Although it started in earnest more than a year ago, it seems just yesterday that the 23rd challenge for the America's Cup began. By last November at Kullavik on the edge of the Kattegat, while young swans still wearing the gray-brown mantle of immaturity winged south, the small, brittle Swedish boat Sverige was in full flight. In the same month, in Marblehead, Mass., on the leading edge of one of the coldest North American winters of this century, crewmen were picking ice off the rigging of the old American hull Courageous and the new Independence. Before the winter was done, off San Diego, Enterprise, another new American boat, and her stablemate Intrepid were loping over easy Pacific swells, in weather often too balmy and easy for their liking. Meanwhile, half a world away, the crew of the new 12-meter Australia was getting up at godforsaken hours, hoping for a touch of light wind before the hot desert interior of Western Australia began sucking in the cool air off the Indian Ocean at a rate of 20 knots or more.
In the 19 years since the America's Cup was first contested in the class, 24 12-meter hulls have been built for the purpose of challenging for it or defending it. In this, the seventh challenge of the 12-meter era, 13 of those hulls still played a part, as prospective challenger or defender, as stablemate or as inept donkey of explicit purpose. Count them: Gretel II, Southern Cross, Australia, Sverige, Columbia, Constellation, France, France II, Independence, Courageous, Mariner, Enterprise and Intrepid.
The draw of manpower for this challenge was comparable. In a tabletop at Seaview Terrace, the Newport mansion that housed the Enterprise syndicate, there are impressions of miniature 12-meter hulls in various situations. Halsey Herreshoff, summoned at the last minute to help Enterprise's sagging chances, bore down too hard with his pencil while diagramming tactics with Bill Cox, who skippered the unsuccessful U.S. boat American Eagle in 1964. To help sharpen their starting tactics, Enterprise had also called in Tony Parker, runner-up three straight years in the Congressional Cup, the world's foremost match-racing event. To abet her campaign, Sverige's connections early on asked John Albrechtson, Olympic champion in the Tempest class, to take the helm of their trial horse, the old U.S. defender Columbia. (Tapping Albrechtson for such a second-string job is like asking Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of your rumpus room.)
Such fine talent, such an array of handsome boats, and suddenly, in a matter of a week in September, the contest had been distilled to its essence, a defender, Courageous, against a challenger, Australia. On the eve of the first race last week, Gary Jobson, the 27-year-old tactician of Courageous, threw himself down on a crewmate's bed and discussed the upcoming contest with deflating candor. "Unfortunately, the races you are going to see aren't going to be like the races you have seen all summer between Courageous and the other American boats," he said. "The starts are going to be boring, because both boats are going to try to be aggressive but won't get with it until less than five minutes before the gun. They will end up luffing and probably go off with one safely leeward, or on split tacks. Then in the first leg of the first race, they are just going to sit, sorting each other out."
September 25, 1977
Speaking specifically of his skipper, Ted Turner, Jobson continued, "Ted loves to be ahead and to leeward, working the boat up to windward. On the first windward leg, you'll probably see a few token tacks thrown in, and one boat will develop a 25- to 50-second lead at the mark. The reaching legs will be standard—reach-reach, and Courageous will gain on the reaches whether she is ahead or behind. She will make better roundings because she doesn't have a detached trim tab. If Courageous is ahead on windward legs, she will sit right on Australia's air, and Australia will probably eat too much of it. If Courageous is behind, she will tack off immediately, and the boats will split, with Courageous covering a lot from behind. At the end of the leeward leg, if Courageous is ahead, she will be at least 20 seconds farther ahead at the finish. If Australia is ahead by no more than 30 seconds, Courageous may catch up. It's as simple as that."
The first three races of the series came to pass pretty much as Jobson had forecast: two boats behaving too cautiously before the start and too proficiently to be truly exciting. Pure excellence merits applause but in the America's Cup the spectators are held so far at bay that they could scarcely appreciate the show if it included a high-wire act by trained baboons in the upper shrouds.
In the opening race Courageous had a running backstay block fail. In the second race Australia trailed a few square yards of jib in the water for about 10 seconds, and Courageous had about 15 seconds of grief with a spinnaker that did not come unstopped readily. That was about the limit of the unexpected. In the first race, as Jobson suggested they might, the two boats started on split tacks with the advantage to Australia, but within 20 minutes, operating out of his preferred leeward position, in a boat that unquestionably can point higher, Turner inched up to windward and tacked over to starboard, forcing Australia to tack under him. And as forecast, Australia sucked too much gas before turning away.
The first race was in moderate air, never below 12 knots and pushing 16 only toward the end of the last leg. In that range it was obvious that Australia was the stiffer boat but, for all of it, not capable of pointing as well. On the first windward leg, Australia stuck with a jib that her Skipper Noel Robins in post mortem confessed was wrong. On the same leg, with the finesse she showed in the U.S. trials. Courageous twice changed headsails in such slick style that few observers in the privileged spectator fleet a quarter mile behind were aware that she had. (In the selection trials, she once changed five times on a single leg.) Building on a fat one-minute lead at the end of the first leg, Courageous won by one minute, 48 seconds.
In the second race, started in light wind that soon climbed into the middle range, it looked for the first 20 minutes as if Australia might work out into a solid lead and make a slam-bang battle of it. Eighteen and a half minutes into the first leg, Courageous could not cross with starboard rights and so had to tack under her rival, safely to leeward. In another five minutes, working to windward, Turner-style, she was able to cross over Australia. From there until the second windward leg it looked like an easy test for Courageous, but Australia came back, wiping out a half minute of a two-minute, 38-second deficit to windward, and another minute on the leeward leg. Covering quick tacks flawlessly and long tacks both ahead and on top, Courageous managed to control Australia completely on the last leg to win by one minute, three seconds.
Because of her good performance in light air against her prospective challengers this summer—notably the very light Sverige—and because she weighs 1,000 pounds less than Courageous and has greater sail area, it was thought Australia would do her best in easy winds, but in the third race, held in a six-to-nine-knot range, she did her worst, losing by two minutes, 32 seconds.
On account of the necessary secrecy in a game where hull design and sail cut count for as much as helmsmanship, not much can be said with finality about a boat's potential, particularly since the nabobs in charge of her do not themselves fully understand the nature of their beast. In this regard, for his candor and earnestness in trying to say as much as possible without damaging his own cause or burdening the world with technology, Alan Bond, team captain of Australia, deserves some sort of reward, if not from God in heaven, at least from the journalists who constantly plague him. His many comments on the potential of Australia are aptly summed up by what he had to say on the eve of the first race. "In crew work and sail handling it should be a real fight. Neither boat is going to get a race as a gift. We have both done enough racing now so that the obvious mistakes have been truly and well gone over. Neither boat will be able to say she blew it because she went here when she should have gone there. The Americans may still have an advantage, but it is not the overwhelming edge it once was. It will be a much fairer test of sailing, unless one or the other has an advantage with a faster boat, and we won't know that until tomorrow. I am at least sure we have a better hull than we had in Southern Cross."
Ted Turner is equally candid, although he is sometimes east of the sun and sometimes west of the moon. If Turner ever wandered on the race course the way he often does in a discourse, he would never make it to the first mark within the 5½ hour time limit. After his first victory, he declared for the benefit of his beaten rivals, "It was a relatively close race. Three years ago when we were on Mariner, we usually lost by 10 minutes. The greatest thing about the U.S. trials this summer was that on every race we were always close enough to hear the finish gun, even when we lost." After leading Australia by a wide margin in a race that was abandoned because the time limit expired when he was little more than a quarter mile from the finish line, Turner told the assembled newsmen, "The official Courageous statement on the abandonment is this: If you have ever heard 11 grown men cry, it was when the gun on the committee boat went off."
Two days later, after Turner had put away his third win and needed but one more, he said, "We have met Australia in light air and medium air; for the race tomorrow, I'd like 20 knots, so we can see how both boats do in that." Despite Turner's wishes to see the game played across the board, the winds were moderate on Sunday. The start was like the preceding three, both boats seemingly more intent on showing their worth on the course than in preliminary skirmishing. They were dead even across the line on port tack, with Australia apparently pointing higher than in the first three races. When she tacked over early with starboard rights, Courageous was obliged to tack under her. By the 10th minute Australia was getting slightly backwinded and was forced to tack away. Courageous rounded the first mark 44 seconds ahead and improved her position in subsequent legs to win by two minutes, 25 seconds.
While the boats remain untested in heavy air, in light and medium Australia had scant chance for a win without getting a decided edge at the start. The problem was her inability to point high, which probably was the result of slightly inferior sails and tuning.
It was a placid series on all counts. There was not a single prolonged tacking duel or any luffing games. There was no protest flag flown or any verbal shot fired. Indeed, about the only record set was for falling bodies. After throwing Turner into Newport Harbor, and throwing each other in, the crew of Courageous tossed in their rivals. They then dunked the brass of their team as well as Commodore Bob McCullough and Vice-Commodore Harry Anderson of the New York Yacht Club. Having run out of dignitaries, they tossed in their wives and sweethearts.
Since the first challenge in 1870, the U.S. has won 73 races and lost only seven. In the face of the ever-climbing odds, Bond said, "This time we averaged about two minutes difference in an average of 260 minutes per race. We came 13,000 miles to sail in new waters, and we came close. I can tell you this much, I think we have improved enough to justify coming back in 1980."