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Bill Luders has them crying: Beat the bird!

July 27, 1964
July 27, 1964

Table of Contents
July 27, 1964

Yogi
George Levy
Golf
Boating
Part I: The Monsters And Me
Baseball's Week
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Bill Luders has them crying: Beat the bird!

In two sets of trials 'American Eagle' has flicked her tail feathers in the eyes of every other would-be cup defender. Her speed is a testament to the designing skill and intuition of yachting's most modest man

The second of the three series of round-robin races to pick an America's Cup defender is officially known as the Observation Trials. This means, in a sense, that during this series the committee is only window-shopping; it does not plan to buy until the shop doors are almost closed at the Final Trials. There is still a month to go before these trials begin, but the shoppers off Brenton Reef were finding their choice narrowed considerably. Of the five boats competing for the honor of meeting England's challenge, only two seemed worth bidding on at all, and only one bore the look of a real bargain. That one was the Aurora syndicate's American Eagle, a slippery racing boat named for the chunky square-rigger that brought the first immigrant Du Pont to the U.S. from France on New Year's Day of 1800.

This is an article from the July 27, 1964 issue Original Layout

In 12 races during the first two sets of trials, just concluded, Eagle was never headed officially. With onetime Lightning and International Class champion Bill Cox at her helm, she beat the Hovey family's slickly varnished Easterner, the veteran defender Columbia and Ted Hood's reworked Nefertiti with regularity. This was hardly surprising, since Eagle is newer than any of these three and thus presumably a better boat. What was a surprise, and a big one, was Eagle's apparent superiority over the other new boat, Constellation, the latest potential defender to spring from the fertile mind of Olin Stephens, designer of two previous winners.

Once again Stephens has designed what is obviously a very fast boat, and the fact that Eagle beat her in every official meeting could be blamed more on steering than on design. Cox outmaneuvered Constellation's Eric Ridder at every all-important start. And though Constellation's crew handled her sails with machined precision, her course upwind invariably left a wake reminiscent of a snake's progress across a desert. It was significant that in the latest meeting between the two boats Constellation—with relief helmsman Bob Bavier in command—was leading by a wide margin before the race was called because of fog.

This seems to indicate that, with a new skipper at her helm, the Stephens boat could come back into strong contention against American Eagle at the final trials. Until then, however, the battle cry at Newport—as stenciled on the pants of Constellation's crew—will remain "Beat the bird!"

The bird to beat is the sleek brainchild of a quiet, modest naval architect named Bill Luders, behind whose gentle blue eyes lies what may be the greatest store of information about the International Twelve Metre Rule ever assembled in one human brain. If the name Bill Luders, or, more properly, A. E. Luders Jr., is less familiar to laymen in connection with America's Cup racing than names like Hood, Hunt, Stephens, Rhodes and Burgess, it is largely Bill's own fault. Public relations is a large part of yacht design, and Luders is a man seemingly determined to keep out of the limelight. Few knew it at the time but, as Corny Shields said later, "Bill Luders was the unsung hero of Weatherly's successful campaign in 1960." Weatherly was the boat that beat out the Shields family's own Columbia, a proven champion, for the honor of defending a second time. She was a Phil Rhodes-designed boat, but she was built at Luders' yard and Bill knew her well. "You ought to shorten those spreaders and cut down her weight some and she'd move faster," Luders told those who were campaigning Weatherly, in essence if not in those exact words. The result was that they did and she did, but few outside the inner circle knew that Bill Luders was largely responsible.

Although he has never learned to lead the cheers for himself, Bill Luders, now 54, is a born competitor. If he had not grown up in the yachting business (his father owned the shipyard Bill now heads), Luders might easily have made his mark in the world of tennis or on the ski slopes. He is still a rabid skier, and he has enough tennis-won silverware stuffed in a closet in Stamford, Conn. to ballast a good-size racing sloop, but boats were his first and have always been his main sporting interest. At 16 he won a class championship in a six-meter named Hawk, a fact made the more interesting because he was at the time, in Yachting magazine's prim phrase, "the youngest sailor on Long Island Sound racing in a regular class."

Luders, who decided some time after his prep days at The Hill School that further formal education was a waste of time, began his apprenticeship in naval architecture with one of the most complex of all design problems: that of wresting actual speed out of theoretical restriction.

The International Rule which, in various forms, has governed the design of racing sailboats in the 5.5-, six-, eight-, 10-, 12-and 14-meter classes is a complex mathematical balance of such factors as length, girth, sail area and freeboard measurements within which all boats of one class must fall. The rule is to Bill Luders what the chessboard is to Bobby Fischer, a precisely outlined field of competitive challenge. He has designed to the Cruising Club of America Rule as well, and some fine ocean-racing boats have come from the Luders drawing board, but he himself has never raced them offshore, nor is he likely to. Ocean racing is a hit-or-miss proposition where hot bunks and cold food take the place of precision and accuracy. Ocean races are sailed in sudden spurts at the start and the finish. Betweentimes the racers find their fun in hours of idleness and the excitement of sudden storm, in tall sea stories and gusty, lusty laughter. "It's all right for them," says precise Bill Luders with some distaste, "but leave me out of it."

When Bill Luders races a boat he races to win and not for the fun of getting wet and talking about it later. His racing instinct finds its challenge on the drawing board, on the slide rule and on a precisely marked triangle of buoys, where wind and tide are predictable within reasonable probability. Whether his boat is still a blueprint or afloat with him at the helm, no detail that can affect that probability is ever overlooked. Back in the 1940s, when he won the International One-Design championship from such skilled competitors as Bus Mosbacher, Corny Shields and Arthur Knapp, Skipper Luders had a standing order with the crew of his IOD Surf that her bottom must be rubbed smooth as satin with a piece of chamois before every weekend race. Since haul-outs were permitted only three times a season, nobody but fish could know for sure whether the job had been done. But Luders knew. One day before a race in particularly light air, he double-checked with the bottom-scraper of the week. Had the job been done properly? he asked. "Yes," came the prompt reply.

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely, Bill. I hit every square inch of it."

Bill Luders may well be the only racing skipper in existence who never argues and never raises his voice. He did neither at that moment. He drummed his fingers thoughtfully on the deck and gazed up at Surf's masthead, sensing some scabrous imperfection far below as she moved gently in the water. Then, without a word, he reached a hand far over the side, patted the boat's bottom and brought his hand up stained with a speck of green slime. Over the side went the crewman once again, with a new chamois, this time to do the job right.

Bill Luders never looks for trouble. He is too diffident to protest decisions that go against him. As one old friend and crewman, Joe Mayers, says, "He rarely tacks on top of close competition. He'd rather go under or dip astern." And trouble in turn seldom seeks out Bill Luders. He was born with a built-in radar and computer system that warns him of hazards well in advance.

Most helmsmen keep their eyes riveted to the jib for signs of falling off or pinching. Luders can steer a perfect course without, apparently, ever glancing aloft. He has an acute sense of sail trim and will invariably mutter, "Crack the main a hair," or, "Trim the jib," at the precise moment a tiny change is needed to send the boat ahead.

That same sure instinct guides Luders at the drawing board. His eyes get a distant look as ideas click through his head, sorting and resorting themselves like cards in a computer. Head cocked to one side, left-hand fingers drumming, he sketches and erases, quickly, precisely. Few designers have had as much experience with tank testing as he and, though he never graduated from college, he can interpret complicated data better than most Ph.D.s. But Luders' intuition often tells him things that data cannot. Every tank test made at Stevens Institute on the new potential 1964 defenders, for example, proved conclusively that a slightly pointed or V-shaped bottom on the ballast keel would make a 12 go faster than a rounded or U-shaped bottom. Going by the book, Olin Stephens put a V-shape on Constellation, but something inside Luders said no. He put a U-shaped keel on Eagle and, when asked why, could only shrug.

Bill Luders cares little for the punctilio of yacht racing, or of anything else. It is doubtful whether he even owns a necktie. But where it may count in performance Luders is a stickler for form. Since the measurement rules bound the arena in which he must prove himself, he is as fussy about them as about scum on his boat's bottom. His enemies like to call him a rule-beater but, according to Bill Luders, rules should either say what they mean or be taken at face value as meaning what they say.

One of his roughest assaults on a measurement rule was staged in 1959. The Luders yard was at that time building a whole class of 39-foot cruising boats called the L 27s. Bill took one of these, ripped out its insides, rerigged it to follow the letter of the Cruising Club of America rating rule, named it (appropriately) Storm and campaigned it on Long Island Sound to show up the glaring defects in that rule.

The storm raised by Storm blew in and out of committee rooms and club bars from one end of the Sound to the other all summer long, but it served its purpose. The gaps in the rule were closed.

Three years ago Luders sailed Storm on another foray against the rule-writers. It was his opinion then that too many boats were taking advantage of a weakness in phrasing dealing with the measurement of mainsail area. "We wanted to show that if a boat was going to be a boat, it had to have a proper mainsail," he said. To make his point, Bill sailed Storm out of Stamford rigged like a ketch with a mainsail no bigger than a dinghy's. It was ridiculous, but it fitted the rule. Once again the rule was changed.

Of the many other, less contentious, craft that Luders has designed within the limits of one rule or another, the best-known are probably those of the L 16 Class, whose members now number more than 200. Bill also designed the 44-foot Naval Academy yawls, the only one-design boats of their size in the world. He has drawn droves of boats to the 5.5-meter rule, including the class champion Bingo, which last month won the right to represent the U.S. at the Olympics in Tokyo.

Most of Luders' boats are characterized by their fine ends and graceful sheer. Eagle's deck is flat, but she is as free of frills, as clean and graceful as a torpedo. Her form consists basically of a fine entry, a beam carried well aft, fairly hard, flat bilges and a keel quite narrow above the lead. She is designed to move particularly well in heavy winds and big seas but, as Luders himself puts it characteristically, "I think she shows up pretty well all round."

That Eagle means a lot to Bill Luders is apparent to anyone who knows him well, but he himself would never put the feeling in words any stronger than that. If by any remote chance she should fail to do as well as he expects, Bill Luders would in all likelihood not say much about that. Most probably, however, he would return to the home in Stamford he shares with his lovely wife, Peg, and their grown son, Jack, retire to the barn, sit down at his xylophone and play it loud and furiously.

That's what Bill Luders does when he needs to let off steam.

PHOTOLUDERS PERMITS HIMSELF A QUIET SMILE AS "EAGLE" GAINS STILL ANOTHER TRIUMPH