After Columbia surged across the finish line in the final match for the America's Cup, Skipper Briggs Cunningham leaned far out of the cockpit and patted her sleek bottom in a spontaneous gesture of approbation. And well he might. So far astern as to be indistinct in the haze of a smoky sou'wester, Sceptre, the British challenger, wallowed in hopeless pursuit, a badly beaten boat for the fourth time in four races. Never was there more truth in the remark, made on the victory of the original America that had launched cup competition a century ago: "There is no second."
From the standpoint of weather, the races could not have been sailed more fairly had some special arrangement been made with Aeolus in person. The first event, on Saturday, was a drifting match, a dismal affair from the spectator's point of view, with faint slants of air ranging from absolute zero to perhaps six knots, and Columbia won by a mile—country or nautical.
"Give us a breeze," was the justified plea of the British, accustomed to the near gales of the Solent and Channel, and not prepared either in outlook or sails for ghosting along at bare steerageway.
Wednesday dawned bright and clear, except for feather cirrus which promised future wind. On the starting line at noon, a moderate southwesterly of some 10 knots gave both boats ample speed for maneuvering. Graham Mann, at the helm of Sceptre, made an effort to get on the tail of Columbia, √† la Vim, and almost succeeded in establishing a safe leeward position. But Briggs Cunningham was not to be trapped; he started with clear wind and rapidly the defender ate out to windward and ahead. Again Columbia carried "The Purple People Eater"—Ratsey mainsail No. 2 of 13.75-ounce Defender cloth, in the sail book—and again perfect sails played a vital part in relative performance. Sceptre's sails, to put it bluntly but objectively, looked awful.
October 5, 1958
There was now no doubt of Columbia's vast superiority in light or moderate breezes, yet there still remained the question of what she would do in avowed "Sceptre weather," a real slugging match. During the night the wind began to whistle. On Thursday morning the flags of the fleet stood out straight, and tiny whitecaps formed even in the sheltered harbor.
Aboard Sceptre preparations went forward with purposeful dispatch. But aboard Columbia there was sheer delight, a holiday atmosphere of "this is what we're waiting for." By 8:30 Rod Stephens and his early-bird deck crew had bent on the Ratsey No. 4 mainsail—as fine a sail in winds of over 15 knots as "The Purple People Eater" was for drifting, a sail beautifully flat and aerodynamically perfect, which could be counted on to keep its shape. When Briggs Cunningham, Harry Sears and Olin Stephens arrived aboard shortly after 9, the wind had freshened still more. "Now we'll see," exalted Cunningham, partially out of complete confidence in Columbia, partially as a true sportsman who wanted to win or lose cleanly, with no reservations by anyone of what might have been.
By the time starting signals were hoisted, the wind had piped to 23 knots, all the breeze anyone could want, and the sea had built accordingly. There was little preliminary jockeying. Sceptre broke out a genoa approximately seven minutes early; Columbia waited until only three minutes remained. Both yachts hit the line together, before the smoke of the starting cannon had been whisked away. If anything, Sceptre had slightly the better of the start, being to windward. But Columbia had her wind free, and with unbelievable rapidity she delivered the Sunday punch, the big serve, the coup de gr√¢ce; pointing higher and footing faster, her superiority to windward even more marked than in light air, the defender moved from abeam and to leeward to dead ahead. In less than five minutes the race was a rout. While Sceptre plunged and hobby-horsed in the seas—"bruising God's water," as a Bahamian might say—Columbia knifed through. While Sceptre appeared to sag off to leeward in the puffs, Columbia went right up into them. While Sceptre heeled sharply in the hardest gusts and seemed at times to be so tender that her helmsman had to ease her along, Columbia stood up as straight as a church steeple, asking for more.
Valiantly Sceptre tried to make a race of it. Shortly after the start, Graham Mann began a tacking duel, hoping to lure his adversary into an error or find a flaw in equipment; within 16 minutes the challenger had come about eight times. Columbia refused to be drawn into a short-tack contest, but instead stood on each time, covering only when tactical necessity demanded. Still, it was a rugged workout for both groups of winch-pumpers. Before they had sailed the six miles to the first mark of the twice-around windward-leeward course, Columbia had tacked 14 times and Sceptre had tacked 16 (see chart next page).
Downwind, Columbia set the large red-topped Hood spinnaker borrowed from Vim, which the crew had dubbed "Big Harry" in honor of Harry Sears, Columbia's redheaded navigator and syndicate organizer. Sceptre countered with the colorful red, white and blue Herbul√¥t. Columbia gained a few seconds more. But the second weather leg, wind a trifle fresher and sea bigger, was truly the death of hope. While Sceptre dove and plunged, occasionally cascading water from her foredeck like a surfacing submarine, Columbia gained almost a minute a mile. Adding a few more seconds on the final run, the defender was first across the finish by 8 minutes 20 seconds—again more than a mile in distance.
The final match was sailed in the only wind condition short of a gale—which would have forced cancellation, anyway—that had not been experienced during the first three. This time there was another sou'wester at the start, averaging between the light to moderate airs of Wednesday and the slug fest of Thursday. The result was the same. And in the 12-to 15-mile wind, once again Columbia did what she was asked.
The final match, as the others, was no contest, a race in name only, and for the 17th straight time an American defender had turned back a challenger.
What was the reason for the great superiority of Columbia over Sceptre? Before competition began in the spring, it was generally agreed that hull differences between challenger and the ultimate defender would be slight, due to the rigid requirements of the International Rule of measurements; crews and sails would probably make the difference. And so it proved with the four American candidates. Hulls seemed the factor least important in over-all performance.
When Sceptre appeared on her mooring in Newport, the general impression among yachtsmen was as mine had been on the Solent in May: a handsome and powerful vessel, differing somewhat from American practice, but in no way unconventional or suffering by comparison. All hands were impressed by Helmsman Graham Mann and his crew, and the businesslike way both sailing and nonsailing members of the organization went about the job of preparation. Yet, the moment Sceptre was first hauled from the water and her underbody exposed to critical view, most experts felt a premonition of disaster. The apple bow, bulbous keel section, scant lateral plane, sharply raked rudder, slack bilges—all added up in American eyes to poor performance. I felt a deep stab of amazement—and worry, wishing her well—as I stood below and analyzed her shape. Briggs Cunningham best summed up my feeling during Columbia's celebration on being selected as defender, when he said of the challenger's underbody: "One of us has to be wrong." Unspoken was the conviction that Olin Stephens, who had turned out an even faster boat than Vim, would not be the one.
When Sceptre was pitted against the defender her speed deficiency was apparent in all conditions. Watching from Columbia's tender, Chaperone, Howard Fuller commented: "She's not a light-weather boat, nor a moderate-weather boat, nor a heavy-weather boat—she's a no-weather boat." Sceptre unquestionably had a poor hull form. In her case, it was the decisive factor, although bad sails compounded the situation by failing to supply maximum drive to a shape which needed all the push it could get.
Sceptre's failure undoubtedly began with the tank tests. As the British were unable to organize more than one syndicate to produce more than one boat, they asked four prominent designers to submit drawings for two 12-meter yachts, one to be conventional, one to be as radical as desired, provided it would measure in the class. These eight models were towed in the tanks of Saunders-Roe, on the Isle of Wight, a firm which specializes in aircraft and high-speed motor launches, although it has tested the hulls of a few small racing classes, such as 5.5 meters. Naturally, a model of a known 12-meter yacht had to be used as a comparative yardstick in the tests, and here again is an example of what the British were up against. Before the war, the best British 12 was Tomahawk, designed by Charles Nicholson, who had also designed the Endeavours for T.O.M. Sopwith. Tomahawk was tough competition for Vim when Harold Vanderbilt campaigned on the Solent in '39, and would have been a good point of departure for a new design. Yet, according to a member of the Sceptre organization, "Poor old Charlie was bombed out during the war, and all of his drawings were burned. So we had to use Flica II, which had belonged to Hugh Goodson, as her lines were available." Unfortunately, Flica II had never been a very successful boat.
As the tests proceeded, the four designers formed a committee to evaluate the tests. Tank results are admittedly tricky, and understanding and applying them to full-size vessels takes much practice and experience. The English had no equivalent to the late Dr. Kenneth S. M. Davidson, developer of accurate tank testing at Stevens Institute in Hoboken, N.J., where the American designs were towed. The committee chose the design of David Boyd, and the Royal Yacht Squadron syndicate immediately gave an order for construction. As Hugh Somerville of the London Times wrote last week, "Poor fellows.... It appears that they were beaten on July 13, 1957 when Sceptre's corpulent form came out of the test tank."
WAVES IN A TANK
Gossip had it that one of the reasons for Sceptre's poor performance was that the British hulls were tested in a tank where waves—actual sea conditions in a fresh wind—could not be simulated. This implies that the defender enjoyed this advantage. It did not. As Rod Stephens explained: "It is difficult to agitate the waves from the proper direction—going to windward, waves come from an angle on the bow, not dead ahead. It may work eventually, but so far the data is not trustworthy. So we didn't use it on Columbia."
In the wake of the cup matches it is easy to point out flaws and deficiencies in the British effort. Monday-morning afterguards are criticizing the inexperience of the crew, especially their youth. However, selection was made on the basis of actual performance aboard Sceptre and her trial horse, Evaine, and the best available candidates were chosen from those able—in the British economy—to afford the luxury of an entire summer of sailing. There has been censure of the size of the syndicate, yet this, too, was dictated by economic necessity, and the members' sincerity is evidenced by the fact that none sailed aboard, feeling others were more competent.
Naturally, in so large a group there was inertia and oversight: Sceptre did not have equipment requested months before the matches by her navigator, and, thanks to the "heavy-weather" fixation, proper sails for light air were not provided. Yet, given the hull of Sceptre, it is doubtful if Columbia's crew could have made her a winner even with their great inventory of sails.
Much erroneous data has been published even recently on the vital statistics of challenger and defender, especially in displacement. Reports made Sceptre out as being heavier than Columbia by a matter of tons. Yet on the day after the final race, Olin Stephens told me that the displacement of Columbia "light" (without sails, crew or movable equipment) came to about 58,000 pounds when tae cup matches began, while David Boyd put Sceptre at 61,152 pounds. Loaded, on the starting line, both would run about 4,000 pounds heavier. The sail area was almost identical, 1,825 square feet for Columbia, 1,832 square feet for Sceptre. Nor was there much difference in beam, water-line length (Columbia is a few inches less than Sceptre's "light" waterline of 46.56 feet) or over-all length (here Columbia is about a foot longer than Sceptre's 68.9 feet).
Thus, it is apparent that the difference in the two yachts lay principally in shape, not dimensions—a tribute to Olin Stephens. Indeed, it is possible that Columbia's great superiority over a foreign design could kill off 12-meter racing for the America's Cup as effectively as Ranger discouraged any further challenges in the Js. Olin Stephens' very genius might prevent him from having the opportunity of exercising it again, unless he would make available tank data on, say, Vim, as a point of departure. This is perhaps a startling thought, but something radical may be necessary to preserve future cup competition, despite rumors of pending challenges. Following the final defeat, Sam Brooks—bloody but unbowed, the stiff upper lip of a Royal Navy officer firmly in place—sighed: "Back to the drawing board." Yet, it is not so simple as that.
SPORTSMANSHIP, NOT PROTESTS
While there was general agreement that the design was not satisfactory, universal was the admiration for the men of Sceptre, her backers and the actual deck organization. Never was sportsmanship on a higher plane; not only no protests, but no quibbling. All observers agreed that Graham Mann had done an excellent job on the starting line, in tactics and in getting everything possible out of the boat. With more experience in 12s, he could be a most formidable competitor. After the final race he visited Columbia to pay his personal respects to the rival skipper, cap at the usual jaunty angle, as cool and detached as he had come to the start of the first race. "Too bad, Graham," I said from Chaperone, after telling him Briggs Cunningham was off looking for him. He shrugged. "One of those things. We tried. It just wasn't good enough. Maybe another time."
Throughout the series Sceptre's sail handling had been smooth and efficient. The monstrous Herbul√¥t spinnakers had been set and jibed without mishap, and Sceptre's tacking had been excellent. In the final race a main boom broken early on the second leg was "fished" with both spinnaker poles, a difficult job of emergency seamanship, and Sceptre not only finished but gained on the ultimate reach.
After the epic battles and genuine excitement of the Final Trial series, when Columbia and Vim raced neck and neck, there is no denying a sense of anticlimax and disappointment. Yet, on the final windy days, with the threat of a hurricane coming up the coast, there were still 300 vessels of assorted types following the contestants, and as she crossed the line for the final time, fulfilling her destiny, there was a tremendous salute to Columbia, richly deserved.
Perhaps because of the conviction that Sceptre was such a bad boat, many failed to realize how good Columbia really was, and she has not fully received the plaudits she deserves. By the time the cup matches began, Columbia was a craft worthy of rating with yachting's immortals, outstanding of her type and size. When the chips were down, she was at her best, the mark of any champion. In the cup matches, Briggs Cunningham sailed her magnificently, with a sure touch on the helm in light and heavy going, and without a tactical error. It was a long, hard summer for him, and his patience and sportsmanship were rewarded by the greatest honor in match racing. In recognition of the fact that the America's Cup would not have been revived nor Columbia built except for Harry Sears, Cunningham turned over the wheel to him for the final gun, another well-deserved tribute.
Columbia's crew rose to the occasion, making not a bobble of sail handling in four tense days. Of one spinnaker maneuver, Dick Bertram, who had been in charge of Vim's foredeck, commented: "Nobody has done it better all summer." When Columbia crossed the final finish line, it turned out she was carrying the first extra weight of her career, two bottles of champagne smuggled aboard by Colin Ratsey. Lifting paper cups, sailing in to the mooring for the last time, the crew toasted the boat and each other. The long watery trail was ended—788 rhumbline miles of hard racing, and several times as much in practice sailing, a distance approximating a transatlantic passage.
STORMY WEATHER IS 'COLUMBIA' WEATHER
So, for that matter, is any weather. After the light, insubstantial airs of the first America's Cup race and the fresh breezes of the second, the British invoked the great, smoky winds they said made Sceptre go. And on the morning of the third race day the British got them; it blew out of the southwest at 23 knots, steepening the Atlantic chop. Alas, even in heavy going, Sceptre was desperately outclassed. Here, on the first windward leg of the third race, Sceptre labors far behind, burying her lee rail as her helmsman, Lieut. Commander Graham Mann, tries to keep her high in the wind. Columbia, standing up well, sails blithely ahead on a starboard tack. It was here in the wild and the wet that Sceptre knew she was truly beaten; the fourth, final race was only part of the compact.