Try as one might to accentuate the positive, in America's Cup competition it is difficult to eliminate the negative. By its very nature, it is a defensive, punt-on-third-down game. As in any match race, the trailer must attack and the leader defend. One may applaud the gambles of a skipper wandering afar for better wind, but the fact remains, winning is not so much what a skipper does right as how few things he does wrong.
This coming week, Courageous, the successful U.S. defender three years ago, will meet a new boat, Australia, from the windy west coast of that country, in the 23rd challenge for the America's Cup. Courageous and Australia earned the right to race because they made the fewest mistakes (and enjoyed boat speed to compensate for some they did make) in the longest series of eliminations ever held to select finalists. Through a preliminary round robin, a semifinal and a final round for the challengers, Australia won 14 races and lost two. In the semifinal she took four straight from France, the obsolete wood hull that came no better manned or armed this year than she had been in her first quixotic venture in 1970. Then, by taking four straight from Sverige, the lightweight Swedish boat that proved structurally and tactically unsound, Australia wrapped it up nine days before the nomination deadline of midnight Sept. 8.
Whether her crew is composed of Texas cowpokes or Bantu tribesmen, the American boat always represents the New York Yacht Club, which has the advantage of evaluating prospective defenders on the basis of their potential rather than strictly on won-lost records. By either count, Courageous, skippered by Ted Turner, was such an obvious choice that she also was selected nine days before the deadline.
In the final U.S. trials, which understandably carry the most weight with the New York Yacht Club selection committee, Courageous won 10 of 11 races against the new boats, Enterprise and Independence. Her total score was 24 wins and eight losses. More important is the fact that she beat her rivals across the board—in light, medium and heavy winds.
September 11, 1977
By midsummer, it was obvious that Independence, although by no means a dud, had the least potential. And by the time she was excused from the trials, she had won only one of seven races in light air, and in eight in which she had an indisputable lead on the first windward leg, she could not hold it despite the sound tactics of her skipper, Ted Hood. By contrast, although Enterprise showed promise in light air, she could win only one of seven in heavy going where the wind is rarely fickle. However, Enterprise never realized her full potential. Her chances became even poorer midway in the final trial when, because of his devotion to boat speed rather than match-racing fundamentals, Skipper Lowell North was removed and his colleague, Malin Burnham, put in charge—an act of desperation comparable to breaking up a pair of aces to fill an inside straight.
Handing the skipper his hat and shuffling the afterguard and foredeck are customary procedures in the America's Cup game. In the quest for talent that might improve a boat's chances as the end draws nigh, the sources most often tapped are the crew lists of previous America's and Congressional Cups. The first crew change of consequence came in mid-August when Alan Bond, team captain of Australia, put Andy Rose of Newport-Bay Shores, Calif. aboard as tactician to assist Skipper Noel Robins.
As if to counter Bond's move, Baron Marcel Bich, owner of France, tried to reach another Southern Californian, George Twist, by phone to offer him the job of tactician for the third and fourth semifinal races against Australia. On the very day that Bich was trying to reach Twist in California, Twist stepped aboard the Baron's 75-year-old schooner in Newport, R.I., anxious to savor a bit of the America's Cup action and hoping that the Baron would take him out to the course. At the sight of Twist, Bich's secretary exclaimed, "Where did you come from? Don't move. You are a prisoner on this boat."
It would be most heartwarming and theatrical to report that with an impressed Yankee seaman aboard, Bich went on to victory, but, hélas!, it was not in the cards. With Twist aboard, France lost her third straight to Australia by eight minutes, 54 seconds (her 19th consecutive defeat in three cup campaigns). France's fourth race against Australia was even worse. In a jibing maneuver before the start, with Bich at the wheel, France came boring in on Australia's port side and struck her almost at right angles forward of the shrouds, mutilating in the process not only France's bow but several paragraphs of the yacht-racing rules as well. Exactly how it happened is not clear. Twist remembers that while he and the previous tactician, Bruno Trouble, who was still aboard, were clutching for the wheel, and the Baron still had it well in hand, voices were raised in both English and French, and in the next instant they hit Australia. In retrospect it is best to chalk it up as a breakdown in communications. Whatever the cause, the Baron ended his third fruitless quest of the cup as he did his first, not with a whimper but a bang.
When Bobby Connell, veteran of three America's Cup campaigns in the '60s, first got the call to serve as foredeck boss and bolster the sagging chances of Independence, he was in Hadley Harbor, Mass., in the middle of the New York Yacht Club Cruise, snug in his bunk on the old 12-meter Gleam, sleeping off a festive night. He was summoned on deck, bleary-eyed, to find Lee Loomis, director of the Courageous-Independence syndicate, who had prepared a fervent recruiting spiel on behalf of Independence. Connell offered many reasons why he should not join the cause—of immediate consequence, a number of business matters. At one of the NYYC Cruise's next ports of call Loomis set up an office where Connell could settle his business affairs. Several days later he was on board Independence.
To fill the gap left by the departure of Lowell North, the Enterprise syndicate engaged in a game of musical chairs. The man most wanted was Dennis Conner, who had served as starting helmsman on Courageous in 1974, but Conner was already in Kiel, Germany, preparing for the world Star championships (which he would win for the second time). It was suggested that another Star world champion, Tom Blackaller of San Francisco, could take Conner's place in Kiel, but as it turned out, Blackaller was committed to the half-ton North American championship on San Francisco Bay. Calls then went to Seattle, to Bill Buchan, another Star world champion. Buchan was given the choice of substituting for Conner in Kiel—or Newport. He did not want either job, and thus the grand international game plan came to naught.
The upcoming challenge promises to be better than most, for which considerable credit goes to Alan Bond. Since he lost four straight with Southern Cross three years ago, he has maintained that what the contest needed was keener competition on the challenge side. Regrettably, this did not come to pass. Australia had three rivals (Gretel II lost in the semis to Sverige) to scrap against in the eliminations, but none could give her the kind of fight that Courageous got from her opponents.
One close race on the 24.4-mile America's Cup course is better training than half a dozen runaways. In that respect, Courageous goes into the challenge with a great advantage over Australia. In most of the 16 races between Australia and her rivals, the time difference at the finish was well over a minute. By contrast, the margin was less than one minute in 22 of Courageous' 32 races. Because Courageous and Australia have never been matched or even had a half-serious set-to on the open seas, no one can speculate about the relative worth of their hulls or sail power or any of the other arcane niceties that naval architects and computer geniuses love to discuss.
It is a contest between a new Australian boat and a successful 3-year-old defender; between a new skipper, Noel Robins, a sailor little known until this year beyond his western shores, and Ted Turner, a man who has won much of his yachting reputation by taking second-hand hulls on to greater glory. Through the summer, Turner fumed and occasionally erupted because the Enterprise syndicate would not allow him to buy sails made by Lowell North or John Marshall, who manages the North Sails loft in Connecticut. Turner is a free thinker, free speaker, free trader. He is sometimes rich in invective against anyone with a narrower attitude, but he remains above all a sportsman. To put it in bird-hunting terms, he would never ground-swat an enemy, but he is not against occasionally blasting away at wrongdoers on the rise. While Enterprise was still riding high, he observed, "On Courageous, our lives aren't at stake, you know. If they lose, Lowell North and John Marshall may not eat for the next three years. I can't think of two guys who deserve to starve more for their unsportsmanlike conduct in refusing to sell us sails. We wouldn't take their sails now as a gift."
When Enterprise lost out, Turner became his usual charitable self. There was a rumor at the time that Enterprise might serve as a trial horse for Australia in the slack period before the challenge. When Australian newsmen asked Turner to comment on the matter, he replied evenly, "In my opinion anybody should be able to sail with anybody. After all, an owl and a pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat." When the selection committee notified him that he was the skipper for the defense, Turner spoke up with a humility that is all too scarce on the America's Cup scene. After thanking Ted Hood for making his sails and redesigning Courageous, and thanking the syndicate management, and thanking just about everybody except the Pope, President Carter and the North Sails company, he said soberly, "Last time seven or eight of us were in the ill-fated Mariner-Valiant campaign, and we wanted to come back to show that we weren't the bunch of hacks we seemed to be then. All it takes is a little boat speed to make anybody look like a hero. Let us not forget that."