When measured by the human traits that have marked worthy 12-meter skippers of the past and present, Pelle Petterson, the helmsman and designer of the Swedish challenger Sverige, looks like a certain winner in his quest for the America's Cup this summer. Petterson is by nature as meticulous and precise as Bill Cox and Gerry Driscoll. He has some of the innovative genius of Lowell North and some of the broader talent that made Bus Mosbacher and Bill Ficker almost unbeatable. Like Jim Hardy, Petterson is most affable: like Bob Bavier and Ted Hood, he is well-contained and unflappable. To stretch the comparison to the limit, when Petterson is discussing his own shortcomings, he is often as outspoken (though rarely as long-spoken) as Ted Turner, the Atlanta fireball who has made self-immolation a way of life.
Despite such endowments, when the realities of the moment are considered, Petterson's chances of winning the America's Cup shrink considerably. His credentials are good, but his timing is godawful. He is entering the fray as a novice at a time when the arena is already crowded with talented and hungry old hands. Though it is sport's most lopsided event, the America's Cup consumes many able and devoted men—and this summer will set a record. Disregarding the failure of all challengers in the past 107 years, four boats representing three different foreign countries will be seeking victory, and between now and late summer there will be four very good U.S. craft fighting for the honor of defending the queer old prize.
Having tried to take the cup four times with four different boats, the Australians should be ready to pack it in, but instead they will have two challengers in Newport. Although the French lost to the Australians in the elimination series in 1970 and 1974 in a wood hull called France, they will be back with a new wood-skinned, aluminum-framed boat, France II.
Some years ago Naval Architect Olin Stephens, whose creations have defended the cup in five of the six challenges of the modern, 12-meter era, noted that any designer of a 12-meter boat usually profits from his earlier attempts provided he does not stub his toe taking too bold a step forward. Therein lies much of the advantage that the Australians and French will have over the Swedish newcomers. Their designers have been gnawed by the rats of hindsight and are wiser for it. At present, the French are reluctant to release any meaningful data on their new hull, which was designed by Andre Mauric, whose good original hull, France, because of chaotic management never had a chance to show her worth.
March 7, 1977
The least promising of Australia's challengers is Gretel II, the old wood boat that was not expected to beat France in 1970 but took four straight and went on to make the best showing of any foreigner against an American 12-meter. Her designer, Alan Payne, does not expect that she has the stability to do well in heavy weather against the newer, lighter aluminum hulls, but he has modified her above and below water in a dozen minor ways to improve her in light air. Most notably her measured length has been reduced to allow more sail area and, although she was never a bobber, her bow has been fined to cope with the messy water created by the spectator fleet.
By virtue of several radical departures—an extreme overall length and a lumpy forefoot, to cite two—Southern Cross, the hull produced for the 1974 challenge by Australia's other designer, Bob Miller, was supposedly unbeatable running and reaching and at least competitive on weather legs. She turned out to be barely competitive running and reaching and easy to beat to weather. Wiser now, Miller has produced a new hull, as yet unnamed, that is comparatively orthodox. Her keel s long and slender, harking back 10 years; her forefoot is unkinked.
If Pelle Petterson and his Sverige (pronounced Svair-ee-yeh and meaning Sweden) get by the Australians and French, what will be their chances against a Yankee defender? Because of the infrequent competition and the variables involved in every quest, the America's Cup is not a game that attracts oddsmakers. However, based on the past performances of two old U.S. hulls that are still active and the logical potential of two new ones, the Swedes' chances seem truly dim. Assuming that the new Enterprise designed by Olin Stephens is a dud—a farfetched presumption, indeed—and assuming that the new Independence by Ted Hood, the multifaceted Marblehead man, is no better, on the active reserve list the U.S. has Courageous, the Stephens boat that won handily last time out. Backing up these three is Intrepid, Stephens' old wood boat that defended the cup in 1967 and 1970 and almost beat Courageous for the honor three years ago. Intrepid and Courageous are already bolstering the defense effort by serving as trial horses for Enterprise and Independence. When you have that sort of bench to scrimmage against, you surely are sitting pretty.
Petterson has an easy, boyish way and looks much younger than his 44 years, but he is not naive. He has never considered the America's Cup a challenge that one undertakes armed with pebbles and a sling. He started early marshaling assistance from Volvo, M√∂lnlycke, SKF, Boliden, International F√§rg and some 50 other Swedish corporations known for their technical achievements. This winter, reviewing his chances at a time when things were not going as well as they might, Petterson said, "The America's Cup is one of the greater things you can try for in yachting. The enthusiasm you get watching the boats and imagining yourself in one of them attracts you to it, but you have to remember that you can easily make a fool of yourself. I think the boats will be relatively even in performance. I don't think we lack anything as far as rigging and such refinements are concerned. I think we are about level with the Australians and French in our sails, but the Americans will have a real edge in that department, with Ted Hood and Lowell North competing. I have the greatest respect for that advantage, and we will have to keep working to overcome it."
If Petterson and his Sverige team should lift the cup, two unrelated circumstances will be largely responsible: 1) the Great Depression of the '30s and 2) the popularity of the Star boat, the old hard-chined class that evolved on Long Island Sound shortly after the landing of Columbus and has persisted around the world despite the incursion of slicker designs. If it had not been for the Depression, Petterson might have been Yankee born, raised in the Midwest and working now for Evinrude, Harley-Davidson or General Motors. Shocking as it may seem to die-hard Corinthians, for much of his life Petterson, the sailor, has enjoyed an equal reputation among powerboaters and, still worse, the motor-car crowd. Before he had done any serious sailing even in a junior class, he was winning big in soapbox derbies in and about G√∂teborg where his family was living. The external design of Volvo outboards and the Volvo Penta outdrive come from his drawing board. Before he began producing his Maxi line of sailboats for family cruising and casual racing, he had created several powerboats and the Volvo P 1800 quasi-sports car that sold well in this country in the '60s.
Petterson is a sailor by choice, a stinkpot and stinkmobile designer by provocation. In the 1920s his father Helmer raced an American brand of motorcycle called Excelsior and, restless for greater challenge, left Sweden to work in Chicago for the company that made his machines. By the time he reached these shores, the attrition of Excelsior employees on dirt tracks had been so great that he was forbidden to race. Instead, the elder Petterson worked his way up to head of the racing division. As such, he maintained and beefed up not only the cycles used on tracks and in hill climbs by great drivers like Joe Petrali but also those ridden by the Chicago cops against the forces of Bugs Moran and Al Capone. The Excelsiors did fine in hot competition, but the stock Harleys and Indian cycles sold better and survived the Depression. The scarcity of jobs drove Helmer Petterson back to Sweden about a year before Pelle was born.
Spurred by hard times in his homeland, the elder Petterson developed a charcoal-burning converter for automobiles. When World War II came, he had just what isolated Sweden needed. He was subsequently commissioned by Volvo to design a small car, and the result was the road-hugging Volvo PV 444 that gave Sweden an entree into the U.S. market at a time when little, wire-wheeled MGs and Volkswagen bugs were overrunning the country. In the late '50s, when Volvo wanted to put out a flashy sports car, Helmer Petterson slipped an unidentified set of Pelle's sketches in with those of established designers. The younger Petterson's proposal was selected over those of the Italian coachwork masters Ghia and Frua.
The novice designer was abetted by disciplines learned at the Technical Institute in G√∂teborg and, in the mid-'50s, at Pratt Institute in New York City. During two years at Pratt, Petterson lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, then as now largely black ghetto. He did little sailing while at Pratt, his first venture in September of 1955 being the one he remembers best. Before most of the America's Cup rivals he will meet this summer had seen a 12-meter hull, much less thought seriously about the class, Petterson was invited to help sail one from Marblehead, Mass. to New York's City Island, where many of the class have been built. It was a bright September weekend with a soft wind swinging behind, making it easy going under a baggy spinnaker most of the way, through the Cape Cod Canal and across the front of Aquidneck Island and Narragansett Bay, where all the cup races are held. The occasion, though memorable, had no influence on his present involvement in the America's Cup, for which his Swedish comrades can give thanks. The old hull on which he crewed was Mouette, U.S.-registered but designed and built in England in 1928—a real dodo.
As one sailmaker recalls, "Mouette had enough stern overhang to swing a hammock under. Against today's 12-meter bombs, she'd do about as well as Cleopatra's barge."
Petterson started sailing at the age of 10 at Kullavik on the Kattegat where he is now tuning and retuning Sverige. From a junior class called Stj√§rna he graduated to the Star class in 1953. The Star, which was popular elsewhere in Europe, had been tried on the Swedish west coast in the 1930s but had not caught on, many locals feeling that conditions on the Kattegat were too extreme for a perky hull with such little freeboard. Petterson won the very first Star race he entered—the first held to revive the class on the Kattegat. It was a badly tarnished victory, although honorable under the circumstances. On the final leg of the race downwind, Petterson was up front roughly even with two rivals; then half a mile from the line it suddenly turned into no contest at all. He simply flew away from the fleet, winning by almost 200 yards.
The Star boat is not noted for its downwind performance, but it will really move if it happens to tick the top of a rock and lose its 900-pound keel, as Petterson's hull did. Once safely in port, Petterson hurriedly addressed his rivals. "We had better keep this quiet," he said. "If people find out that keels fall off that easily in a five-knot wind, we will have killed the Star class again." The rest of the skippers agreed that Petterson should remain the winner of record. As Petterson says, "It was a unanimous decision made very quietly."
Over the years Petterson's devotion to the Star class has brought him three Swedish, two European and one world title as well as two Olympic medals—and, as a costly fringe benefit, involvement in the America's Cup. The list of winners and top finishers in the major championships of the Star class reads like a Who's Who in the America's Cup. In the win, place and show columns of the Star honor roll the name Lowell North appears so often it forces a yawn, and the names of Knapp, Burnham, Buchan, Forbes, Ficker, Driscoll, Morgan, Conner and other America's Cuppers crop up with lesser frequency. Petterson suspects that his cup fever is in part a result of his repeated contact with rivals already suffering from the bug.
Four years ago something happened to the Star class that made him an exponent of 12-meters. After he had won the silver medal behind David Forbes of Australia in the 1972 Olympics, the Star boat was taken out of the Games. Petterson believes, as most top skippers do, that because each country is allowed only a single entry, an Olympic sailing contest is never as meaningful as a world championship, but four years ago he further realized that the loss of Olympic status would take some of the edge off the competition in other major events of the class.
"Sadly enough," he says, "the competitiveness of the Star, especially in Europe, has a lot to do with the Olympics, because Eastern Europeans only sail seriously in Olympic classes. We always had keen competition from the Russians and other Eastern Europeans because they had financial aid to push the class, even as we do in Scandinavia. Quality drops when the Olympics are out. To many people that might be O.K.: the Star would become a cozier class where you meet some of the same old friends, drink the same beer and take it more easy. Nothing wrong with that kind of sport, but if you want hard competition in a world championship. Olympic status helps."
Not knowing at the time that the Star boat would be only temporarily cashiered from the Olympic ranks, Petterson cast about for another challenge. He has done well in a Soling but felt that class would simply offer more of the same. Although he designs and sells cruising hulls, ocean racing was not his bag. It is not demanding enough tactically for his tastes, and there is too much risk of enforced idleness. He remembers sitting for hours and hours and hours in one Fastnet Race, becalmed off the Scilly Islands, almost within shouting distance of talented rivals. Off to port, stuck in the same dead sea aboard a handsome French hull was Paul Elvstrom, the lord god of smallboat skippers, and a short distance away, equally stuck aboard an Italian hull, was Tom Blackaller, the Californian who beat Petterson for the Star world title in Laredo, Spain in 1974.
In the design of Sverige Petterson stayed on familiar ground, resisting the temptation to wander far afield and fall in somebody else's pit. "Sverige is a boat for the middle range of conditions," he says. "I tried not to be too experimental, such as Britton Chance was last time with Mariner." In gross measurements Sverige follows the trend of modern aluminum hulls. Her beam is about the least allowed without penalty under the 12-meter rule; her draft is about the maximum. She is short overall, less than 64 feet. Her underbody aft resembles that of Courageous, the 1974 winner, but is even stubbier. To skimp on the true waterline and thus avoid penalty deriving from her very low displacement, the forefoot of Sverige has been flattened as if by a giant butter knife, prompting one esthetic critic to describe her as "brutally snubbed fore and aft." Columbia, the first 12-meter defender, which now serves as Sverige's trial horse, weighs more than 28 tons. Sceptre, the English boat that Columbia beat back in 1958, weighs 34 tons. The aluminum Sverige weighs barely 26 tons, and more than 20 of that is in her keel.
Going to weather Sverige will carry in excess of 2,300 square feet of sail, more than any 12-meter that has competed to date. Despite all that canvas, she does not seem tender in heavy air. In her spasmodic trial runs against Columbia last fall, she rode with an easy bow and created almost no quarter wave. On reaches she seems better than Columbia; on downwind legs she has proved equal to Columbia in medium conditions and superior in light and heavy air. Going to weather she seems to point higher but gain nothing from it—and that may be her undoing.
Instead of sailing her conventionally with a wheel for the rudder and trim tab, Petterson uses a double tiller that by means of an extension allows him to ride the high side on windward legs as if she were an outsized Star boat. Borrowing a bit of ingenuity from Paul Elvstrom, Petterson has incorporated a system whereby his winch grinders do not crank but sit in cockpits and pedal with their legs. The winches were designed by Petterson's noodling father so that in shifting up or down through the gears there is no hesitation or change in direction.
Sverige first went into the water early last September and stayed until the end of November, when the days were getting very short and the weather miserable. The northern Kattegat lies less than 10 degrees from the Arctic Circle, but a weak finger of the Gulf Stream reaches across the North Sea through the Skagerrak and wastes itself on the Swedish shore. Because of this providence, sailing in November is at least possible although the Kattegat is not to be confused with Biscayne Bay at that time of the year. As if the marginal climate were not disadvantage enough, this past fall Sverige had the same sort of fitful bad luck that most 12-meters seem heir to. Sheaves jammed, halyards fouled, winches did not work well. A shroud tang failed and the mast went overboard. In October, a month when the wind usually stays within decent limits, it was often excessive. As a consequence, Petterson did not get in as much sail testing as he would have liked and did not get around to crew evaluation at all.
In any hull designed to a rule, as 12-meter boats are, what looks like a step forward often turns out to be only a new way of achieving the same. All the design differences and mechanical innovation in Sverige may count for a lot or may not add up to much. She may be very talented, and she may get lucky. Whatever her success, she is the first Swedish girl in the game, and on that count alone a worthy contribution to splendid tradition. If she should win in Newport, it would be quite something. One thing is absolutely certain: if she loses this summer, she will be in the very best of company.