Cornelius Shields, a wise old fox of the sailing game, once said that an ordinary competition involving many boats compares to a match race as checkers does to chess. Although match racing in boats is not a new idea (the America's Cup has been a head-to-head contest for more than 100 years), it did not have much status until the Long Beach Yacht Club of California began the Congressional Cup series 11 years ago.
When 10 identical boats—drawn at random by 10 skippers and identically equipped—meet in a round-robin series of duels as they do in the Congressional Cup, there is a likelihood that two may end up with the same number of wins and losses, and in that case, first place goes to the one which has beaten the other head to head. For that reason a skipper's final standing depends somewhat on whom he has beaten. But in any case, three days of racing are normally enough to find a winner by sundown Saturday.
In the 12th competition for the cup last week, however, the issue hung in doubt well into Sunday. After hearing seven claims and counterclaims of foul on Saturday night, the protest committeemen decreed that four of the 10 skippers had an equal score of six wins and three losses. Furthermore, the men had beaten each other in such a way that the only means of settling the issue fairly was to go back out on the water.
Curiously, Dennis Conner of San Diego, commonly considered the man to beat in match racing, was not one of those who went extra innings. On the short six-mile course used in the Congressional Cup, the skipper with a clear advantage across the starting line wins about four times out of five. When it comes to hounding rivals into an unfortunate position before the starting gun, Conner, who was the starting helmsman of Courageous in the last America's Cup, is a master and modest enough to admit that his unrivaled record of two wins and a second in previous Congressional Cups was helped by a bloated reputation. "It has been a case of the rich get richer," he says. "My opponents worry about what I am going to do to them before the start rather than concentrating on what they can do to me." Whatever Conner's advantage before the gun, it was not enough this year. He took most of his starts handily, but did not move well on the course.
March 29, 1976
The normal limits of the series almost produced a surprise outright winner: Tony Parker, a 29-year-old Maine sailor originally selected as an alternate. When the veteran Ted Hood backed out because of pressing business, Parker got in, bringing modest credentials. In the eight years since he captained the Harvard sailing team, Parker had only one notable win: the 1974 North American title in the¾-ton class. At the end of the regular round robin, Parker had crossed the finish line first seven times, but one of two foul claims hung on him stuck, so he came out of the protest hearing a mere shareholder in the four-way tie.
Two of the others in the race-off were sailors who for diverse reasons were considered most apt to beat Conner out of his third title. One of them, Graham Hall, director of sailing at the Naval Academy, is, like Conner, specifically talented at squashing the enemy before the starting gun. The other pre-race favorite was Ted Turner of Atlanta, whose genius defies analysis. For all his life, inside sailing and out, he has been a rebel with many causes and wit enough for all of them. He often wins big when he seemingly has no chance, and he sometimes blows the easy ones. The Congressional Cup has been his particular bugaboo. In seven previous tries he finished almost everywhere except first or last. Turner's mind functions best when it is going several ways at once, and on that count he came to this Congressional Cup a dangerous man. As new owner of the sagging Atlanta Braves, he divided his time in Long Beach between racing and wooing Pitcher Andy Messersmith, the nation's most famous free soul. At the skippers' meeting, Turner confided to everyone present, "I made Messersmith an offer, and he didn't laugh at it, but I was crying when I made it."
The fourth man in the race-off was Dick Deaver, an Olympic bronze medalist in the Dragon class, self-described as a "Southern California prune picker," who, in his youth, when faced with the choice between becoming a surf bum or a boat nut, opted for the latter. He was carrying a peculiar responsibility. Although most of the 73 skippers who have tried for the Congressional Cup to date have come from elsewhere, only Southern Californians have ever won it. In the race-off the prune picker was defending tradition against a Cincinnati-born Southerner, a Chicago-born New Yorker and a Harvard man from down Maine.
In competitive sailing, as in all of life, there is no perfect justice or absolute equality, but the Congressional Cup is the sport's finest attempt to achieve these impossibilities. In regular round-the-buoys racing, while hot skippers jostle at the favored end of the starting line, some dolt may go off by himself, get lucky with wind and skunk the fleet. The starting line of the Congressional Cup course is a scant 100 yards wide and so situated that the boats first go a mile to a windward mark, then 1½ miles back to a leeward mark. On the second trip to windward they are required to pass through the narrow starting line. It is in effect a tight arena that minimizes the opportunity of a skipper to wander afar in hopes of a cheap win.
In such racing the hottest action often occurs between the 10-minute warning gun and the actual start, with paired rivals swirling in a tight circle, each tack-tack-tacking, trying to get a favored position on the other's tail. In such go-arounds the less successful boat may break off and thread through the spectator fleet, trying to shake its rival and giving onlookers a closer look than some of them care for.
The prime virtue of the Congressional Cup is the equality enforced in the hulls that the Long Beach Yacht Club provides. They are Cal 40s, all produced off the same Jensen Marine mold between 1963 and 1971. Although a Cal 40 might not hold its own against the latest racing machines of comparable size, they are superior in quick tacking duels. A good crew under an aggressive skipper can make a Cal 40 turn, if not on a dime, at least on a dinner plate. Each competitor gets a mainsail and is issued a tri-radial spinnaker and a 150% genoa identical to his rivals'. Ballast is added until all the hulls are within 100 pounds of each other. Before the competition begins a scuba team inspects all bottoms and sands any that are excessively rough. However, despite the best efforts of the Long Beach club to eliminate inequities, the devil is still in the game, often dealing a crooked hand.
Hugh Treharne, an Australian who has won various sailing honors, notably in the cantankerous 18-foot hulls that abound in Sydney Harbor, took second in the Congressional Cup two years ago. On his return this year he had a miserable time of things generally but turned out to be the series spoiler. When he met Turner, the windy Atlantan was 4-0 and Treharne was 0-4. Turner fouled him before the starting gun, acknowledged it and lost over a minute circling the buoy to absolve the foul. Treharne then gave Turner every chance to catch up, but the devil would not let either of them off the hook gently. At the last leeward mark Treharne fouled his spinnaker, and in no time Turner fouled his genoa sheet around his spinnaker pole, thereby losing more than Treharne had given him. Treharne overstood the finish slightly, giving some back to Turner, but in the last 10 yards Turner pinched a trifle high and so lost the race by one-half second. And in the very last race Treharne was in full spoiling stride, beating Graham Hall, who had been even with Turner and Parker at 6-2. And that, with an assist from several protest flags, threw the whole thing into Sunday.
In the first race-offs, Parker soundly beat Turner, and Deaver had an easy time against Hall. When the two met in the finals, the helmsmanship of Deaver and the sail handling of his crew were the difference. At the first windward mark, Parker's crew got the spinnaker set in 12 seconds, but Deaver's got theirs up in 10. So with an almost perfect performance against a rival from the easternmost corner of the U.S., a prune picker became the 12th consecutive Southern Californian to win the cup. After his crew threw him in the drink at dockside, Deaver said, "The weight of the West has been lifted from my shoulders."