It is not often we get involved in international intrigue, but the more we tried to find out what France was up to in its efforts to win the America's Cup next summer, the more intrigued we became. The result is the story on page 28, the first—and probably, for a while, the last—extensive report on a French sporting effort that is going to add immeasurably to the sometimes not-so-stimulating drama of the cup challenge.
The article and its illustration are the work of two resourceful men, Boating Contributor Carleton Mitchell and Photographer Jerry Cooke. Each coped, in his fashion, with the understandable desire of the French to keep their business to themselves, an attitude exemplified by Baron Marcel Bich, a ball-point pen tycoon who leads the French sortie, refuses to discuss any aspect of the challenge with foreign writers and has an intense reluctance to be photographed.
Mitchell, who is probably the only man to sail aboard every postwar cup challenger and defender up to Australia's Dame Pattie in 1967, began hearing rumors floating around the Mediterranean three years ago of a shadowy French millionaire who bought 12-meter yachts like dinghies. "Later scuttlebutt," Mitchell says, "brought news of a training program rigorous even by American standards. I began to wonder what the French were up to."
Thus started a quest in the best deerstalker-cap tradition. In Switzerland Mitchell interviewed Louis Noverraz, a member of Bich's brain trust. In Paris he talked with French yachting friends and had clandestine meetings with a journalist—unfortunately, not in a candlelit Montmartre bar as the script would seem to require, but in the lobby of a dingy hotel off the Rond-Point. The search continued through the sacred portals of the New York Yacht Club, and finally to Bruno Bich who, acting as a spokesman for his father, agreed to give Mitchell some substantial details.
November 24, 1969
"From it all I got the impression of a formidable effort guided by a forceful individual and rugged individualist," says Mitchell. "In a way, I ended up admiring Bich's reticence. As one Parisian said, 'I don't know what he's after, but it sure isn't publicity.' "
Cooke began his part of the job by photographing Bich's boats at Trinité-sur-Mer, and then began to pursue Bich himself in Paris, where three different secretaries assured him the baron never posed for pictures. At one point Cooke sought help from American thoroughbred trainer Barry Ryan through—watch this carefully now—Ryan's wife's sister's father-in-law, who is an influential French yachtsman. But Ryan's influence did not reach all the way to Bich. Finally Cooke returned to Trinité and tried the only tack left. Nikon in hand, he confronted Bich on the dock. "Surprisingly," says Cooke, "he agreed to pose if I would give him time to change into what he called his 'nautical wardrobe.' " Cooke waited, Bich changed, Cooke shot, Mitchell wrote. End of detective story.