After it was all over and Sceptre had been hauled away like a dead bull from a corrida, Harry Sears best summed up the late-September events off Newport as "a horrible anticlimax to a great yachting season."
This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1959 issue
Four months have passed, other events have appeared and disappeared from the headlines, but the many questions raised by the one-sided contest for the historic America's Cup still linger. What could have happened that Britain could not produce a better representative? Why, after the four American boats raced so evenly, would Sceptre be so far behind in potential speed? And, above all, after this overwhelming defeat and disappointment, what will happen to the 12-meter class in particular and the America's Cup in general?
As to the future of the cup, it seems assured that a challenge will be forthcoming. Sooner than anyone had dared to hope, many indications have reached this country from London in recent days that prospects of a challenge are very much in the wind. As will be detailed later, things are stirring on both sides of the Atlantic.
But before attempting to evaluate the future it is well to look into the immediate past, without rancor and without belittling the high sportsmanship or sincerity of the British effort. Sceptre was a bad boat; but that does not mean that American design is invincible. Smaller British and Scandinavian meter boats have won their share of international trophies over the past years. David Boyd himself has turned out winning sixes, and other Empire designers have produced excellent vessels of all types, including ocean racers.
The question is: What happened in the design of Sceptre? And that question can now be answered in some detail.
From the first, reports coming out of England indicated an attention to detail, a meticulous striving for perfection which' seemed to' make the 17th challenge the most serious on record. Here was to be no casual pink-tea approach, but a businesslike effort, with affairs in the hands of real sailors and victory the unswerving goal. I confess sharing this conviction even after sailing aboard Sceptre on the Solent in May.
Yet apparently much of this was mere lip service to an ideal or, perhaps worse, complete lack of comprehension of what thorough preparation involved. It now appears the basic damage had been done and the British effort doomed on July 13, 1957, when the committee in charge of tank tests recommended to the Royal Yacht Squadron syndicate the B hull of David Boyd, after towing the models of eight yachts by four designers against each other and against the prewar Flica II. In theory, this impersonal method of selection seemed the best alternative to building several full-scale vessels, and the only criticism heard in the early stages was that the tank had been used purely to establish an order of merit and not later to perhaps refine and improve the chosen hull.
But after the debacle at Newport, I was informed on good authority that the nine models went through a total of only 41 hours of testing—500 runs of five minutes each—in the tanks at Saunders-Roe on the Isle of Wight. Allan Murray, director of the Experimental Towing Tank at Stevens Institute in New Jersey, which tested the American designs, commented: "We would feel we could barely compare and evaluate two hulls in that time. It takes 18 to 20 hours to establish data on a single model, towing in an upright position and at three angles of heel—10°, 20° and 30°. In all, we were working with the designs of Olin Stephens, Phil Rhodes and Ray Hunt just about a year." Tank tests of Columbia began in April and were still continuing in November to establish such points as ballasting when construction of the vessel was already under way.
Next, it was reported the reason that the unsuccessful Flica II had been used as a yardstick was because the blueprints of Tomahawk, a design by the late Charles Nicholson, had been lost through wartime bombing. But Tomahawk herself, which had given Vim real competition on the Solent in '39, was sailing in the Mediterranean, having been sold to Italy a couple of years before a challenge in 12s was contemplated. She could have been bought back as a trial horse, or her lines taken off as a point of departure.
Also, it was frequently mentioned that economic circumstances dictated the construction of but a single challenger. This too was understandable and was sympathetically received. Yet, as a friend said in London, "there was plenty of money available to build more than one boat." It is more probable the real fault lay with the attitude of the Royal Yacht Squadron, which issued the challenge. The deed of gift states, "Any organized yacht club of a foreign country . . . shall always be entitled to the right of sailing a match for this cup," and from then on mentions only the rights and responsibilities of a club. Individuals do not count. Therefore, after the Royal Yacht Squadron had challenged, it was the sole arbiter of who should represent it in Newport. Naturally, only a member's yacht would be considered, and, unfortunately, membership is strictly limited by social considerations. Yachting skill—or interest—has little to do with admission. So, when the challenge became the responsibility of this sacred body, every other club and every British yachtsman not entitled to wear the White Ensign was automatically ruled out. Feeling "now it can be told," I was assured a year ago that had some other organization with a broader membership base handled the challenge there would have been two and perhaps three other boats built in England. While there is always the possibility of intent not crystallizing into reality, I believe, in this case, the rumor to be true.
After Sceptre completed her first race against Columbia, grave deficiencies in her planning became apparent. I was telephoned by a member of Sceptre's afterguard, for example, that same evening and asked if I would approach John Matthews of Vim and Henry Mercer of Weatherly to see if a drifting genoa could be borrowed. It had been painfully clear during the afternoon that the challenger lacked proper sails for light air. From study of past records and observations the previous fall, the British assumed fresh winds would be the rule off Newport in late September but forgot that exception proves the rule. Anywhere in the world at any time of year there can be periods of calm—even on the English Channel. Yet Sceptre had nothing in her locker to cope with faint breezes and a bobble of a sea.
I believe it was the combination of these varied factors which produced a vessel so unworthy of a great maritime people. The trouble seems to have been a matter of misplaced emphasis rather than lack of basic skill and know-how. Certainly Graham Mann and his crew acquitted themselves well in tactics, sail handling and other departments which could be judged despite such a vast difference in hull speed. It is hard to have a contest between competitors almost lost to sight of each other. During one race, a young lady aboard the spectator vessel from which I watched stated it neatly by saying: "If you want to see Columbia go to the bow, if you are looking for Sceptre, take your binoculars and go to the stern."
Following the final match, David Boyd was quoted as saying that before trying again he would ask for a look at the lines of Columbia. Asked about this, Olin Stephens commented, "I took it more as a graceful compliment than a specific request. Frankly, I would prefer not to make drawings available but perhaps would, if asked by responsible levels of the competing clubs, as something good for the sport." Yet it is obvious Olin thinks such an action would be a comedown for foreign designers, nor does he believe it necessary. "Producing a good hull through testing is not really complicated. You just have to keep working and working and working at it. All I did was to take Vim and keep on trying to improve her." In his opinion, any 12-meter hull could have been used as a point of departure providing tests were carried out systematically over a long enough period.
There are those who profess knowing Sceptre would be a failure as soon as they saw her hauled in Newport, which truly makes us a nation of experts. But Rod Stephens, uncompromisingly honest in his summations, told me after the matches neither he nor Olin thought anything in advance but that they were going to have a tough battle. Even after the first race, although realizing Columbia was faster in light air, "we did not," he said, "assume superiority in all other conditions." Nevertheless, I felt a stab of amazement when I first stood below and analyzed Sceptre's shape. The apple bow, bulbous keel section, sharply raked rudder, scant lateral plane, slack bilges—all were radically different from American practice. It was possible David Boyd had produced the breakthrough hull, but I felt, as did Briggs Cunningham, during the celebration which followed Columbia's selection as the defender: "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 in error. (Curiously, history was repeating itself: when America went to the Solent in 1851, the British vessels were the traditional "cod's head and mackerel tail" in shape—full and bluff of bow, with a long, tapering run. The Yankee design was extremely sharp forward—even "hollow" at the waterline—and very powerful aft. And the aged Marquis of Angelsey, taken out for a look at the invader, exclaimed: "If she be right, then all of us are wrong!")
For any future challenge it is essential that more than one boat be built. Trial races provide a basis for comparison and means of improving boats and crews which can be achieved no other way. Another Sceptre must not be allowed to happen. The sporting British are the first to realize this. Wilson Stephens, editor of The Field, wrote Captain Franklin Ratsey of Cowes after the defeat: "I myself feel that the Americans are deserving of sympathy. Apart from everything they did by way of hospitality and by way of consideration in altering the deed of gift to help us challenge, they themselves must have spent many hundreds of thousands of pounds in building three new potential defenders, working up a fourth and holding the very intensive elimination trials to decide which boat would have the honor of defending. After all this they are entitled to a contest, which they did not get. Indeed, they are left with the positive certainty a) that it was not necessary to build a new defender at all, since the existing Vim would have done the job very handsomely, b) that the worst of the would-be defenders and the first to be eliminated would have been quite adequate to the task. It is difficult to see how we can put these people to so much trouble and expense again, unless we can offer them the assurance that they are going to have something worthwhile against which to race. . . . One is left with the impression that this was a pretty sorry show, and, while defeat is one thing, rout is another."
Perhaps one solution would be a British Commonwealth challenge, which, according to Harry Sears, might be possible without further changes in the deed of gift. To date, Australian and Canadian yachtsmen have expressed interest in having a go at the "ould mug." Conceivably, South Africa, New Zealand or other members of the Empire family might produce vessels. Combined with an effort from the British Isles, a real fleet might be gathered for real competition, from which the best boat and crew might be selected. Possibly, in order to eliminate the loss of time and sharpness involved in shipping across the Atlantic, Empire trials could be held in Canadian waters or even off Newport.
Another suggestion has been a Davis Cup method of selection, confined to Europe, where an English boat might compete in eliminations against representatives of Sweden, Italy, West Germany and any other country meeting the requirements. This, perhaps, would involve an alteration in the deed of gift, but only to change the definition and responsibilities of the challenging club.
There have been rumors of challenges from smaller nations, including Cuba and Greece. Here again, a change in the deed of gift might be necessary, as it now requires that the yacht be "constructed in the country to which the challenging club belongs." The New York Yacht Club has interpreted construction to include design, eliminating for practical purposes any nation which does not possess advanced naval architects and tank facilities. (The ruling came after reported feelers from the Livingston brothers of Australia, who might have been willing to challenge if they could have had Olin Stephens design the boat!)
Failing all these, and recognizing the possibility of future alterations in the deed of gift, the America's Cup could possibly be raced for in vessels radically different from the past and over entirely different courses. After all, the basic intent of the deed is expressed in the first paragraph after the preamble: "This cup is donated upon the condition that it shall be preserved as a perpetual challenge cup for friendly competition between foreign countries." As nothing could be more different than the Columbia of 1958 and the Columbia which defended in 1871, the possibility of further changes should not be ruled out as contrary to the spirit of the donors.
When a revival of the series was proposed, there was a question as to the most suitable vessel to employ. Many were against boats as expensive and limited in usefulness as the 12s. Yet, in the past the America's Cup had always brought together the biggest and most expensive creations national resources could produce, as symbols of national honor. Once designers had moved beyond the working types of the earliest contests, the emphasis was placed purely on speed. Through the years, the boats became increasingly useless as anything but racing machines, to be scrapped almost as soon as they had completed a cup campaign. There was no criticism of this waste in the era of expanding economies and low taxation.
Harry Sears fixed upon yachts of the 12-meter class as the best possible compromise under the circumstances. Influencing his thinking was the legal aspect of altering the deed of gift. As he said, "I was only suggesting a lowering of waterline length from a minimum of 65 feet to 44 feet, and the elimination of a single clause, the one requiring a challenger to sail rather than be shipped across the ocean. The rest of the document remained intact, its intent unchanged." Nothing was actually requested except that the vessels be scaled down from the J class to the 12-meter class; not only were the boats to be essentially similar in appearance, but the matches would be sailed in the same waters, the courses merely shortened to require approximately the same time to complete. There was a very real doubt in his mind that the courts would have consented to sweeping changes permitting an entirely different type of racing or a basically different type of boat. And, as Harry Sears also said, "there are plenty of trophies for all other kinds of sailing. There should remain an encouragement for match racing between the biggest possible boats."
In the minds of the governors of the New York Yacht Club was the fact that under existing circumstances the 12-meter class was economically feasible. There were already boats in being on both sides of the Atlantic, and the correctness of the assumption was proven by three new boats built as candidates to defend. Under different conditions, which will be discussed later, perhaps, there might have been other potential challengers constructed in the British Isles.
In place of a purely racing class, it has been proposed that vessels be built to either the Cruising Club of America or the Royal Ocean Racing Club rule. These then could be used for cruising, ocean passages and all the other delightful aspects of modern yachting, thus assuring long and useful lives. The proponents of this plan felt many boats would be built, assuring better competition and a truer test of rival naval architects, construction, sails, equipment and crews. Open ocean courses have also been suggested, even those involving transatlantic passages.
Others have advocated vessels falling between the racing machines and the ocean cruisers, yachts of the new cruiser-racer class, which in theory combine many of the virtues of both types—heavier construction, more seaworthy design, better living accommodations, less extreme rig, yet remain lively and maneuverable.
Asked to express an opinion from a naval architect's viewpoint, Olin Stephens felt that neither the CCA nor RORC rules were sufficiently definite in their provisions. "The limits are not specifically enough defined. Subjected to cup design pressures, nothing would be clear: flotation, weight and extent of interior fittings (including construction details such as tanks and mast step) and countless other items. The International Rule leaves almost no loopholes. Very few questions arose this summer, such as Vim's bending boom, and all could be settled without serious argument or ill feeling. Before one of the present ocean racing rules could be used, it would have to be completely rewritten."
Of the cruiser-racers, he felt them neither fish nor fowl, neither really a racing nor a cruising type, not basically different enough from racing classes to give true cruising accommodations or performance but heavier and beamier enough to be less sporty. With this opinion a majority of American yachtsmen seem to concur. Nor is this type favored by either existing CCA or RORC rules, eliminating the argument of general usefulness and continuing resale value after the cup matches.
But it is now clear that the 12-meter class need not be thought finished despite the "horrible anticlimax." There is a real desire in England to wipe out the stigma of defeat. In the famous "agony column" of the London Times recently appeared an advertisement: "Sceptre for sale. America's Cup challenger 12-meter yacht Sceptre complete with racing sails and gear—offers exceeding ¬£15,-000 to Sceptre Syndicate, Box H1256, The Times, E.C. 4." The victim, having been hauled away in a tumbrel, has now reached the block. Yet none of this means that the syndicate will not try again, either forming another group or groups among themselves or with others, according to Charles Wainman, a leading syndicate member who is also positive British yachtsmen will continue to challenge. "It's like the saying about Everest. Why did men want to climb it? Because it was there. Why do British yachtsmen go on trying to win the America's Cup? Because it is in New York. They'll go on trying to win it: on, and on, and on."
The competitive demise of Sceptre may be the fitting time to finally express admiration for those connected with the 17th challenge—the "working blokes," the nonsailing advisers and members of the syndicate—for their conduct in an appallingly difficult situation. Never once was there any alibiing or attempting to shift the blame—all triumphed as individuals by displaying the truest qualities of sportsmanship. Had any ill feeling developed, the cup might have died with Sceptre. As it is, there is every hope for the future.
Word has arrived from England that Tomahawk has been repurchased and will return to the Solent. The New York Times last week reported Owen Aisher saying a new challenge "is expected to be announced by the end of this month." Aisher was owner of Evaine, Sceptre's trial horse, which had the embarrassing habit of getting in front and staying there in early practice sessions. He advocated building at least three new 12s: "The idea is then to send two boats to America and choose the better of the two in the last week, as the Americans choose their defender." Aisher forecast the date as 1961, which rumor had already accepted as a possibility.
Commodore W. A. W. Stewart, the chairman of the America's Cup Committee of the New York Yacht Club, had previously admitted "numerous inquiries" were before his group, and that "negotiations had reached the point where a challenge seemed definitely assured" within a few years. Correspondence preliminary to a challenge has traditionally been shrouded in deepest secrecy, and for understandable reasons. While the committee would release nothing for publication, there were, as mentioned, even whispers that while other countries recognized the prior rights of the British, feelers had been put forth by nations which had never previously challenged. Asked about Owen Aisher's statement, Commodore Stewart admitted surprise, as it went "beyond anything that had been definitely discussed with the Royal Yacht Squadron." Aisher, incidentally and perhaps significantly, is not a member of that august group.
The human element must not be neglected in any consideration of a future challenge. Producing the winning combination of boat, sails and crew is a matter of long, hard work. Columbia's ultimate success lay in hour-by-hour perfecting of the "little things" over a period of months. Harry Sears, 47, and Briggs Cunningham, 52, have intimated they would like to see Columbia in "younger hands," and it is difficult to conceive Olin and Rod Stephens, Colin Ratsey and others devoting full time for the requisite all-out effort again in the near future. Others, of course, will come along, but for a number of reasons, including financial, a lapse between cup matches must be anticipated. Columbia will remain mothballed next summer, afloat but not sailing, "to see what develops," in the words of Harry Sears. Models of Weatherly, on the other hand, are being retested in the towing tank of Stevens Institute right now, with an eye to improving her performance through recasting of the keel and other hull modifications.
There are those who feel the cup should never be raced for by lesser vessels, but should be put out of competition in memory of a vanished era. Harold Vanderbilt felt "bigness" was such an important part of the tradition he opposed alteration of the deed of gift two years ago, and doubtless he would be joined by others if a further scaling downward from the majestic Js were suggested.
Personally, I am a proponent of the 12s. Small enough to be feasible in present economic circumstances, they are still large and powerful enough to be impressive symbols of international yachting supremacy. As prewar vessels still active prove, they have long and useful lives, yet offer the ultimate in sheer speed and joy of handling. May the present crop—and additions through future challenges—continue to furnish fine racing for many summers to come.
Yet I equally believe the cup and all it represents should go on, even if further alterations must be made in the deed of gift. Having survived wars, depressions, arguments and economic decline, the cup remains the outstanding trophy in sport. I feel competition for it should be limited to match racing between vessels sailing without time allowances, over reasonably sheltered courses, so the emphasis may be placed purely on speed. Challenger and defender should continue to be the largest yachts rival purses can produce. Even if eventually through taxation the vessels were to become dinghies, and fig leaves de rigueur as a uniform, the spirit would remain the same. The cup has come to represent an intangible, one of those things that must not be allowed to die.