"The roses have wilted, the days of hope and excitement are things of the past," wrote the yachting correspondent of The Times of London in bitter disillusionment last week after one of the worst defeats ever suffered by a British challenger for the America's Cup. "In the hot September sunshine Sovereign has been written off as yet another expensive failure, and one of the world's great spectacles has entered the realm of farce." "The debacle at Newport," wrote Jack Knights in the Daily Express, "is disappointing the victorious Americans even more than it is our routed selves. Those two new $600,000 yachts American Eagle and Constellation were built quite needlessly. Sovereign could have been well taken care of by any existing American yacht sailed by a few close friends of the owner. Sovereign has let down more than her own team. Our standard of yachting is higher than her performance indicates." "The defeat of Sovereign," wrote David Thorpe in the Daily Telegraph, "was staggering and humiliating." In contrast to these journalistic diatribes from overseas was the tone of U.S. yachting writers, who were almost polite as they reported the fiasco that took place off Newport; yet there was scarcely one who did not feel that the whole sport of yacht racing had been in some sense shamed by this one-sided contest. On the next page Carleton Mitchell offers his evaluation of what happened.
HOW A TERRIBLE TRUTH BECAME CLEAR
Before the last spray settled off the Rhode Island coast after the races for the famed America's Cup, a terrible truth had become clear: Sovereign, like 15 predecessors from the British Isles, would not go home bearing the grail of yachting on her shield, but prone upon that shield herself.
The challenger had entered the lists confident and unafraid, crimson roses emblazoned on her bow and stern. Her crew was deployed on deck, their red shirts reminiscent of the red coats of an earlier invasion in this same locality. Her blue flanks lifting to the swells, her aluminum mast glinting in the sunshine, Sovereign looked a champion. True, a few sharp eyes perceived flaws in her armor—a droopy main boom topped by odd-shaped sails, for instance—but she nonetheless appeared fully capable of giving a stalwart account of herself in combat.
September 27, 1964
Circling to meet her came the defender, Constellation, a white charger tended by men in blue. There was something prophetic in the way her sharp bow sliced through the confused sea—a deadly intimation of power. Her sails might have been hammered from a single sheet of white metal, satin-smooth and curved into near-aerodynamic perfection. On her deck were winches of strange design. Above all, there was an impressive efficiency in the way she responded to the man at her helm, Bob Bavier, through tack and jibe as the encounter was joined.
There were no polite preliminaries. Both contestants were eager to have at each other. Closing at the 10-minute signal before the first race, they circled bow to stern as each awaited an opening. They broke apart briefly and closed on approaching the line with less than a minute to go, Constellation on starboard tack. Sovereign's helmsman, Peter Scott, tacked ahead, seeking the lee bow position, where his sails would backwind his opponent, but Bavier foiled the maneuver by swinging sharply up to take the weather berth with clear wind.
A long swell—a memento of the offshore passage of hurricane Dora—set across the course on Tuesday. It was crisscrossed by small whitecaps from the moderate west-southwest wind and the wakes of the spectator fleet. The result was a nasty bobble that seemed to bother Sovereign more than Constellation. As in the final trials, Olin Stephens' latest creation stopped for nothing, while pointing higher than seemed possible. Within eight minutes after the start the American boat had gained enough to blanket Sovereign, forcing Scott to tack. The defender covered and gained on each of several succeeding tacks that were inaugurated by the challenger as the latter struggled to clear her wind. Soon Bavier was so far ahead that he came about at leisure, applying only casual cover against a wind shift.
Still, at this point it could not be said that Sovereign was hopelessly outclassed. The margin of one minute 49 seconds at the first weather mark was no worse than many defeats meted out in the American trials, and Constellation added only one second in time to her windward lead during the two reaches that followed. The second upwind leg, in a breeze that had lightened, could hardly be considered a fair test. Despite a Coast Guard patrol plan for the course that looked like a battle attack chart, the British boat sailed most of the leg in the wash of the spectator fleet. Constellation, in less disturbed water, gained one minute 10 seconds, added another one minute 51 seconds downwind and a modest but decisive 43 seconds on the final beat for a margin of 5 minutes 34 seconds.
It was a bad defeat, and most of the British contingent was stunned. Ever since 1958 the battle cry had been, "There must not be another Sceptre!" Untold effort had gone into producing not one but two British challengers, they had raced down to the wire as had the American candidates for defense, and it seemed impossible that Sovereign could not make a close match of it. Nevertheless there was a ghostly image on the horizon that was not the Flying Dutchman. The specter of Sceptre had risen.
The next day found the fleet back at the buoy waiting for a breeze that never materialized. As a fitting climax to Newport's windless summer, the race committee for the first time in 44 years was forced to call off a race. Overnight a front moved in, and on Thursday a chill south-southwest wind varying between 16 and 20 knots laced the gray sea with whitecaps. With little preliminary sparring, the contestants settled down to business at the starting gun. Both were late, but Sovereign was favored by being almost the entire length of the line to windward. Almost immediately, however, Constellation began her amazing act of squeezing up from leeward. This remarkable boat points so high that she seems in the process of coming about, yet she simply hangs and keeps going, a trick comparable to the bumblebee flying when the scientists' slide rules say that it cannot.
Sighted from astern, the difference in the sailing angles looked to me like the legs of a long, narrow letter X, with Constellation on one leg moving from the lower left to the upper right, Sovereign sagging down to cross on the other. It was a bad moment for Peter Scott. As Olin Stephens commented later in a typical understatement, "The ability of Constellation to point high puts the helmsman of another boat at a terrible psychological disadvantage, because as soon as he tries to point with her he's licked." Peter Scott tried, and died. At the end of 15 minutes, the defender not only had crossed the X but was some 20 lengths in the lead.
Those following closely could see a variety of reasons why Constellation could go ahead. She sliced through the short, steep seas without pause, almost diving into the next trough, making distance with each rise and fall of her bow. Sovereign, in total contrast, lifted her bow to each sea, scooping water which cascaded aft to spill out under the genoa. She seemed to hang frozen in this inclined position until the crest rolled under, only to plunge to a stop in the hollow beyond. Meanwhile Constellation's flat sails never failed to provide drive, while the fuller sails of the challenger fluttered if she attempted to come high; in addition, the head stay of Constellation was perceptibly more rigid, adding to the efficiency of an already better genoa. Capping Constellation's, superiority, each time Sovereign attempted a tacking duel the defender gained through superior crew work and more powerful winches. "My God, a super Sceptre!" groaned a watching Londoner as the challenger trailed at the first weather mark by 3 minutes 55 seconds.
Bloody but unbowed, Sovereign gained a little on the reaching legs, and on the second beat her helmsman, Peter Scott, tried sailing more full, cracking his genoa slightly in a lighter breeze and driving off to nullify the deadly effect of the seas. Although he moved through the water faster than on the first leg, the result was basically the same. Constellation continued to eat out, piling up time and distance, although the margin was still in the category of a defeat and not a rout.
It was on the ensuing downwind run that Sovereign fell into real disgrace. As Constellation rounded the mark she set a small spinnaker that could be kept full in the combination of confused sea and moderate breeze—standard practice on American 12s since 1958. Sovereign broke out a huge red bag that could not be kept from collapsing except by holding very high of the course. It was a costly error—7 minutes 7 seconds worth—and the cost was compounded on the final windward leg. Once a mistake is made in match racing, it is almost axiomatic that it grows in magnitude. Now, as the breeze fell still lighter. Sovereign had a greater distance to cover after the defender had finished. For 20 minutes 24 seconds Constellation and the spectator fleet surrounded the committee boat in embarrassed silence while the challenger made her lonely way from almost out of sight to leeward. It was a defeat worse than Sceptre's two worst defeats added together, the most ghastly rout since Mayflower trounced the Scottish challenger Galatea in 1886.
After asking for a day to lick her wounds, Sovereign again faced the defender on Saturday in an easterly wind that blew a solid 20 knots, although in the early stages the sea was less rough. Peter Scott took the start by a considerable margin, but it did him no good. In characteristic style, Constellation pulled out from leeward, crossed ahead and was gone, to lead at the first mark by the crushing margin of 4 minutes 7 seconds. Thereafter Sovereign did better, relatively, despite an unaccountable failure to set a spinnaker on the first reaching leg when the leader was using one to advantage. She held on well during the final two beats, going down finally by 6 minutes 33 seconds to make the series 3-0. The fourth race was never a contest. After Sovereign crossed the line early and had to go back to restart, Constellation took off alone and steadily widened the gap into a crushing finale of 15 minutes 40 seconds.
So now once again in 1964, as in 1958, yachtsmen and landlubbers alike are asking each other in a slightly dazed fashion how it happens that an English challenger could be so woefully outmatched. This time it is universally agreed that the challenge was carefully planned. That a great deal of organizational effort went into it was proved by the task force representing the Royal Thames Yacht Club that has been operating in U.S. waters for much of the summer. Problems were recognized and solutions sought. There was no lack of confidence. In fact, a visiting flag officer was somewhat solicitous of my feelings at a cocktail gathering before the first encounter, suggesting I fortify myself against the prospect of losing the cup in four straight races.
Inevitably the stigma of Sceptre has attached to the current challenger, but I'm not sure the comparison is valid. To me there does not seem to be any single explanation for Sovereign's failure to provide the expected competition. A successful boat is a combination of many factors, all interrelated: the hull, the rig, the sails, the deck layout, the gear, the crew and the helmsman. Having had the privilege of sailing aboard both boats last week after watching them over the past few months, I have the feeling that in most or all of these items Sovereign fails to come up to the standard of her competitor. Perhaps in some categories she is closer than others, but the sum total can add up large margins over a 24.3-mile course.
Unfortunately, a scapegoat must be provided to explain any disaster, and the choice seems almost equally divided between Helmsman Peter Scott and Designer David Boyd, although there are those who include English sailmakers as a body. It is hard to watch Boyd's Sovereign plunge into head seas without thinking of her predecessor from the same drawing board, just as it is impossible not to criticize the man at her wheel for overhelming when the stern sometimes weaves like a dinghy caught in a squall. Yet the man who should know best does not rate either individual too harshly. "I don't think Peter was steering the boat so badly, any more than I think David has designed such a bad hull," says Olin Stephens. I agree with Olin and, moreover, I don't think the sails made by Bruce Banks are so bad either, except in direct comparison with what they are up against. But when everything is put together and the weakness in each department of Sovereign is contrasted with the strength in her rival, the difference becomes sadly apparent.
Some observers have taken the poor performance of the challenger as a downright affront to the challenged. "I'm damned mad," snorted a former commodore of the New York Yacht Club. "Here we go to all this trouble and expense, and they come over with such a boat." Others are sympathetic, muttering about the disintegration of the Empire, while still others see the spectacle as detrimental to the whole sport of sailing, occurring as it did right out in plain sight of onlookers and TV cameras.
Perhaps the real trouble is that Sovereign is up against too strong a rival. Constellation's designer modestly rejects the theory that she is a superboat, but many feel that this U.S. cup defender comes as close to being a breakthrough as it is possible to conceive under the stringencies of the 12-meter rule. There can be little question that once again the principal architect of an America's Cup victory is the quiet man with the pencil, Olin Stephens. A boy wonder in 1937 when he collaborated on the design of Ranger, he is now a mature genius with an unimpaired freshness of viewpoint. Instead of merely improving on the tested lines of Vim and Columbia, he made a radical leap into the future. Speaking for Walter Gubelmann and the other syndicate members who made Constellation possible, for his brother Rod, Bob Bavier, Eric Ridder and the other men on her deck, Olin summed up the debacle in Newport by saying, "It's too bad for all of us who have put so much into it—we've put in so much that there isn't any contest left."