Of all the diseases now afflicting sailors the world around, the quest for the America's Cup is the oddest by far—a perverse contagion that addles the mind, drains the wallet and warps the sporting soul. When the America's Cup distemper is raging unreasonably in them, men of vision often lose their bearings and wander off the mark. In the words of the original Deed of Gift set down 117 years ago, the America's Cup is "perpetually a Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries." In the years since, the original aim has often been slighted, the competition frequently more rancorous than friendly. Possibly the most gracious thing that could be done today with the cup would be to melt it down for Amazon tribesmen to use as spearpoints.
The fever for the cup almost died 10 years ago when the luckless English came challenging for the last time aboard Sovereign, an embarrassing hull that never had a chance. America's Cup challenges are often dull affairs—the striving among potential defenders is typically where the fiercest action is—and the Sovereign series was the drabbest of the lot. In four races poor Sovereign, a plodder with a bulbous bow ill-suited for the slop-chop off Brenton Reef, never led at any mark. When she slogged to the finish of the final race 15 minutes, 40 seconds behind the defender Constellation, cup fever was at a low. The contagion might have ended there, conceivably for the good of all, if Australians half a world away had not already contracted the disease.
One does not need to resurrect the feisty old Earl of Dunraven or rekindle any fires of the long past to appreciate the droll effect the America's Cup has on men presumably endowed with restraint. In recent challenges there is evidence enough. In 1962 Gretel, the first 12-meter hull designed, built and sailed by Australians, took one race from the U.S. defender Weatherly—a triumph of sorts considering that only seven of 72 races have been won by challengers in 104 years. Following the Gretel challenge, as if fearful that the prize was slipping away, the New York Yacht Club, trustees of the cup, tightened the rules: whereas Gretel had been allowed to use sails made in the U.S. by Ted Hood, future challengers could not even use American fabrics. This decree prompted the late Sir Frank Packer, prime backer of Gretel, to observe that if Australia ever won the cup, the Deed of Gift would be altered to limit competition to boats lined with kangaroo hide.
In 1967 the next Australian challenger, Dame Pattie, lost four straight races, in part because its sails of Australian Kadron were no match for those of the defender Intrepid. When they suspect a stacked deck, gamblers get out of the game, but not Australians. They are irrepressible plungers, tantalized by long odds. Despite the fact that the judges and jurymen, as well as the lawmakers of the competition were all Yanks, the Australians came back in 1970 for a third try aboard Gretel II, a splendid hull that was about as easy to steer as a teak raft but proved able on all points of sailing and remarkably quick in tacking duels.
June 9, 1974
As anyone who dotes on overblown controversies may recall, Gretel II beat Intrepid to the finish in two of five races, but was disqualified in one for colliding while sailing above close-hauled after the starting gun. When a counterclaim of barging by the American boat was disallowed by the all-American jury, Sir Frank, who also financed Gretel II, opined, "It was like complaining about your wife to your mother-in-law."
All manner of people of slight yachting knowledge made the Gretel II controversy their business. The disqualification was raised in both houses of the Australian Parliament, one Labor senator suggesting that because of the unfavorable decision his government should withdraw from Vietnam. Australian Prime Minister John Gorton maintained the collision had actually given the U.S. boat an edge at the start. Walter Rice, U.S. ambassador to Australia, was so "shocked and disappointed" that he started rooting for Gretel II. Fifty-one U.S. college athletic directors—among them the salty old Coast Guardsman Otto Graham—declared that the disqualification race should be resailed. The U.S. National Observer editorialized: "The rules of the America's Cup races are designed to make it just about impossible for any sailboat in the natural world to beat the entry of the New York Yacht Club. And that is why we are up to our scuppers [sic] with the attempts of American millionaires to make the welkin ring over their little game of boatsy-poo. America's Cup? Ha! The Humbug Cup, more likely."
Most Australian skippers who have seen film of the 1970 incident consider the verdict of the stacked jury just. Despite this and despite the fact that the New York Yacht Club, after a century of lopsided involvement, has given over the role of judge and jury to impartial members of the International Yacht Racing Union, the 1970 controversy lingers. This past February, 3½ years after the fact, the losing skipper, Jim Hardy, told a lunch group in Perth that in the next campaign Australia should take along a video recorder and a lawyer. Just how Hardy expected to persuade a U.S. court that a sailing spat was a proper cause for the docket is not clear.
Whereas it took the gambling Australians three hard challenges to reach their present state of irrationality, sailors of France have come about as far after one disastrous campaign. For the right to challenge for the cup in 1970, Australia's Gretel II first had to meet a French hull, grandly called France, in an elimination series. Marcel Bich, the ball-point baron who financed the French boat, is not known for his winning ways socially or nautically. By switching skippers and shuffling crewmen like marionettes, Baron Bich succeeded in dropping the first three races convincingly, despite the fact that his Australian rivals lost a man overboard in one race and finished it with a runaway genoa. For the final race, as if determined to do no better, the Baron himself took the helm of France, got lost in a fog and never found the finish line.
Having done about as badly as a man can on a 24.3-mile closed course, Bich behaved worse ashore, lighting into the international committee in tricolored style because they had dishonored him, his boat and his country by continuing the race in fog. Speaking for the committee, Commodore Frederik Horn of Norway replied, "I believe that Bich has some things to learn: the rules of racing, how to sail as well as navigate, how to handle his crews and how to behave like a gentleman instead of a spoiled child...it may be a credit to the sport of sailing if Baron Marcel Bich does not return." Baron Bich, in his final huff, told the press that he would never try for the cup again.
So here we are once more in early June, in the last bright days of spring when the high sun starts softening the sharp edge of the Atlantic wind off Brenton Reef. And, dear God, here they come again after the America's Cup. Here come the Australians, back for the fourth try, fevered as ever, ready to battle at the gun and already threatening to go to court on any minor count. Here come the French on their second quest sans peur, sans reproche and sans a new boat, but not sans Baron Bich. After hotly promising three years ago to quit forever, why is Baron Bich back? The French have a saying, "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne commit points For Frenchmen of passion this is perhaps reason enough, but why do the Australians persist? Because. Because why? Because.
Among Australians who have had a taste of it, the America's Cup is a compulsion without reason. When asked what had prompted him to try in 1962, Sir Frank Packer, who often drowned his rancor in humor, replied, "Alcohol and delusions of grandeur." When asked why he first got involved in 1962, Alan Payne, designer of Gretel and Gretel II, said, "Because I was perfect for the job. In Australia there was no one who knew how to sail a 12-meter. There was no one who knew how to build a 12-meter. Since I had no experience designing a 12-meter, I fitted perfectly into the whole crazy affair." In 1967, when a writer asked him to describe himself, Warwick Hood, designer of Dame Pattie, replied, "I am 34 years old and crazy. I am a naval architect trying to win the America's Cup."
In the convulsions of a hard campaign even some Australians forget how to laugh. Summing up the past two years of preparation for the coming challenge, Brian Leary, the able engineer and blue-water sailor who manages the Australian team, observes, "Anyone who thinks the America's Cup is fun and sport should have his head read." Bob Miller, the 38-year-old homemade genius who designed this year's Aussie challenger, Southern Cross, concurs. After each unsuccessful campaign, the rats of hindsight inevitably come to gnaw on the carcass of the losing designer, but despite this and the tension already building around him, Designer Miller manages to stay loose. He has little reason to sweat. Winning the cup would be sweet indeed, but not even four straight losses could affect Miller much. His reputation is too solid, his fast-reaching blue-water hulls such as Apollo, Ginkgo, Apollo II and del III are admired worldwide. He has back orders that will keep the cash register ringing for a while. Amid all the foofaraw of the America's Cup, he stands out, clearly a fair-dinkum man ready with truth at the drop of a jib hank.
Perhaps to boost interest at home and abroad, this past winter the Perth public relations agency handling the Australian campaign released a magazine piece declaring that a cup challenge was "one of the most exciting events on the worldwide sporting scene" and the trophy itself "the epitome of yacht racing supremacy." These overblown claims, worth a laugh almost anywhere, provoked a snort from Miller, who sees a cup quest for what it is: a match race between untried hulls—testing, but proving little compared to, say, the Admiral's Cup or an Olympic tiff involving a dozen or more able crews from five continents. Casting about for something distinctive to say about the America's Cup, Miller observes, "It is the only sailing competition where an 11-man crew sometimes ends up not speaking to each other."
Writers inflamed with cup fever have described 12-meter boats as "thoroughbreds of the sea" and "test-beds for yachting breakthroughs," and so on into fantasyland. Here is the heretical truth as expressed by Miller: "In a 12-meter you cannot learn anything that is really applicable, and you have to watch that it does not mess up your design of other boats. A 12-meter is a great big, heavy tub of bloody lead. They're awful boats to sail. It's like steering a big tug. There is almost no feel; you have to steer by observation, while with hulls like Ginkgo and Apollo you can feel the wind in them. Pinch a 12-meter for 10 minutes and it doesn't slow down, then all of a sudden it really slows down. Then you pull it away, and about an hour later it builds speed again."
Hard reality has always been Miller's touchstone, and the keystone of his success. He was born in the middle of the Depression in Boggabri, a parched little outback town that will never amount to anything. He grew up on the New South Wales coast, in Newcastle, an industrial port with a social and yachting flavor approximating that of Bayonne, N.J. He attended the toughest schools in town. As he recalls, "There were 700 boys in junior high, but I wouldn't call them students. They were inmates. After morning tea break, out of 700 there would be 500 lined up to go back to class. After lunch there would be 400."
Regimentation rankles Miller. At the 1972 Olympics he kicked up a fuss because as a competitor in the Soling class he was expected to march in the opening-day yachting ceremony. During Miller's Newcastle boyhood, when the principal of the rowdy junior high school died from drinking wood alcohol, his successor insisted the pupils wear uniforms, as in many Aussie schools. A uniform was more than Miller would take or could afford, so he quit after ninth grade.
Moved by an innate love of boats and boyhood success as a model-builder, he tried to get a job in the dockyards of Newcastle, and ended up apprenticing at the state locomotive works. Because of his scant public schooling, published accounts suggest that Miller today is some sort of backwoods Cellini who dashes off a rough sketch of a beautiful $200,000 hull and leaves the precision of the lines plan to assistants. In fact, his railroad apprenticeship consisted of both grimy labor and classwork comparable to a technical junior college.
Before he was done with his five-year apprenticeship Miller was involved in all the important facets of yachting: racing, building, designing and sailmaking. In the late '50s he got good sailmaking lessons working for the now-famous Peter Cole, who back then was doing a hand-to-mouth business cutting sails in a church hall in Balmain, a wharfy Sydney district comparable to Red Hook in Brooklyn. As might be expected of an unregimented man, Miller became intrigued with the Australian 18-footer, a lowbrow, cantankerous breed of over-canvased boat that keeps trying to fly while its four-man crew struggles to keep it from sinking. In its first year his first 18-footer, Typan, won the Queensland title and was second in the Australian championships. Subsequently, under the handling of Lennie Heffernan, a skipper and social rebel with few peers, it won the national title. In his 18-footers Miller incorporated rule-beating innovations—quite an accomplishment, since in this wild class there are not a great many rules to beat.
In 1967, when Australians traveled half around the world on their second Admiral's Cup quest and won by the widest margin ever, a 40-footer called Mercedes III, co-designed by unknown Bob Miller, was high scorer of all 26 entries, beating out such established beauties as Pen Duick III of France, Figaro IV of the U.S. and Noryema V of the U.K. Miller's second ocean racer, Volante, was a queer one, a "rule-ignorer" created for a New Zealander who had a yen for a 50-footer that would compete for line honors with 70-footers. To oblige, Miller produced a sparse, lightly ballasted "50-foot" hull that, by fudging on the sections, he actually made 54 feet, unbeknownst to the owner. Volante scorched along on and off the wind, but could not have won on its rating if given a 200-foot head start on a straight downhill run over Niagara Falls. "Volante was a space-age creature that writhed like an old Viking ship," Miller recounts with mild disdain.
Volante's performance came to the attention of Alan Bond, a multimillionaire and onetime stinkpotter who lived in Perth, 4,000 miles away. Bond had a strange request. He wanted a cheap 57-footer built exclusively for daytime racing on the Swan River in Western Australia—a queer order indeed since, short of putting one buoy on somebody's front lawn, the largest triangular course possible on the river is less than two miles to a leg. The result was the first of the famous Apollos designed by Miller for Bond. As Miller remembers, "Apollo was never meant to bash around on the ocean, but while the boat was being built I suddenly was told to get it finished in time for the Sydney-Hobart race." As any unable seaman who has retched along it will attest, the 640 miles of water between Sydney and Hobart is a tad tougher than any stretch of the Swan River estuary. Nevertheless, on its first try in the Hobart race Apollo missed line honors by only a few minutes and has been bouncing around on the high seas ever since. Apollo finished up among the giants—Windward Passage, Southern Star, American Eagle and Ondine—in the 1970 Bermuda Race and beat Windward Passage boat for boat in the Trans-Atlantic. She broke the record for the run back from Fastnet Rock as well as the record around the Isle of Wight, bettering times made long ago by massive J boats more than twice her size.
Alan Bond migrated from England to Western Australia as a 13-year-old in 1951, and has been moving at double time ever since. He was married and a father before he was 18 and head of a prospering business at 20. Within three years after taking up sailing he was able at it, and like many an able man, a sucker for its extravagances. Within a week after Gretel II lost the last race of the 1970 challenge at Newport, Bond, as a member of the Royal Perth Yacht Club, filed a new challenge, and he has been writing checks to honor it ever since. His Miller-designed Southern Cross cost about $1½ million. Training and campaigning will take roughly a million more, all but about $200,000 of it coming from Bond.
What will the new, aluminum Southern Cross be worth against Courageous or Mariner, the prospective cup defenders designed by Olin Stephens and Britton Chance? Beyond differences naturally expected in an aluminum hull, notably a higher ballast-to-displacement ratio, the challenger reflects the different philosophy of Miller, who has always had light regard for hulls that foot well hard on the wind compared to those that can move when the sheets are eased a jot and simply fly off the wind. Southern Cross has a flat run aft typical of a downwind boat and a fin keel unique to date in 12-meters but quite like that of del III, Miller's latest Hobart winner. Southern Cross has a knuckle bow and a novel forefoot with a rule-beating kink affording a waterline that measures short but is functionally long. The rudder, separate but with some fairing near the waterline, was originally long and dagger like. When this proved too much, a shorter, broader rudder was used. This proved too little, and will probably be modified further when Southern Cross gets to Newport late this month.
Discounting all other telling factors—helmsmanship, crewing, sails, rigging, operational gear and the flukes of weather—and speculating wildly on the basis of the rough hull data made public to date, it would seem Southern Cross may have an edge over Chance's Mariner in all but drifty conditions. On the same basis the prospective challenger seems a fair match for Courageous in any weather. Of course, in such a whimsical affair it is faintly possible the finals will turn out to be between the old wood hull France of France and the even older defender Intrepid, in which case the backers of the three new aluminum boats will be able to enjoy a private laugh that cost them collectively about $5 million.
On Southern Cross for certain there will be a crew tougher than any yet from Down Under. Training and sifting began aboard old Gretel and Gretel II a good 21 months ago, more than a year before Southern Cross was launched. In that time the two Gretels sailed more than 150 races, with plenty of bashing across the line. This spring, sitting in the boat shed at Yanchep on the windy edge of the Indian Ocean, Team Manager Brian Leary recalled, "It was rather intense dueling. We've had three big holes knocked out of the side of Gretel II, one when the steering broke on Gretel and she sailed through the middle of Gretel II, right through the gunwale and into the boat. We've knocked the bow off Gretel II innumerable times, to where we ceased putting it back and sailed without it."
After her launching last November Southern Cross got in more than 50 races against Gretel II. In these matches the new challenger showed she had far the better hull, reaching and running. Although she improved in the last month, Southern Cross was never a convincing winner to windward. Among local journalists, who were often obliged to circle like dingoes for a reliable scrap of fact, rumors were rife: the crew was stale, there was friction in the afterguard and, more notably, Skipper John Cuneo, despite his Olympic credentials as a Dragoneer, simply could not get the big 12-meter in the groove when hard on the wind. Even if true, such rumors will not count for much in the end. Since Jim Hardy, skipper in the 1970 challenge, will be back in Newport at the helm of the trial horse, Gretel II, if Cuneo is not able enough, Australia has the finest substitute of all time. The Australian deck apes are young, strong and resilient. After a six-week layoff while the hulls are shipped, they will go back to the same routine that reputedly made them stale, but on a new and livelier stage. At Newport they will have different waters and easier winds, different-tasting beer and a whole new flock of birds to chase in the evening.
Grand gamblers though they are, in temperament Australians are ill-suited for any affair as drawn out as an America's Cup campaign. When the first gun sounds and the pressure is on, the Aussies square away, hell-bent for the high mark, but in the long days, weeks and months of preparation they give themselves fits. They see spies in the shadows and imagine disasters that never come to pass. They veil common fact in secrecy and blurt out indiscretions. When things are going just fine, for want of something better to do, they start bad-mouthing their own chances.
In the current Australian challenge Designer Miller and Backer Bond are a paradoxical pair. Both are self-made men and boat lovers. Although they have invested much in the quest, Miller still has not shown the first symptom of cup sickness while Bond, to judge by published accounts, was stricken early on, and his temperature keeps rising. When he filed his challenge in 1970 The New York Times quoted Bond as saying that previous Aussie challengers had lacked "the basic killer instinct found in the American defenders." This past September, two months before Southern Cross was launched, the Daily News of Perth, Bond's hometown, quoted him as saying, "There are reporters coming from around the world to Yanchep to have a look. We may have to drown a few of them." According to Leary and the public relations firm handling the campaign, from the time of this dire pronouncement until Southern Cross shipped to Newport eight months later, no host of reporters came from overseas. By their count a total of two foreigners showed up—one Yank and one Frenchman.
According to the Perth Sunday Times Bond was upset because news photographers were taking the liberty of photographing his boat from helicopters as it cavorted over the Indian Ocean. This past December when the U.S. Courageous syndicate proposed postponing the challenge a year because of the energy crisis, the press quoted Bond as saying, "It sounds like more American tactics."
But the hallucination from which Bond suffers most is that millions of Australians and Americans are agog, waiting for the grand occasion in September. On the populous east coast of Australia, where sailing is endemic among swells and plain blokes, earlier campaigns did have good followings. When Dame Pat-tie was prepping for the second quest, there were self-appointed 12-meter experts in many a pub. But today, even in Sydney, the salty heart of Australia, America's Cupping gets a long yawn. In an average week the press has given it less notice than routine yachting.
Last winter the entire Aussie team was instructed to speak only through Leary—an order originating with Bond in part because "the syndicate has now appointed authors and publisher to produce the official book of the Southern Cross challenge. This publication will only enjoy appeal if we can create a certain mystique about the challenge, so that readers are intrigued into buying it to find out the inside facts." The whole tone of Bond's order suggests that the secret life of Southern Cross will be snatched up like The Happy Hooker and the Nixon transcripts. In the meantime, the Australian press may be giving Bond a lot more privacy than he anticipated.
Last month, with considerable justification, Bond did have a good multinational fight going over a novel bit of yarn called Kevlar 29. The new yarn, promising for use in sailcloth, is made only by du Pont in Richmond, Va. Bond first sought to have the International Yacht Racing Union ban use of the yarn by either side on the grounds that it was an exotic material. Turned down by the IYRU, he was considering an appeal to the High Court of England when two weeks ago the New York Yacht Club stood back from its customary position on unique U.S. products and said the fiber could be used by all comers, provided the cloth incorporating it was made at home or in a neutral country.
It has been such nit picking over fibers and other small whatnots that has largely degraded the America's Cup over the years, and the New York Yacht Club's decision is a most gracious one, and sage. In these hard-nosed times, any luxury like the America's Cup has a doubtful future. Australia has kept the game alive. France has dealt herself a hand. It is only wise to supply whatever weft or warp they need, especially to Australia, since she seems to be the only country with an endless supply of errant and quixotic-knights who are willing to keep coming back indefinitely to tilt at the same impossible windmill.