TENSE SAILOR FOR A TAUT SHIP

Skipper Bill Cox of the would-be cup defender 'American Eagle' is strung as tight as the standing rigging on his boat and, like its spars and stays, defies the wind with unobtrusive force
August 30, 1964

It was one of those Newport parties where everyone shows up in a dark-blue blazer. The governor was there, and the mayor, and someone else who was running for governor. Practically everyone on the terrace at old Marble House mansion had the calico look of late sailing summer—faces deeply burned, salt-sprayed and chapped. A three-piece band played, hot Rhode Island johnny-cakes were served at tables on the lawn and about the time the whole thing was over the key man arrived. He had missed the governor's reception line and he moved like a wraith in crepe-soled deck shoes, his face set firm. People pointed him out. "That's Cox," they said, "of the American Eagle."

In Newport this is like saying, "That's Queeg of the Caine" or "Jones of the Bonhomme Richard." Skipper Cox of the 12-meter yacht American Eagle is a hero or a villain—depending upon which 12-meter crew you talk to—and he is likely to remain so even after the America's Cup races are done. At the Newport party he dodged the receiving line because he did not have anything to say to the mayor or the governor. He didn't mean to be rude. He really doesn't have anything to say these days to anyone not directly connected with racing.

Bill Cox's whole being is tied so tightly to the business at hand that if someone slapped him on the back—which is unthinkable—he would ring like a tuning fork. He has been building himself up to this condition since he quit his publishing job in New York City last January 3 and started thinking about racing for the cup. Nowadays in cup-conscious Newport crowds are always standing thickly along the piers where the 12-meters come in, but they part like the sea and fall silent when Cox walks by. Two weeks ago, when he headed out along the worn planks toward the Eagle, head thrust forward and walking with tense, whip-like strides, a reporter called out cheerily, "Good luck, Bill." Cox jumped visibly. "No, no," he barked. "Don't talk to me now. Not now."

Skipper Cox is unrelaxed for two reasons: 1) it is his nature, and 2) the hopes and dollars of a lot of people are resting on his deceptively frail-looking shoulders. It takes roughly $1 million to put a boat like Eagle into a cup campaign, and that estimate is so rough that around Newport the oldtimers say it could be low by a quarter of a million. Eagle's million is split among 41 members of a well-heeled organization that calls itself the Aurora Syndicate. Some of the 41 shares are even divided into anonymous subshares. Eagle was designed and built by Bill Luders (SI, July 27), whose name is a household word among sailing men, and many of them say she is the best thing ever to come out of his shipyard. Even when tied up at a dock, Eagle looks as if she is going about 30 knots, and in race after race with her archrival, Constellation, she showed that her look of speed was not illusory. As Eagle's reputation grew, Cox drove his crew through racing drills from early morning until night—packing enough food aboard in hampers to keep their energies fed: 36 half-pints of milk, two gallons of lemonade, a case of soft drinks and sandwiches, all of which are prepared at the Eagle's Nest (an impressive old Newport mansion that serves as their HQ) lest some flu germ from some alien kitchen get to them.

Out on the rolling swells off Newport—a capricious area with wind that shifts and clouds that turn the sun on and off—Skipper Cox communicates with his men in terse hand signals. Sometimes when Assistant Helmsman Eugene Stetson relays some vital information, such as how much water is under the keel, Cox will give no sign of acknowledgment whatever. "Am I talking loud enough?" Stetson will say worriedly, and Cox will answer, not looking aside for a moment, "I hear you." They sail on in silence, eyes on the sails and trim.

It is to Cox's credit that he did not break his silence when John B. Nichols, a keen and thoroughly liked sailor who had been in charge of Eagle's deck gang, dropped out of the crew at the end of the preliminary trials. Newport insiders were badly jolted by the change; yachting reporters called for explanations and, when none were forthcoming, went off speculating on their own in a manner not flattering to Cox. On the rival Constellation, Foredeck Chief Buddy Bombard voiced the general feeling: "I'm glad I am not on Eagle. I've sailed with Cox before." But Bill Cox only said, "These things happen in racing, and we don't like it any better than anyone else."

"Cox is no hair-puller," growled portly, rumpled Clayton Ewing, one of Aurora's members. "He knows that shouting doesn't get anything in this thing. Some people think we made a daring move in signing Cox as the skipper of Eagle," Ewing went on. "Up to that time his experience had been largely in small boats, and this was an awfully big step up." Nevertheless, the syndicate, forming last October, gambled—and won—on Cox's status as a two-time international Lightning class champion. "The result," said Ewing, "is that Cox steers this big 12 like it is a Lightning. The fact that it is so much bigger does not scare him, and it shows in the results."

Sailing has been Bill Cox's life since he was a boy, according to his pretty wife Libby. He has raced boats from the time he went to prep school in Avon, Conn., through a year at Exeter and even while he was a psychology major at Princeton University in the class of 1935.

"Bill was very serious, even as a schoolboy," says Libby Cox. "But one night at Princeton—I'll never know how they managed to do it—some of his classmates taught him to shoot craps, and I guess he showed a flair for it. In any case, he played all night and was winning heavily. The game lasted until about noon the next day, and Bill got out of it with about $400 in cash, enough to take a vacation in Bermuda. That was in 1934, and he met me there and we fell very quickly in love. Ever since that time he has said that he really won me in a crap game."

The Coxes were wed in August 1935, and Bill, who was then a $15-a-week ad salesman for The Bride's Magazine, got a $10 raise. His earnest, steady, firm, blue-eyed approach sold more ad space than anyone before or since at Bride's, and before long he became assistant to the president. After Bride's was swallowed up by Condé Nast Publications, Cox became business manager for the latter.

The Coxes now live in an 11-room house on two and a quarter acres in Darien, Conn. Their house is a low, white, rambling affair with a sweeping yard and a pond. "Bill does not do any yard work," says Libby Cox. "Absolutely not. He wouldn't pick up a stick in the yard." Leaving others to pick up the sticks, Cox usually headed out for weekend racing at one of the yacht clubs that ring Long Island Sound. Such was the relatively unruffled course of his life until one afternoon late last fall when he got a phone call from Bill Luders.

"He told me he was thinking of putting together a syndicate for a new 12-meter," said Cox. "He did not know if it would work or not. Perhaps not, but if it did, would I be interested in being the skipper of the new boat?" Recalling the conversation at Newport, Cox, in the deep-blue, heavy-knit sweater and red polished-cotton pants that make up the official American Eagle uniform, permitted himself a brief smile. "I told Luders that I would think about it. I told him that I would have to talk to Libby first and see what she thought about the idea. Actually, however, I changed the order. I resigned my job, accepted the role as skipper—and then I went home and told Libby what I had done."

What he had done was more than just consent to be skipper of a potential cup defender. He had bought a piece of the action and become one of the managers of the syndicate with Luders and Pierre S. du Pont. Eagle was started in Luders' loft on Nov. 11, 1963, and Bill Cox followed the construction period every day through the yard.

"Cox had about as many sleepless nights as Luders, I guess," says Construction Boss John Flynn. "He gives more of himself than anybody I have ever seen. He never gives up trying to improve Eagle, and you can't refuse him anything he asks. What is that old soap slogan—99[44/100]% pure? It's not pure enough for Bill Cox."

"Some people," mused Cox, "say that we get so wrapped up in 12-meter racing that we don't ever just sail for fun anymore. Well, I still like to sail for fun, but you do get wrapped up in a project like this. I like the 12-meters," he went on, in a calm understatement that would cause anyone in Newport to choke on his gin and tonic. "I like their style. I like sailing around the buoys all in one afternoon and then ending it. We are what you would call matinee racers in this division."

If Bill Cox's sailing is all fun, he ought to tell his wife about it. "I don't know," says Libby Cox. "I have tried to get him to take some time off, some time away from this terrible tension that keeps building up. But he won't do it. He is on the phone all day talking to people—the syndicate's phone bill must be absolutely staggering—and he spends every moment thinking about it.

"We haven't even seen Newport, only the road between this house and the shipyard. We joined the beach club; it is a very nice place, and Bill went there once but he didn't swim. Sometimes I wonder if he will ever relax. He can't just go for a sail aboard someone's big cruiser, for example. We get a great many invitations, and I would love to go. But it wouldn't feel right to Bill. He'd just pace."

"My tendency to be thorough," said Cox himself, in some surprise, "seems to exasperate some people. The New York Times here"—he held up the clipping—"did a sketch on me. They called me a lint-picker. Well, perhaps I am, but they should have chosen a kinder phrase." He took a pencil and carefully crossed out the words.

The Aurora Syndicate's faith and that of Bill Luders in Cox began to pay off from the moment Eagle was launched and started showing her stern to the other would-be defenders in Long Island Sound (SI, June 22). The press instantly stamped Eagle the boat to beat, and reporters began moving in on Cox. He made a first—and last—public statement: "The difference between the boats has been a small difference," he said. "We have got to win by more and we must be careful we do not get overconfident."

And the saga of American Eagle went on: by the time she arrived in Newport to start the observation series the score was Eagle 6-0 against all comers, Constellation 2-4, Columbia 2-4 and Nefertiti 2-4.

Commented Cox: "We do not win these races; the other fellows lose them." And at the Eagle's Nest on Beacon Hill Road the fledgling sailors were constantly reminded that the important races still lay ahead. At long last, on July 26, during the New York Yacht Club cruise, Constellation managed a smooth victory over Eagle, to hand the latter her first loss in 16 starts.

Said Cox: "We greeted that first defeat almost with a sigh of relief. We knew that sooner or later it had to come. I told the crew, 'Now, let's see if we can put another string together.' " They could not. Eagle lost to Constellation again four days later in air so light the race deteriorated into a drifting match, and again the next day. "All right," said Cox, at the end of the cruise, his taut nerves and those of his crew twanging nicely again, "now we're losing too many." So he made a list of suggested hull changes for Luders, marked them A, B and C in order of importance and sent Eagle back to the boatyard. "There was no loss of morale," he explained. "We had known all along, for example, that Eagle was less superior in light air. Now we're fixing that."

Eagle came out of the shed with some of the lead scraped off her keel and her rudder made smaller, in something of the pattern of Constellation's. Cox accepted the obvious improvement in her light-air performance as no more than what he expected, and as the final trials began he went on to other improvements. When a race is to be won, Cox is less interested in what's right than in what's wrong. But for one moment at the Eagle's Nest last week he did pause just long enough to consider a kind of perfection. "There is a moment in sailing," he said, "under the right wind, with the sun shining on the water and the boat set just right, when life is almost perfect. Sailing in a race adds an element of extra excitement."

"If Bill did get a chance to race for the America's Cup," said Libby Cox, looking fondly at her husband, "and lost, I think he would accept the loss with his usual great reserve. Any pain he felt would not show."

Cox picked up a cooky from the coffee table and munched it with short, nervous bites. "And if I were to win," he said, with the ghost of a smile again, "I think I would feel happy inside."

PHOTOIF DOUR SKIPPER COX SMILES, IT IS PROBABLY BECAUSE HE HAS JUST WON A RACE
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)