Britain gently lifts a pound of flesh

A catamaran from England avenged her country's defeat in the 1958 America's Cup by politely slaughtering the fastest sailboat in the U.S.
October 08, 1961

In a crisp northeast breeze off Sea Cliff, N.Y. last week, two sailboats—one British and one American—took the starter's gun and headed off to windward. Both the boats were new this summer, and neither one had ever raced the other before. In fact, the entire regatta for the International Catamaran Challenge Trophy was being held for the very first time. Yet before the smoke of the gun had drifted off to leeward everyone in the spectator fleet on Long Island Sound had the odd feeling that he had watched this same race somewhere before. Perhaps at Newport, in 1958, in the competition between 12-meter sloops for the America's Cup?

As at Newport, a British challenger was meeting an American defender in a best-of-seven match-race series. And just as before, one boat immediately began to knife ahead, pointing high, moving fast, a thing of power, pride and efficiency. Once again, the trailing boat plunged and porpoised, throwing spray, scooping solid water, getting nowhere. For all practical purposes the race was over by the time the boats made their first tack.

But one thing was different at Sea Cliff: whereas in 1958 the U.S. boat had overwhelmed the invader, this time it was the British challenger, the 24-foot catamaran Hellcat, that cut cleanly through the seas while the American defender, Wildcat, hobby-horsed astern. Hellcat worked out a lead of approximately a quarter of a mile going into the second weather leg, when Wildcat withdrew after striking submerged driftwood. That afternoon the British skipper, John Fisk, sportingly offered the American boat a day off for repairs. Then, just as sportingly, he defeated it in the second race. The wind blew 16 to 18 knots, with gusts up to 26. And Hellcat surged away from the American boat so fast in the choppy water that the 27-foot powerboat from which I was watching the race could barely stay even with her. Early in the race the wallowing Wildcat again was forced to retire, with one hull awash, the temporary repair unable to stand the strain.

This time, under the terms of the regatta, Fisk could have gone home with the trophy. However, he gave the U.S. two free days for more repairs—and then suffered his only defeat, a fluky, inconclusive loss in patchy, dying wind. But on the next two days Hellcat won both races to drive home what she had demonstrated on the first day—that England is almost as far ahead of the U.S. in the design of modern, day-sailing catamarans as she was behind at Newport in the design of 12-meter sloops.

Keep it clean

The designer of the English cat, 28-year-old Roderick Macalpine-Downie, seems to have succeeded for many of the same reasons that Olin Stephens succeeded with Columbia in 1958. Hellcat is beautiful, clean and functional, a reminder that naval architecture remains an art as well as a science. In this, she is like Columbia; and, in fact, her designer is a great admirer of Olin Stephens. Like Columbia, Hellcat is sharp and fine forward, but full aft. According to her designer, these unbalanced ends prevent her from hobby-horsing, the speed-killing bobble that the fuller-bowed Wildcat suffered whenever the water became choppy. Hellcat employs no gadgets or special gimmicks. Her performance seems to be a matter of perfect proportions and ratio of sail area to hull length. Finally, Macalpine-Downie has no especial preoccupation with weight; Hellcat is 650 pounds, against 514 for Wildcat. In theory, this extra poundage should be fatal in light to moderate winds; but as so often happens with a well-balanced craft, the weight proved no real drawback in light air and was an asset when the wind piped up.

With the American boat, on the other hand, there seemed to be an almost fanatical fixation on weight and gadgetry, as though the magic of making a boat move lay wholly in a slide rule. Wildcat's hulls are canted outward 5°. Inside her wing deck she has a series of wheels to raise and lower asymmetrical airfoil-section plastic centerboards, which are themselves toed in 2° from the centerline to provide a theoretical lift to windward. She is, all around, a marvel of invention. And, until Hellcat showed up, she seemed to be something of a marvel in speed—she won nine straight races against all comers to earn the honor of meeting the British boat in the new challenge series. She is, at this time, the best day-sailing catamaran we have. But she is certainly a long way from being the best in her class.

Watching the second race, in which Wildcat tried vainly to keep up with the flying Englishmen, Bob Bavier, a member of the committee that picked the defender, summed up Wildcat's problems—and the problem now confronting all U.S. designers. "Wildcat goes faster than any other boat in the country, including the 12-meters," he said. "It is simply that the British have come up with something better."

PHOTOBEAUTIFULLY BALANCED BRITISH CAT SKIMS OVER THE WAVES AT 20 KNOTS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)