In 1974, watching the sleek Twelves cut through the waters off Newport, one had the impression that, like toy boats, they propelled themselves. With the boom only 10 inches off the deck, the giant mainsail blocked one's view of each boat's skipper, navigator and tactician, and the bulk of the crew toiled unseen, unsung and unsunburned belowdecks, like galley slaves sealed off from the sea battle raging around them. This year, with the boom raised and the winches and mechanical gear on deck, the 11-man crew, except for the well-named sewer man, will be visible to spectators, and life for the "string pullers" and "grunts" will be more pleasant, though far from comfortable.
Twelves are cold, stripped racing machines, and creature comforts such as cushions or a head are as out of place as a carpeted cockpit. Like Indy cars, the 66-foot boats are built for speed and, in the words of one crew member, "are more like overgrown sailing canoes or giant dinghies than ocean racers."
On Twelves the skippers get the glory but they are as dependent on their men as a quarterback is on his 10 teammates. Reg Pierce, a grinder on Courageous in 1974 who is now on Independence, says, "Twelves are a people game; you have to get along and function as a unit. You don't win races with two big gorillas on the grinders and a whiz kid as navigator. We depend on each other."
The best tailer in the world cannot pull in a jib by himself; the load is carried by the grinders, who in turn rely on the man in the fox hole for directions. A good jibe takes 11 seconds and the deck apes must react instinctively. A blown tack can cost three boat lengths.
The worst job is the sewer man's. He stands belowdecks in a dark, damp pit with limited head space. Around him are the bulky 10-foot sail bags (often as many as eight). Underway, his home—a shell of aluminum ribs—becomes a thrashing, tilting, bobbing echo chamber as waves thunk against the hull and his mates up above noisily spin the winches to set the sails he hands them through the hatch. On Courageous the job will be handled by the best athlete on any of the Twelves, Conn Findlay, 47, a four-time Olympic medalist in rowing and sailing. On Independence, Maritime College freshman Bobby Campbell, 19, will have sewer duty, and on Enterprise the job is rotated.
Though many believe the $1.5-million craft are raced exclusively by old-school Eastern Establishment millionaires, they are not. Of the 33 men who will be aboard the U.S. Twelves, only Ted Turner is considered a millionaire and he is from the South. "Many of us are paupers with shaky credit ratings," says Annapolis grad and former Navy Lieut. Tom O'Brien, now a sail trimmer for Independence. The crews come from both coasts and from some unlikely sailing cities-Dubuque, Iowa; Denton, Texas; Detroit; Lexington, Ky.; and Etna, N.H. They range in age from 18-year-old Teddy Hood to his 50-year-old dad and they have varying occupations—IBM executive, dog-track owner, computer engineer, carpenter, marina operator, assistant headmaster, student. Several work for boat companies and some are referred to as "rock stars" because they are enlisted to crew in every major race in the world. They fly in and out and never scrub hulls.
To sail on a Twelve (300 applied to crew on Independence) is no longer a matter of who you know but rather of how you sail. It is not work for the timid; jaunts up the 90-foot mast must come as naturally as walking upstairs. It is essential to be surefooted because Twelves do not have railings or lifelines (crushed walnut shells in the deck paint provide traction).
Crews put in 12-hour workdays, seven days a week, and serve without pay. To tune the machines for the challenge is nearly as time-consuming as preparing for a space shot. For every hour on the water, three are spent tinkering at the dock—repairing fittings, tightening thousands of bolts, fiddling with the computer, scrubbing the deck. Daily work sheets are issued, and a recent one for-Independence listed 46 items, such as "Install slot velocities including internal rigging of wiring" and "Cut off and file every bolt on the boat." There is much to do by Labor Day.