Eight champion skippers from eight separate sections of the North American continent were in Riverside, Conn. last week to contest the biggest championship of all: the Mallory Cup. But from the beginning it was obvious to almost everyone present that the eight-boat, eight-race series for the North American championship was in reality a duel between two famed East Coast match racers, William S. (Bill) Cox of Connecticut's Noroton Yacht Club, former skipper of the America's Cup contender American Eagle, and John J. (Don) McNamara of the Boston Yacht Club, onetime enfant terrible of East Coast yachting and a former commander of that perennial bridesmaid of America's Cup racing, Nefertiti.
The trials to pick a cup defender presumably had left some scars on the psyches of both these sailors. Bill Cox's may have been the deeper, since he had seen the neatly lettered transom of Skipper Bob Bavier's Constellation sail away from him after a start in which his American Eagle had seemed almost certain to become the defender. But Don McNamara also had some unhealed contusions, one of them suffered in Japan's Sagami Bay when he failed to take the Olympic gold medal in the 5.5-meter class.
In any case, both skippers went to Riverside determined to make up for the recent past in a big way. Being of like temperament, they seemed about as willing to give an inch to each other as they would an arm.
Neither could claim an advantage in variety of experience. McNamara campaigns his own ocean racer, Tara, and was one of the first skippers in the U.S. to sail the 5.5s, the temperamental Thoroughbreds of sailboat racing. In last year's Mallory Cup he was runner-up to Winner Cornelius Shields Jr. Cox, who won the Sears Cup as North America's best junior sailor in 1930, made his first bid for the Mallory in 1952 and was eliminated in a trial round by Cornelius Shields Sr. Since then he has won the right to represent his area in the Mallory series five times in five different classes of boats and has failed to win in four. The law of averages, if nothing else, seemed to be with him.
This year Cox and the other skippers raced for the cup in 30-foot fiber-glass Shields-class sloops. In theory, the boats are all identical, but to insure absolute parity, each skipper and two-man crew changed boats after every race until every crew had sailed in every boat. Cox may have enjoyed a slight advantage from the fact that he had won the eliminations in the same class boat, but his real boost came from the smooth teamwork aboard. Tom Hume, who owns a Shields sloop, and Bob Barton, who sailed on American Eagle, have raced with Cox over thousands of miles. In the end it was this absolutely frictionless teamwork in Cox's boat that proved too much for the often brilliant but sometimes erratic skippering of McNamara.
With the six skippers from the North, South and West seemingly forgotten, the two eastern sailors circled each other at the start of each race like a pair of hostile dogs. Occasionally McNamara would win these starting duels, but more often Cox would hang on just long enough to cross the line first.
By the end of the fifth race—won by McNamara—Cox's record stood at one first place, three seconds and one third. McNamara, with three wins, a second and a third, was leading the series by two and a half points, but he had to win not only a race but an argument with the protest committee to hold it. The protest was entered by Cox. "Yeah, it was disallowed," was all the disgruntled McNamara would say, in a voice taut as a drumhead, after the committee had decided in his favor.
On the morning before the sixth and seventh races both skippers were tense with nervousness and determination. But, bitter as the rivalry had become, it had not lost all connection with good humor. As they sailed out to the starting line for the first race of the day, the former skipper of American Eagle found his eyes facing a new—and quite spurious—nameplate dangling on the transom of his archenemy's boat. It read "Constellation."
Skipper Cox did not elaborate on the effect this ploy had on him. But he did say, "I took the start." Unfortunately, he wound up in sixth place at the finish. But McNamara was in seventh.
It was in the next race that, according to Cox, "the series broke wide open." Beating McNamara at the start, Cox kept him in his backwind all the way up the first leg. Both boats rounded the mark and set spinnakers, but while Cox went one way McNamara struck out on a tangent. When the boats converged, Cox discovered that McNamara was well in front. Cox had to do something, and quickly, to counter this advantage. He did—in one of those maneuvers that delight the knowing and make landlubbers think that racing is about as scientific as phrenology. Cox jibed his boat and moved her to a point directly behind McNamara, where he could steal most of the Bostonian's wind. McNamara covered this sally with a jibe of his own, thus keeping a clear wind. But Cox luffed up just enough to ride down on his rival, then at the last moment bore off across McNamara's stern and coasted ahead to establish an overlap, his boom thrusting out to windward in the risky position known as "sailing by the lee."
For once choosing the conservative tactic, McNamara held his safer, higher course, and in so doing he let Cox squeak through to put himself next to the mark and reverse their positions. Cox finished the race in second place, putting two boats between himself and McNamara, who was now one and a half points behind in the series.
McNamara might well have made this up in the last race if Cox had not prepared another surprise for him. It was simple enough. Rounding the first mark well behind McNamara, Cox decided to hold on past the mark with his jib set while the other boats were hoisting their spinnakers. Unaffected by the temporary slowing down that is always a part of getting a spinnaker up, Cox maintained speed just long enough to sail clean past McNamara and the boats ahead of him. Only then did he get around to setting his spinnaker.
With the lead his, Cox never relinquished it and the series was won. "That delay gave us the whole ball game. Right, Libby?" said the proud skipper afterwards to his wife. And Libby Cox, being a dutiful wife, dutifully nodded.