Split sail, split-second victory

The Congressional Cup was decided by a torn spinnaker and the blink of an eye
March 24, 1980

Last Saturday afternoon in the waters off Long Beach, Calif., Howard Thompson, a salty Southern Californian, spent two hours stirring about below-decks in his handsome new ocean racer, Pokai. By the rules of the Congressional Cup, the prestigious match-racing competition in which Pokai was taking part, owner Thompson or someone representing him had to be aboard but could not assist in sailing the boat in any way other than to put his weight wherever the helmsman wanted it. Because Thompson has been sailing for three decades, he needed no instruction. On upwind legs, when tactician Lewis Wake called out a tack to helmsman Dennis Durgan, in light air Thompson automatically moved to the low side; in heavy air, to the high side. On broad reaches Thompson stood dead center; on flat runs, slightly to leeward.

When Pokai had her rival nearly abeam or when a rival was trailing on a leeward leg, Thompson could peer out the portholes or the companion-way to see how his craft was faring. Most often he could only guess her position by the clatter and banging, the propriety of the language being used and the tempo of the tacking. By the time Pokai came within 300 yards of the finish line of her final race on Saturday, the tempo of the tacking had increased to the point where Thompson was moving from port to starboard and back like a fleck of spit on a hot griddle. In that race—the 44th of the 45 sailed by the 10 skippers in the Congressional—helmsman Durgan beat his rival, a rookie competitor named Ron Dougherty, by two-fifths of a second, and by so doing successfully defended his Cup title.

The Congressional Cup began 16 years ago as a local affair with lofty ambitions. Very few of the 10 skippers competing each spring came from farther away than Northern California, and even when talent was attracted from more distant waters, the local boys kept winning so consistently that a founder of the event, Don Leedom, recalls, "We worried about the long-term viability of it. It got so I was praying for an outsider to take it."

Leedom's concern, though seemingly logical, actually was not, because logic has never played a large part in the unbounded zeal of racing sailors. The America's Cup has always been successfully defended, yet quixotic challengers keep coming to tilt again. And for much the same reason, the Congressional Cup now attracts skippers from the world round to try the match-race game in Southern California, where it is played by the very best. The Congressional has been won only once by an outsider. In 1977 Ted Turner, the full-voiced Lochinvar, came riding out of the Southeast to take the Cup on his eighth quest.

In all but three of the competitions staged to date, the boat sailed by the contestants was a Cal-40, a remarkable design that, before production was stopped in 1971, won the overall title on the Southern Ocean Racing Conference twice and the Transpac three times. In the early years of the Congressional, skippers and crews were allowed to tinker with the hulls loaned them and to use a variety of sails, but in the past decade the Long Beach Yacht Club, which sponsors the event, offered craft that were almost identical in configuration, displacement and sailpower. Despite the equality, the Southern Californians kept on winning, and no one can truly say why. It may be in their diet. It may be in their genes.

Some claim Southern Californians succeed in the Congressional Cup because they do more match racing—a point well made, although it is fast losing validity. Others say it is the Californians' familiarity with the Cal-40 and with their home waters. This year's contest and other recent events indicate otherwise. Six years ago the Royal Lymington Yacht Club of England started a match-race series virtually identical to the Congressional. Two Southern Californians—Dick Deaver, who won the Congressional in 1976 and 1978, and Durgan—were invited to try for the Lymington Cup last spring. Skippering unfamiliar hulls in English waters, they placed first and third, respectively. Two years ago France started a similar event, called the Coupe des Skippers. In his only try for it in 1978, Deaver won in a hull he had never sailed before.

Because the Cal-40s, over the years, were gradually passing out of the hands of the enthusiasts who loaned them to the Congressional, and because the boats were being altered in half a dozen ways that made it difficult to round up 10 that were reasonably equal, several years ago the Long Beach Yacht Club began casting about for a replacement. Frank Butler, designer, proprietor and president of Catalina Yachts, came up with the Catalina 38, a design that in gross proportions was similar to the Cal-40 but different in configuration and performance. Long Beach sailors bought the boats with a mind to racing them as a class and also lending them to the yacht club for use in the Congressional. Because the Catalina 38 is highly restricted, the Long Beach Yacht Club got boats that were far more equal than the aging Cal-40s. The Catalina foots higher and goes along well in a line, but it is not so nimble and quick, and could not engage as spectacularly as the Cal-40 in the pre-start maneuvering.

Rod Davis, a 24-year-old sailmaker who represented the Long Beach Yacht Club at the Congressional, observed before the series, "With the Catalina, there won't be any of that mad circling. On a Cal-40, the helmsman could tie the tiller over and go below and have lunch while the crew worked to keep the boat spinning in circles. On the Catalina you can't do that. It's a whole new learning process, and the old hands have got just as much to learn as I do."

To judge by last week's results, Southern Californians would keep on winning if the Congressional were sailed in Cal-40s, Catalina 38s, lapstrake catamarans or pine coffins. After two days of racing, Davis led the field with a won-lost record of 6-1, beating two of his fellow Californians, Deaver and Dougherty, and losing only to Turner. In Davis' first race of the final day, he beat Durgan at the start and led by three seconds at the first windward mark. In the heat of the moment, both fouled their spinnakers. Durgan's hourglassed on him. Davis' snarled with the genoa and caught on a jib hank, ripping halfway across a center panel seam. That cost him the title. At the first leeward mark he was 29 seconds behind, and he never got it back. In matches won and lost, Davis actually tied Durgan 7-2, but by the rules, in the case of such a tie, the Cup goes to the man who beat the other in their head-to-head match.

Deaver and Turner had equal records of 6-3. Because he beat Deaver in their head-to-head match. Turner took third, thereby spoiling a California sweep of the first three places. The fourth California skipper, sailmaker Ron Dougherty of Newport Beach, crewed in the Congressional Cup eight years ago, but did not like the flavor of it and swore off. "I really hated it," he said last week. "It's a big yelling match between crews."

Despite his distaste. Dougherty entered the Pacific Match Racing Championships and beat six rivals for the right to compete in the Congressional. He thereupon went about proving his distaste by losing to almost everyone he should have beaten, and winning over two of the three superstars, Deaver and Turner. In his match against the third superstar, Durgan on Pokai. he lost the start (where most of the yelling occurs), trailed by 13 seconds at the first leeward mark, then out-tacked Durgan all the way up the second windward leg to lead by 22 seconds. Dougherty still had 19 seconds at the last leeward rounding, but lost in the 20-tack duel that had owner Thompson dancing around belowdecks on Pokai. To knock off two superstars and lose by two-fifths of a second to the third is not bad at all for a man who has no taste for the game.

Although in the past 10 years they have been outnumbered 2 to 1 by outsiders, Southern Californians have now won the Cup nine times. In that same decade 11 foreigners from five countries have tried, and only one of them, Hugh Treharne, a blue-water skipper from Australia, has finished better than fifth. While the Southern Californians seem to be forging ahead, the rest of the world appears at best to be holding its own. Last year Harold Cudmore, a globe-trotting Irishman who won the Lymington Cup in '78, finished fifth; last week he was sixth. In his first Congressional in 1977, Pelle Petterson of Sweden tied for sixth. Returning last week with the cadre of the crew he will use in his 1980 America's Cup campaign, Petterson tied for seventh. In his first try last year, Bruno Troublè, helmsman for the French in the America's Cup this summer, came in ninth; this year he tied for seventh. Jim Hardy, who will be skippering his third America's Cup boat for Australia this summer, finished 10th in his Congressional Cup debut, winning only two of his nine races.

If the grand game of match racing as practiced in California has gotten into the blood of a lot of faraway sailors, most of them still appear to be anemic for lack of winning.

PHOTOThis huge rip in the spinnaker left Ron Davis' Cup hopes in shreds. PHOTONewport Beach's Durgan hoists one to his .4-second win

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)