous' boom and bent Independence's severely. By two o'clock the following afternoon the wind was steady over 50 knots, tearing two dozen fine sailboats off their moorings in Marblehead Harbor. "In this business it takes a lot of time to learn a little," Skipper Ted Hood observed, his voice tinged with despair, "and we are running out of time."