Like a doughty debutante who knows she will be noticed by sweeping into the ballroom late, Gretel II of Australia came down Narragansett Bay to Newport last week to complete the list for this year's America's Cup cotillion. She berthed opposite another well-bred foreign beauty, named France, who had been making small talk around Newport for quite a while. Not far away were a trio of Americans, Intrepid, Valiant and Heritage, each determined to win, each jealous of her chance to stand for her country. And so at last the August coming-out could begin in that most famous and most exclusive of yacht racing events, the challenge for the America's Cup, a trophy held for 119 years by the U.S.—so long that it has been for decades bolted firmly to an oaken table in the New York Yacht Club.
Intrepid is heavily favored to win the final U.S. trials, which will begin next week. Said trials will end at the pleasure of the gentlemen of the New York Yacht Club. It is all very ritualistic, very proper—cannons at sunset and all that—and before each trial race the white-capped men of the yacht club's race committee announce the boat pairings by showing placards bearing competitors' sail numbers along the side of the committee boat, which is called Incredible. As things now stand, that is the word which will come quickly to the experts' tongues if the winning number ultimately proves not to be 22, Intrepid. Nonetheless this is the first time in cup history that there are two foreign challengers, and no one really has a clue as to whether France or Gretel II is the better boat. They race a best-of-seven series, due to begin next Friday, for the right to meet the American defender in September, and ah, how the town longs for the foreigners to win even one race. Whatever happens, there will be a proper noise that both the uppitiest and the lowliest in that grand and strangely democratic old playground by the sea will feel in the deepest corners of their souls.
It is difficult to conceive of a place better suited than Newport to the pursuit and defense of the nicely gnarled and unmistakably genteel old pitcher that is the America's Cup. Newport is a gem of the ocean, plain and fancy, home port to the horny-handed lobstermen of Aquidneck Island as well as the working one-upsmen of Bailey's Beach; to the Vanderbilts and the Auchinclosses and the Firestones and the Van Alens of U.S. society as well as the Munsons and Langes and Strzymenkis of the U.S.S. Brownson. In the bleak lamplight of barroom pool tables on the waterfront main stem, Thames Street, gobs of the Navy may interrupt discussions of life's fondest subjects—girls, hometowns, departed shipmates—to fall into loud and obscene disagreement over the quality of seamanship aboard the cup boats, though the Thames Street Navy doesn't necessarily know spinnakers from spinach when it comes to sailing. In the gilded baroque ballroom of Marble House on Bellevue Avenue, patrician ladies with blue hair gracefully applaud a chamber music concert of a morning, then fall into well-modulated conversation about the chances of getting Baron Marcel Bich, leader of the French, to come to thé.
Newport is at home with the America's Cup as few other ports in the world might be, for within its quite limited geographical purview it long ago became accustomed to the lofty ways of the mighty as well as rousing exhibitions of barroom navigation, and some of the most beautiful vistas, both God-given and man-made, soothe the eyes of men.
August 16, 1970
Two men who are quite blind to all but the ocean off Newport for the time being—the men on the hottest spots—are Robert W. McCullough, organizer of the Valiant syndicate and helmsman of the boat, and William P. Ficker, the skipper of Intrepid. Each carries on his back his syndicate's hefty investment in his boat—at least $750,000 each (in all, this America's Cup year represents an investment of no less than $6 million). Each skipper will be held solely responsible for anything, however minor, that goes wrong at sea. And at Newport nothing is minor. Starting a race well is desperately important; the nature of match racing is such that a skipper who is badly outfoxed at the start tends never to catch up. And on Newport's six-legged, 24.3-mile course he has an awful long time in which to brood.
Except that it is not permissible to brood. A serene mind is what a skipper needs most. Concentration is so crucial, says Bill Ficker, that when he races he sees "nothing but the water ahead." Ficker, age 42 and hairless as Intrepid's hull, is a wealthy California architect. Outwardly, at least, he is imperturbable. He presides over a crew which has the unusually youthful average age of 23. Except in his single loss to McCullough in the July trials, he has started well and made few tactical errors. As most sailors know by now, his boat was created originally by the master cup designer, Olin Stephens II, for the 1967 defense, and has undergone major surgery below the waterline under the knife of a young pretender, Britton Chance Jr. Stephens, the designer of Valiant, would have to be inhuman if that knife has not pricked his pride.
When Ficker is asked why Intrepid has so consistently drubbed the newer Stephens boat, he fixes his pale blue eyes upon his questioner and quietly says, "I think, we are simply better organized. The boats are not that different." To a man, the Intrepid crewmen play bridge, and though Ficker is known as a disciplinarian ("We insist on absolute silence under way except for commands and essential working conversation"), he does allow his men to crack, a deck of cards belowdecks during deadly hours spent getting to and from practice or while waiting to start a race. Any visitor to the rambling mansion on Price's Neck where Intrepid's crew lives is offered an ornate glass bowl filled with green and white buttons that say FICKER IS QUICKER.
Bob McCullough, 49, the skipper Ficker has been consistently quicker than, is a thoroughly Establishment man—a Connecticut textile millionaire and rear commodore of the New York Yacht Club. His is the most experienced cup crew, averaging a relatively ripe 35 years of age. Any amount of waterfront gossip has taken Valiant's helm out of McCullough's hands and conferred it upon various others. The name of George Hinman, a wise old sea dog of 65 who has been having a grand time as helmsman of Valiant's trial horse, Weatherly, has come up repeatedly. The precedent of 1964, when Constellation was shifted from Eric Ridder to Bob Bavier, woke up and beat American Eagle and then the British, has not been ignored.
McCullough has endured all this with considerable grace. When asked last week if he might conceivably take himself off the boat, he said, "It's too late. There would not be time for another man to get the boat in hand." McCullough said there already had been too little time for the crew members—veterans though they are—to mesh with one another in the most efficient way. "We have had a lot of alterations on the boat," he said, "so many that I don't think, we've had one-tenth of the time for crew training that we did in 1967, when I had Constellation. I think the boat itself is now finally going as fast as possible, and it should not take us long to be in top condition. Now it'll be like the Kansas City Chiefs getting ready for the All-Stars; they knew each other so well they could do it in a matter of days."
As for Charley Morgan, the Florida boatbuilder who has put forth Heritage, he seems to be odd man out before the final trials even get going. The most poignant sight in Newport has been that of Heritage hanging just above the water at dockside as Morgan's men make change upon change.
Just getting a boat to Newport is a pretty fair accomplishment, however—not unlike being invited into the taut and conservative New York Yacht Club, and both France and Australia may compliment themselves on the club's confidence in their capacities for seamanship and yachting decorum. Ted Turner, a hard-driving Atlantan with a fine ocean-racing record in the old American Eagle, has not yet succeeded in making the club's membership roster. He is getting into the sacred waters this week, though, by chartering Eagle to the Aussies as their trial horse.
The NYYC has always been somewhat grudging about broadening its base of membership. The most famous postwar cup skipper, Emil (Bus) Mosbacher, now the nation's Chief of Protocol, is one of the very few men of Jewish descent on the rolls. Over the years the club has agreed to accommodate the most pressing requests of the foreign challengers—they have not had to sail the seas to Newport for 33 years—but still feels a heavy responsibility for keeping its own bolt tightly knurled to the bottom of the cup in its sedate rooms on Manhattan's 44th Street. A few years ago, when Baron Bich first advanced the idea of having trials to select a foreign challenger from more than one country, a yacht club officer coldly responded, "This is not the Davis Cup." Ah, but a less brassbound spirit ultimately prevailed.
The Australian crew, an uncommonly robust and jovial band of veterans, stayed behind in Sydney Harbor racing the first Gretel against Stephens' oldie but goodie, Vim, while a freighter gave Gretel II her leisurely 14,000-mile ride to Newport. "It makes you a bit uneasy, mate, to think that you might be putting up a new spinnaker for the first time at the first mark in the first race, doesn't it now?" said Skipper Jim Hardy. Indeed, though Hardy, 37, a good-humored Sydney winegrower, seems cool enough.
Among early items of news that may or may not be relevant now was word from Down Under that Sir Frank Packer's Gretel II had been singularly unimpressive in first trials. She had a bendy mast and turned with all the finesse of a beer truck, it was said. Thus, though the loyalists at home were wearing hopeful pro-Aussie sweatshirts, Newport felt the magnificent young men of Gretel II to be underequipped—like commandos going to war with wooden swords, as one observer put it.
Newport loved the Aussies nonetheless. On Bellevue Avenue servant girls (nearly all college girls on summer vacation these years) were atwitter over Hardy's brawny buckos. Merchants of wine, spirits and other drinks of the night were also pleased. One of Newport's favorite stories is that in 1967 an enterprising barkeep imported a few hundred gallons of Australian beer and rang up a $50,000 profit during America's Cup weeks.
The forces of Baron Bich, meanwhile, had arrived late in June. It was a bit more than a force de frappe the baron brought along. No fewer than 70 people were in his party, including all of his own nine children (aged 3 to 31) and three chefs. They occupied a Newport monument, Miramar, built by George Widener (who went down with the Titanic), now a girls' school. Though luxurious inside, the grounds have become somewhat dowdy, so the French hired their own men to pluck crabgrass from cracks in the patio and dig dandelions from the garden urns.
But the French have problems more serious than Newport's perennial shortage of gardeners. Two potential skippers have stalked out; there have been morale problems among the hard-worked crewmen. "A Frenchman is nothing if not an individualist," said Bruno Bich, the baron's second son and spokesman. "Of course, I admit we have tried something new by not yet naming a permanent crew or a permanent helmsman, but we feel that if a man is part of a team effort, it should not matter to him if he races or not. Perhaps we are wrong, but we think if a man has a big FRANCE on his shirt, that is really the point, because he is part of the effort."
Bruno Bich added: "If we could beat the Australians and then finish, perhaps, three to five minutes behind the American boat, we would feel we have accomplished a great deal."
If spending will make it so, the French will accomplish; they are into the game for approximately $2 million at present. Marcel Bich has indicated he will spend whatever is necessary eventually to win the cup.
But like Henry James, a sometime Newport visitor, Bich is not amused by profligate spending. He is more concerned with the glory of France, and is not of the company James decried one Newport summer in its gilded age as worshippers of the "great, black ebony god of business," and whose mansions, in James' view, should "stand there always, vast and blank, for reminder to those concerned of the prohibited degrees of witlessness, and of the peculiarly awkward vengeances of affronted proportion and discretion."
Still, James probably would not cotton to the cup contenders of 1970, for they are businessmen, and all-business about the brutal requirements of winning. Though one may wish them to speak of the romance of the sea and the poetry of the wind, sailing for the America's Cup does not lend itself to skippers of sentimental bent. This is a sport geared to men who can fix their gaze on a hard goal—forming a conglomerate, say, or putting in a tough bid for a Defense Department contract.
Bill Ficker and Bob McCullough and Charley Morgan and Jim Hardy—they are all tanned, fit, lithe, graceful men. They have quick reflexes, steady hands and strong arms at the wheel, but they are perhaps as much at home in banks and boardrooms as in the cockpit of a 12-meter yacht. Bill Ficker said, "In a sense it's more important to have knowledge of how to form a good corporation than to be able to sail a boat fast in this competition. When I became skipper, it was as if I took over all the responsibilities of a corporation, including cost accounting, personnel, administration—and turning a profit. That's the kind of responsibility a skipper in an America's Cup yacht must carry. That, and a realization that it's the opportunity of a lifetime to be competing for the greatest trophy there is in sailing."