A BOLD HELMSMAN ON A BOAT WELL FOUND
Last weekend the stars of the Southern Cross in the Australian ensign floated proudly over the fleet anchored in Brenton Cove at the finish of the fourth race for the America's Cup. Although the score at the time stood at three victories to one in favor of the defending Weatherly, the racing had been closer than the numerical results indicated. For the first time in many years a challenger for the cup was providing competition to justify its prestige. As Bobby Mosbacher commented after watching brother Bus stave off Gretel's stretch drive on Saturday, when the challenger came from astern to draw almost even with less than a mile to go, "There hasn't been a race where there hasn't been some real excitement." A few minutes later Weatherly crewman Vic Romagna put it even stronger as the defender came alongside her tender. "Is there a doctor in the house?" he called across. "We have 11 cardiac cases aboard."
From the first day of competition it was apparent that the gentlemen from down under meant business. Even before the starting gun of the opening race Helmsman Jock Sturrock took the initiative, boldly setting off after Bus Mosbacher to force a combat, something not often witnessed in the summer-long trials, when most rivals seemed intent on finding a peaceful stretch of ocean by themselves. Before that opening contest was over, it was plain that the challenger's crew work was fully as good as that of any American 12-meter and that Naval Architect Alan Payne's first attempt at designing a 12 had resulted in a vessel worthy of the class standard. If there was any shortcoming in the Australian challenge, it was more due to faulty judgment stemming from lack of experience in close competition than shortcomings in design or handling.
The first race was sailed in light to moderate winds, admittedly the best conditions for Weatherly; yet Gretel did well until a useless tack (the result of an Aussie misconception concerning the importance of carrying a navigator) put her astern. When the boats met again on Tuesday after a postponement provided for in the rules to give either competitor a free day on request, there was an 18-knot breeze at the start, with a fairly large sea. Conditions were similar to those existing when I had sailed aboard Gretel against Vim (SI, Sept. 3), and in these circumstances I felt she might come into her own.
Again Sturrock took the initiative, clamping himself on Weatherly's stern and refusing to be dislodged despite a series of evasive maneuvers, then breaking out a genoa at the proper moment and leading Weatherly across the line. Yet the defender was in the clear and slightly faster, so that she built up a lead (opposite page) of approximately three lengths by the time half of the eight-mile windward leg had been sailed. To close the gap, Sturrock instituted a tacking duel. With both crews straining at the coffee grinder winches in a wind that had now built to more than 20 knots, the Australians gained on each hitch. Closer and closer came the two boats, Gretel's geared tandem headsail winches that operate a single drum proving as effective as I had anticipated. Sturrock finally slashed the rapier bow of Gretel so closely across Weatherly's, flat transom that she appeared to wipe off droplets of water. So superior was the challenger that Bus Mosbacher was forced to break off the duel, thereafter nursing his lead by playing tactically safe, covering only when necessary, to maintain a lead of 12 seconds at the first mark. Not since the Columbia-Vim battles in the final trials of 1958 had such a contest been witnessed.
The second leg of the triangle was a genoa reach. Both boats were evenly matched, and the relative distance between them remained the same, bringing them into the final run only a few lengths apart. Gretel set her spinnaker first, and then began the most exciting and beautiful moments of this America's Cup—perhaps of any cup match in history. The wind had freshened to some 25 knots, and the seas had lengthened. Both boats were traveling at close to maximum speed, Gretel with white sails, Weatherly carrying a ruby-red spinnaker brilliant against a deep blue sky, while crests of seas creamed in the sunshine.
Gretel began to close the gap. Shooting the seas like a surfboard, the challenger gained in great kangaroo leaps, drops glittering from towering fans of spray at her bow and a pluming rooster tail under the counter. Hanging on the crests of the seas, a technique developed by Australian helmsmen from riding the Pacific swells that roll off Sydney Head, Gretel shot ahead so fast that her sails went limp. As the bigger crests lifted astern, Sturrock sharpened up slightly to gain speed at exactly the moment the wave peaked under Gretel's after sections, which are flatter than any American boat's except Nefertiti. At the precise instant the boat hung poised, stern high and bow low, the helm was turned to put her dead in line with the sea, which then shot her forward like an arrow from a bow, 100 feet or more at a time. As Gretel surged by the defender, the sight was indelibly recorded in my memory as the most dramatic in my yachting experience.
There was nothing Bus Mosbacher could do until Gretel had passed. Then he attempted to slow the flying Australians by angling across their stern to cut their wind. But it was a hopeless gesture. Probably no 12-meter yacht in the. history of the class had ever moved as fast as Gretel at that moment. The only result of Weatherly's effort was a broken spinnaker pole as the after guy parted under the strain. The accident in no way detracted from the challenger's victory, as she was clear ahead and going away when it happened. Gretel crossed the line 47 seconds in front, to a tumultuous cacophony of horns and sirens from the spectator fleet—the first challenger to win a race in 28 years, and only the fourth boat in a century.
After the finish came a decision that will long be discussed on yacht club verandahs around the world. According to rumor, the Australians had decided in advance to request a lay day after every race, on the theory that extra time would be on their side in making Gretel a better boat through lessons learned in each race. However, her request for postponement after the second race came as a surprise to many. She had just gotten the lift of winning, and all indications pointed toward identical weather conditions for another 24 hours, conditions the challenger obviously relished. As the wind did hold and the seas became even larger, the decision to postpone may well have cost the Aussies the advantage at that point in the series.
When the boats met again on Thursday the heavy winds had passed, leaving only fickle airs and a jumble of dying sea. Carrying little more than steerageway, Sturrock again took the start but was unable to hold his advantage. Again it was Weatherly's weather. Mosbacher easily sailed into the clear from under Gretel's lee after the latter had crossed ahead on the first tack after the start. After a few moments, it became clear that unless a miracle happened the contest was over. Besides being behind, Sturrock was caught with his heavy-weather mainsail hoisted: because of inexperience with local conditions he had relied on a forecast promising fresh winds.
On the first weather leg of the twice-around windward-leeward course the Australians tried to make a race of it by initiating another tacking duel but failed to gain as their superior power in winching home headsails was not vital in the light breeze. Also Sturrock seemed to kill his boat by spinning her through each tack, while Bus Mosbacher carried way in a series of lazy arcs. Nevertheless, Gretel was only a minute astern at the first turn; but then she fell into a windless hole. Changing spinnakers three times was of no avail, and she trailed at the end of the first round by a horrendous 23 minutes in time and two miles in distance after 12 had been sailed. This admittedly was not yacht racing at its best. However, the Australians finally found a new slant of breeze to close the gap to 8 minutes 40 seconds at the finish, a bad defeat and no indication of the relative merits of the two vessels.
After another postponement on a day when winds blew reasonably fresh, Saturday dawned clear and calm. Faint slants of wind began to stir as the fleet got under way. The staggering assortment of 2,300 craft estimated on opening day had diminished somewhat, but there were still plenty of excursion steamers on hand, top-heavy with spectators like floating bleachers, as well as Navy destroyers and virtually every other kind of floating contrivance on the East Coast.
The start was delayed waiting for wind. After almost an hour signals were hoisted in a faint eight-knot southerly for a triangular course, and Sturrock once more sought the initiative. This time Bus more than met him halfway and led across the line. Although conditions at the start were those in which Weatherly had walked away from the competition all summer, Gretel hung on for more than half the weather leg, now gaining slightly, now losing; tacking, feinting, tacking again for a total of 24 hitches, Sturrock trying to wriggle clear of his rival's wind shadow, never more than a few seconds behind. Then about midway along the leg the wind freshened to some 12 knots, and Gretel's genoa seemed to bag away from the spreaders aloft. Weatherly gained rapidly to lead at the turn by one minute 26 seconds, but the race was far from over. Gretel set her spinnaker faster and gained steadily through the eight-mile leg, cutting the margin to 48 seconds at the mark.
Gretel jibed without collapsing her spinnaker; Weatherly jibed, but her chute folded. Again the challenger gained slightly through superior sail handling, and then again was faster on the reach. A heading wind shift about three miles from the finish caused Weatherly to drop her spinnaker, and for a while Gretel closed the gap with a rush. It seemed she would break through to leeward, but then Sturrock felt the header, too, and followed Weatherly in replacing his spinnaker with reaching jib. To most observers it seemed a fatal error.
The challenger stonned dead in her tracks and even began to lose ground. Again the Aussies set a spinnaker. There were none of Tuesday's seas to ride; nevertheless, Gretel's bow inexorably crept toward Weatherly's stern. But distance and the angle to the finish line were running thin for Gretel, and when Weatherly countered by setting her own spinnaker there was no hope for the challenger. Weatherly's winning margin of 26 seconds was the smallest in 92 years of competition; the next closest finish was in 1893 when Vigilant beat Valkyrie II by 40 seconds.
As the series moved to a close, predictions made earlier about the two boats seem to have been borne out, and there is every indication they will hold through the race or races still to be sailed. Although Gretel is a good boat, Weatherly—with Bus Mosbacher at the helm—is a better one, at least in her ability to get across the finish line first. The defender is at her best in light airs, while the speed curves of the two boats cross as the wind freshens. The only ingredient lacking in the magnificent Australian effort is the competition enjoyed by Americans over the past four years, culminatine in the recent elimination trials.
"It will take us four years to really learn about 12s," Alan Payne commented before the cup matches began, "and we've only had two and a half." From the American point of view, perhaps it is just as well.