Hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars and British pounds were spent; men of skill, wealth and imagination from both sides of the water gave the best of their time, talents, substance and energy to the effort; the hopes of millions of well-wishers were made to soar and the dreams of many were sent plummeting. In the end, the result was that an ornate Victorian ewer of no great value continued to sit just where it has sat for close to a century—in a glass case on a shelf in the New York Yacht Club.
So what was the point of all the excitement over the America's Cup?
There are those who claim that there was no point at all, that it was a flop, a farce, a fiasco. The most outspoken were a small group of urban sportswriters who, spoiled by years of spoon-fed climaxes supplied by well-matched contenders on turf and diamond, grid and rink, saw a contest so plainly one-sided as simply no contest at all. For those gentlemen, we can only grieve, for the point is surely there: as sharply simple as the words "I dare you" on a small boy's lips, as penetrating and universal as man's desire to strive and achieve.
Cup racing is in no sense comparable to the finals of a well-seeded tennis tournament. No phrase coined for it could be more inept than that well-worn one, "the World Series of Yachting." By definition the America's Cup is a "challenge cup," and, again by definition, a challenge is "an invitation to combat." The fact that Britain's Sceptre trailed hopelessly behind Columbia under every circumstance of wind and weather is as unimportant to the validity of the contest as the fact that David, despite a lucky shot, was once hopelessly outmatched by Goliath. "Life would have been much more fun," mourned one British yachtsman, "if Sceptre could have made a fight of it." But that lost hope, even in British minds, was secondary to the greater fact that the gauntlet had been bravely flung and cheerfully accepted, that the fight had been gallantly fought and the victory cleanly won.
October 5, 1958
At the end of the fourth and final race, when Columbia swept across the finish line, far ahead once again, a garland of signal flags fluttered up to the yardarm of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Duane by order of the New York Yacht Club's Commodore Burr Bartram. "Mortals cannot command success," it told Sceptre's Skipper Graham Mann in a paraphrase of a message flashed to Horatio Nelson after he lost his arm and much of his fleet off Teneriffe in 1797. "You and your companions have certainly deserved it."
It was a message well worthy of the contest which inspired it. Sceptre's crew had sailed magnificently. They were beaten by an equally skilled crew in a boat that outclassed their own in every department as a result of numberless factors pertaining to the science of yacht design, the British economy and even the ambitions of one Adolf Hitler whose bombs had destroyed much of the data that might have helped the British to build a better boat.
The very presence of a British challenger in the waters off Brenton Reef represented a grand victory for a nation whose every ambition today is circumscribed by the need to save shillings. Despite the surly growling of a few too blind to see, newspaper readers and editors from coast to coast in the U.S. were quick to sense and respond to Britain's debonair sportsmanship. All over the land there were loyal Americans who wanted the British to win, who hoped the British would win, who knew the British could not possibly win. At Newport itself, among the thousands of eager spectators who came in every kind of craft to share in some measure the hardships and the thrills of the racing contenders, there was a feeling almost of embarrassment that the American boat was so much the better. Yet no one would have had the U.S. deliberately build a poorer boat.
Each of the four U.S. boats which spent the summer competing among themselves for the privilege of defending the cup against a boat which might well have been bested by the worst of them represented an average outlay of some $250,000, not to mention the dreams and hopes and worries of their owners and designers, the hard work, the time and the skill spent on them by their crews. They represented the very best that U.S. yachting could muster to defend a "valueless" cup it valued highly. That best proved far, far better than the best another group of yachtsmen could muster in challenge, but it in no way impaired the validity of the contest or the sporting significance of the challenge itself.
A cup racer is an expensive piece of sporting goods. The great J boats which defended the cup during the '30s cost approximately $1 million apiece. By 1939, two years after the last pre-war race, every one of them had been junked and sold for scrap. Yet last week, the designer of Sceptre, eager to get back to his drawing board and try again, insisted that the America's Cup should be raced for "in the biggest boats people can afford." Asked if he thought that Sceptre's licking would put an end to cup racing as far as Britain was concerned, Hugh Goodson, head of the Sceptre syndicate, grinned broadly. "Quite frankly," he said, "I don't think we shall ever give up."
That, it seems to us, is the point of what went on off Newport.