Like moths to the Cup flame

Again challengers flock to Newport, pursuing the elusive America's Cup
August 10, 1980

Sverige of Sweden, Lionheart of England, France 3 of France and Australia from Down Under. For seven weeks, on days of dismal fog and days of bluebird weather, these 12-meter beauties have been working together, dancing hand in hand through the seas off Newport. This week the music stopped, and the dancers started scrapping to determine which will meet the U.S. for the America's Cup in mid-September.

All four countries have been involved in the impossible dream before. This is Sweden's second try for the Cup. In the modern era of 12-meter boats, it is England's third attempt, France's fourth and Australia's sixth. Some of the mainsails and jibs on the four prospective challengers do not look good; some of their spinnakers look godawful. For all that, they are an impressive lot. None of the hulls is a dud; none of the skippers is naive enough to believe he has a decisive edge.

The foreign competition should be the closest yet, and as a consequence the eventual winner should be the best ever to challenge the U.S.

Still, it is doubtful that the Cup is in danger, for the U.S. defense effort has also been intense. Before the foreign racing began this week, the three prospective American defenders, Freedom, Clipper and Courageous, had sailed 47 races in the Preliminary and Observation Trials, only two fewer than the contending boats sailed in the entire summer of 1977. The results have been lopsided. Freedom, a boat that has been hard at it for more than a year, finished the two sets of trials with 32 wins and three losses. Clipper, the bargain-basement beauty that did not go into the water until last April, won nine and lost 24. Courageous, the two-time defender, busted her mast on the fifth day of the July trials, and ended up with a 6-20 record.

Although the other boats often gain on Freedom on leeward legs, to windward and reaching she is far and away the best on every discernible count: the action of her hull in both slick and sloppy water, the helmsmanship of her skipper, Dennis Conner, the work of the crew in jib changes, tacks, spinnaker sets and drops. Freedom has the capacity to attack as well as defend.

Ted Turner, who won the Cup as skipper of Courageous in 1977 but is losing badly now, has always had a hard time getting through any sort of campaign, be it a winning or losing one, on land or on sea, in business or in sport, without letting at least one imp out of a box. There are two biographies of Turner that explain 95% of him with candor and charm, but there is 5% of Ted that probably not even he understands. Three days before the U.S. July trials were to end, Turner asked an old friend, Ben Lexcen, to race on Courageous and counsel him on spar problems. Who is Ben Lexcen? He is a brainy iconoclast, a laughing boy, a gentleman who is not impressed with his own many achievements. He does not wear his yacht-club burgee on his neckties. He is, in brief, one of those rare mortals who help decongest the ordinarily stuffy America's Cup scene. Lexcen also happens to be the co-designer and tactician of Australia. Turner did ask the New York Yacht Club's America's Cup Committee for permission to have a 12th man aboard, but in his hasty phone call failed to say that the guest consultant on Courageous would be Australia's Lexcen.

Back in 1815, did Napoleon consult Wellington's engineers about the problem of the sunken road at Waterloo? Did the Greeks seek any Trojan's advice about how to build a wooden horse? Turner was certainly acquainted with the policies of the America's Cup Committee, notably that secrecy is an essential part of the effort. After the committee learned that Lexcen was aboard Courageous, it expelled Turner from the balance of the July trials—and justifiably so.

"I wasn't trying to hide anything," Turner says by way of explaining his gaffe. "I did it in front of God and everybody. Let's face it, if you're a doctor and you are sick, you call in another doctor. Australia is going to be the challenger, but we have nothing new. They've been watching us from 50 feet away in rubber boats. They're faster than they were last time, but the America's Cup is as safe as it could possibly be. We're also faster; we're just not fast enough."

Will Australia indeed be the challenger once again? If time and money were the only essentials, then for certain the winner of the foreign eliminations, and the Cup itself, would be France. If France should emerge as the challenger, it would be an honor well deserved and statistically overdue for Marcel Bich, the ballpoint-pen baron who has bankrolled the effort since 1970. In its first three attempts—in 1970, 1974 and 1977—the baron's team sailed in 20 foreign elimination races and lost them all. The attempts of Sir Thomas Lipton, the lovable old dispenser of tea bags and Gaelic charm, to win the Cup in five tries from 1899 to 1930 seem almost trifling compared to the effort of Baron Bich. At one time or another Bich has owned eight 12-meter boats of varying worth. Since 1970 he has probably spent more than $7 million. His present campaign, which began about two years ago, has already used up more than $2 million.

After shuffling skippers about to no avail in the 1970 foreign eliminations, the baron himself took the helm in the final race against Australia and sailed off the course lost in a fog. After excoriating the officials, he withdrew into his shell. Seven years later, when France almost beat Australia in one elimination race and Sweden in another, the baron was, if not as lovable as old Sir Tommy, at least approachable. This year he is back in his shell. His customary exchange with gentlemen of the press consists of two sentences: "I do not give interviews. See my son Bruno." On upwind legs in practice races this past month, the baron has been sharing the wheel with his appointed helmsman, Bruno Troublè, prompting one Australian to comment. "It looks as if the baron is back to his old habit of spitting in his own drink of whiskey."

The baron stands apart from his men, sartorially as well as socially. He goes to sea dressed head to foot in white; his crew are all in blue. "When we are ahead in a race, Mr. Bich is very nice," helmsman Troublè says. "He cleans my glasses and peels an orange for me. When we finish behind, I get my plane tickets for Paris ready. Are the men tired? Not the chiefs, but the Indians, they are very tired, bored. I tried to get from Mr. Bich some days off for them, but he is a machine for work and cannot understand."

The French do seem to be suffering from an acute deficiency of esprit gaulois. Although their smiles are hard to find, they have one very valid asset to sustain them: for the first time they have a hull worth sailing. France 3 has a short keel that makes for difficult steering in heavy weather and tangled seas but keeps the boat quick and nimble in tacking duels. Most of France 3's workouts this summer have been against Sverige. The Swedish boat has proved better in winds over 17 knots. In the medium range it has been a fairly even go, but in light air, which often prevails off Newport in late summer, France 3 has been superior. The boats seem equal reaching, and France 3 has had the edge downwind.

Bill Ficker, the Californian who defended the Cup in 1970, when Intrepid fought off Gretel II of Australia in one of the toughest series of all, sailed much of last summer aboard France 3 and also on old Intrepid, which served as her trial horse. Since the mid-'60s Ficker has been at the helm of about a dozen 12-meters and it is his gut feeling that France 3 may be the best of the challengers. But a good hull alone does not a successful summer make. To win, one also needs a little fraternitè, ègalitè, fèrocitè and a damn good sailmaker.

Warren Jones, executive director of Australia's America's Cup effort, said recently, "I have a pet saying I keep repeating, 'Nobody will beat the Americans by copying them. Innovation will win the America's Cup.' " If innovation is the key to the vault, then the challenger this year will be Sverige or Lionheart. Pelle Petterson, designer and helmsman of Sverige, is the brainiest of the foreign skippers. On Puget Sound last September he won the world 6-meter championship in smashing fashion, sailing a boat called Irene, which he designed with a bump, or "chin," in her forefoot. Irene was a hellion upwind. This winter Petterson lopped the front 18 feet off Sverige, the same hull he campaigned three years ago, and reshaped her as best he could like his winning 6-meter. Will Sverige now prove to be a breakthrough hull like Irene! Probably not. What is right for a quick little lizard is not necessarily right for a ponderous dinosaur.

The Swedes are a sociable lot. If they have a fault as America's Cup men, it is a lack of hawkishness, a tendency to sail the course as if racing against a fleet rather than covering or attacking one rival. "Our teamwork, our tactics will be better this time," Petterson vows, "but I still feel boat speed is most important. If you have speed, you have confidence. You know you can always beat the other guy, and if he seems slower at one time or another, you capitalize on it."

Although she is the most distinctive of the challengers in both hull and spars, England's Lionheart already seems old and down at the heels. Her gold waterline stripe and her black topsides are so scuffed and scarred that she looks as if she had crossed the Atlantic on her own bottom, battling a pod of barnacled whales all the way. Lionheart's staunchest detractors say that her hull, though distinctive, is a step in the wrong direction and her super-bendy mast too radical a departure. Her mast can be bent six feet, and when she is romping over a sea with only a mainsail on, she looks somewhat like a giant Finn dinghy crewed by Lilliputians. Despite the suspicions lodged against her (some with a tinge of envy), in workouts against her customary training mate, Australia, she has held her own, significantly doing well in light air, where some thought she would not.

"There are many dinghy sailors in the English crew," Troublè of France 3 points out, "and you can never be sure of beating Englishmen who have been sailing around in small boats." Lionheart's helmsman, John Oakeley, has spent much of his lifetime in dinghies and small keel boats. He is an aggressive hawk who in the give-and-take of crowded fleet races has won his share of honors—and also protest flags.

Oakeley's first exposure to America's Cupping affected him not at all. He was invited to Newport three years ago to see Courageous defend against Australia. "Quite honestly, I went to sleep during one race, I was so bored," he says. "In England we have it in the press how exciting the America's Cup is, but in the first race the starting line was about a quarter-mile long. Australia started at the starboard end and America at the port end. While watching the race, I was listening to it on VHF radio, and the commentator said, 'Fantastic start. The most beautiful start in the history of the America's Cup, only one second between the two boats.' He failed to say there was a quarter mile between them. I have seen more exciting racing in club events. The America's Cup," Oakeley concludes, "is like English cricket: if you are taking part, it's not bad; if you are merely watching, it's diabolical."

An America's Cup quest, with its tedious months of preparation, its days of crisis and its hours of doubt, is not compatible with the temperament of typical Australians, who prosper on spontaneity and slambang action. Still, the Aussies have been at it for nearly 20 years, their fervor undiminished. In the three previous eliminations to select a challenger, the Aussies have prevailed, and this year they will probably win again, by beating out Lionheart for the right to meet the U.S. Before Australia got into the act in 1962, in 17 previous challenges British and Canadian boats had sailed 54 races against the Yanks and won only five. On their first go at it, aboard a downwind beauty called Gretel, the Australians won one race and, except for a premature spinnaker drop, might have had another. This success was almost their undoing. By their second challenge, in 1967, the Cup fever in some of the Aussies was running so high it addled their senses. They saw spies in the shadows and gremlins in the rigging. They were unnecessarily grim.

Today they still have the Cup affliction, but it is well contained. They know now how to be serious in purpose yet light in heart. Behind the desk occupied by Warren Jones at the wharfside office of the Australian team, there are two statuettes of owls and a gilded replica of an eagle of heroic size. Above them a sign reads: "If you want to soar with the eagles in the morning, you can not hoot with the owls all night." At the Candy Store, a Newport bistro largely given over to tourist yokels who thrill at the idea of mixing with the America's Cup men who have come from afar, in the '70s it was often hard to spill a beer without dampening an Australian. Today at the Candy Store—or "Kiddies Delicatessen," as it is derisively called by some America's Cuppers—the celebrity seekers still abound, but the celebrated Aussies being sought are hard to find.

Both Jim Hardy, skipper of Australia, and Ben Lexcen have known the best and the worst of Cup quests. In 1974 Hardy was at the helm of Lexcen's first 12-meter design, Southern Cross, when she lost four straight to Courageous—three times by wide margins. Four years earlier, at the helm of Gretel II, Hardy won one race against the defender Intrepid and finished decisively first in another, only to lose it because of a starting-line foul. Such was the quality of Gretel II that in some conditions the U.S. skipper, Ficker, was reluctant to engage her in a tacking duel and was able to pull out one race only by applying loose cover to his rival and playing the wind shifts. At the thought of what might have been, Hardy merely shrugs. "Let's put it this way," he says. "Based on my record, it is safe to say I can guarantee you at least second place in the America's Cup anytime."

In 1977 Lexcen's second 12-meter, Australia, also lost four straight to Courageous, but never by embarrassing margins. As redesigned by him for the present attempt, Australia is better still. Her sails and spars are better, her crew eternally willing. For all that, Lexcen is not dazzled by the prospect of victory. "If Australia won the Cup," he says, "who around the world would notice? If the entire continent of Australia sank into the sea, it probably would not make the newspapers in Little Rock, Arkansas. I spent four years in Europe. I looked in the papers for news of my own country. The only thing I remember reading was that some Australian had broken the world spaghetti-eating record."

The Aussies are still moths to the flame, but too wise now ever to be badly burned, or foolishly consumed by the importance of the affair.

PHOTOTed Turner's hopes were badly bent, if not broken. PHOTOThe baron in while is, indeed, a splendid sight. PHOTOThe Aussies passed up elbow bending at Newport bars to concentrate on more constructive exercises.

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)