Twelve-meter boats have been called "the thoroughbreds of the sea," an apt enough analogy, though the upkeep of a 12, including the continuously changing inventory of new and still newer sails, is more expensive than that of any horse. But despite all the loving care and cash lavished to keep these exotic creatures in shape for their only major competition—the America's Cup—12-meter boats, like their equine counterparts, are brittle critters. Running backstays break, spreaders buckle, tangs fatigue, winches choke up, halyard locks fail, hydraulic rams malfunction, booms crack, masts fall down. This summer in the seas off Newport, the old American heroine, Courageous, and all of the foreign boats vying for the berth of challenger—Australia, France 3, Lionheart of England and Sverige of Sweden—suffered a succession of such calamities. By contrast, Freedom, the San Diego boat seemingly too perfect to be real, suffered no breakdowns while racing. Flawless Freedom swept the U.S. trials and earned the right to defend the silver ewer in next week's races against Australia, winner of the foreign series.
The challenger's trip to the America's Cup finals wasn't an easy one. After a comparatively uneventful round-robin series in early August, Australia met Sverige, and France 3 squared off against Lionheart in the semifinals. Then all sorts of strange things happened. France 3 beat Lionheart in one race by nearly 10 minutes. How come? On the way to the first mark Bowman Richard Clampett of Lionheart fell overboard. In another race, Lionheart led France 3 by more than six minutes at the first mark. How come? In their prestart dueling Lionheart banged France 3 so hard in the rump that her Loran antenna was carried away, compelling the French to grope for the buoy in the fog.
The foreign semifinals also saw protest flags flapping all around. Three of the six races between Lionheart and France 3 were settled in the jury room after the boats had collided. As they waited to testify for the third time, Iain Macdonald-Smith, Lionheart's tactician, told Helmsman Bruno Troublè of France 3, "Bruno, we simply can't go on meeting like this." After waiting an hour and a half for the verdict on another protest, Tactician Ben Lexcen of Australia declared, "What we should do is turn all the boats loose in a demolition derby. Personally, I'd like to see a bloody hurricane come along and leave them all high and dry on Thames Street."
In her semifinal round against Sverige, Australia endured more breakdowns than most boats suffer in an America's Cup summer. Shortly after she rounded the final mark of the second race, with a lead of almost three minutes, a spreader folded, and Australia's mast went over the side. In their fourth meeting, Australia lost to Sverige by nearly 3½ minutes, because 1) a half hour before the start, after her mainsail had been raised, her halyard lock failed. With time running out, Scott McAllister, a cattle breeder from north of Perth, was hoisted up the swaying mast and made repairs before the gun went off. Australia won the start and was drawing away when 2) the head of her jib tore out and the flailing canvas broke one of the jumper stays. After cleaning up that mess, Australia slowly closed on Sverige until 3) the Australian boat's bow dug deep into a wave just as McAllister was preparing a jib for the next windward leg. Foot-deep water swept across the deck, carrying the jib back with it into the sea and leaving McAllister hanging over the side. Recalling the 20 minutes he spent swinging at the top of the mast, McAllister said, "Under these kinds of conditions, I'm not anxious to rush back up the mast again." But he did just that when the halyard lock failed again in the middle of the next race. In spite of these disasters, Australia defeated Sverige 3-2 and qualified for the two-boat finals. Her opposition there was France 3, which, in turn, had beaten Lionheart 4-2 to earn a spot in the finals for the first time since Baron Marcel Bich first set his yachting cap for the America's Cup back in 1970.
Although Australia and Skipper Jim Hardy, as expected, won the challengers' finals 4-1, the most memorable dockside celebration took place after France 3's lone victory over the Aussies. While spectators and sailors looked on in wonder, Baron Bich, elegantly attired in white from head to toe, pinched his nose and leapt into the cold and oily waters of Newport Harbor. It was the Baron's swan song. Only a few hours earlier the 66-year-old ballpoint-pen magnate had announced that this was his last attempt at the Cup. He would be almost 70 at the time of the next challenge, too old for a concerted effort. But France 3's one victory was a sweet farewell. Said Bruno Bich, the Baron's son, who managed the French campaign, "It was the brains of the people aboard France 3 that won the race. Some people have been saying we do not have the brains for sailing. This showed we have learned a lot in 10 years."
The trials to pick an American defender of the Cup started so long ago it is hard to remember that in the very beginning it was a wide-open game. It all began in the early afternoon of June 21, when Courageous and Freedom sailed two races in clean westerly air on a dark, sparkling sea. In the first race, Ted Turner, who defended the Cup three years ago, put Courageous across the starting line with a slight edge. After holding off his sometime crewmate and ofttimes rival Dennis Conner of Freedom around four marks, Turner romped away to win by one minute, 25 seconds. In the second race, Conner won the start and held Turner off. It was a day with a lot of give-and-take, tack on tack, split and cover.
After his boat was tucked away that evening, Conner was met by a small clot of pressmen who asked how he thought Courageous and Freedom compared. Flashing one of his quick, short smiles, Conner said, "The boats seem very even. It looks like it's going to be a hell of an exciting summer."
The next two days seemed to bear him out. On the morrow, Courageous lost two races to the third American 12-meter, the upstart Clipper, skippered by Russell Long, a mere child of 24 years. On the third day, Conner's Freedom beat Clipper twice. Right there the suspenseful summer came to a premature end. What had shaped up as a ding-dong, three-way tiff, became a succession of lopsided routs. If Conner proved to be a prophet of very limited vision, he had only himself and his crew to blame. By late August, when the America's Cup Committee decided it had seen more than enough racing and tapped the West Coast boat to defend, Freedom had sailed 47 races and had lost only four. Courageous never beat her after their encounter on the first day, and one of Clipper's three victories over Freedom was earned, not on the water, but by protest in the jury room.
Conner's effort with Freedom and her trial horse, the 1977 contender Enterprise, began nearly two years ago, at a projected cost of $2.3 million. Today, the wonder of it all is not the cost, but how well the whole shebang, human and mechanical, held together. In a practice start before Freedom's first race she did pop the cable of her traveler, but that was the entire extent of her mechanical misfortunes. Equally remarkable, Freedom finished the trials sailed by the same 11 men who started on her in June.
Clipper, the American boat that finished with the next-best record, 13 wins and 32 losses, also had little mechanical trouble, but her crew changes gave the boat the flavor of Alice and her Wonderland friends at the Mad Hatter's tea party. In the course of the summer, four tacticians signed on: first, Andy Rose, a Californian who had served in the afterguard of the 1977 Cup challenger Australia. Rose was followed by Tony Parker, a Congressional Cup veteran, who was succeeded by Tom Blackaller, the world's best six-meter sailor, who was followed in late August by Gary Jobson. Seeing that Jobson had come on as navigator, but was really tactician, and Blackaller was starting helmsman and sometimes tactician, who was navigating? "Simple," Jobson said. "This late in the game, we decided not to have a navigator. It's like pulling your goalie in hockey." As in the hard-water game, it was a desperate measure.
Although Turner's Courageous finished the summer with its famous 1977 crew almost intact, the boat kept coming apart. Throughout the chain of disasters, however, the skipper remained vintage Turner—part sailor, part scholar, part clown, waxing philosophical and historical. In the July trials, an interior tang failed, and Courageous' mast collapsed, along with Turner's Cup ambitions. "I looked to heaven, and what did I see? A band of angels coming after me," he said.
In a practice race 11 days before the final August trials, while trying to duck Courageous' stern with nothing to spare, Skipper Long of Clipper misjudged and slammed his boat into his rival's transom with such force it opened up an eight-inch gash, carried away Courageous' backstay and warped her remaining mast beyond repair. "It's bad," Turner said, "but it's not Corregidor. We can't operate, but at least we don't have to walk for a week with nothing to eat." Although an apologetic Long loaned Clipper's spare mast to Courageous, it wasn't enough to keep Turner and company from becoming the first boat eliminated from the U.S. trials. Less than a week later, Long and the Clipper crew received the thanks of the America's Cup Committee, while Conner got their congratulations. At long last, it was down to two: Freedom and Australia.
Based on the performances over the summer, it would seem that Freedom should successfully defend the Cup against Australia without losing a race. The American boat has sailed far harder and longer than Australia and won her berth by beating better boats more consistently. In addition, Freedom has one unparalleled advantage never before enjoyed by any challenger or defender: a stablemate named Enterprise that was redesigned to make the boats as equal as possible over the whole range of winds. Thus when Freedom was practicing she was getting better competition than many defenders have faced in real races.
Australia was anxious to get the foreign eliminations out of the way so she could start testing a new, very flexible mast of the sort Lionheart had used with mixed success. No one, not even the Aussie brain trust, knows how much it will improve her, if at all. Australia seems to have a particular strength straight downwind, but even if she proves superior to Freedom while running, it would be a relatively minor asset, because only about a fifth of the 24.36-mile Cup course is on that point of sailing. What sustains interest in the America's Cup—at least until the rivals meet for the first time—is that no matter how far the burden of evidence tips the scales, no one can really be sure of the outcome. Thoroughbred tracks are reasonably similar, so it is possible to make some judgment on the relative merit of 3-year-olds racing at, say, Hialeah and Santa Anita. But the sea is never the same, and the tactical circumstances of a match race rarely so. Every tack, every sail change takes time, and just how much depends on when it is made. The America's Cup is, in brief, a poor place for clockers and oddsmakers. As Bruno Bich points out, "Every 12-meter looks fast until it races against one faster." Just like thoroughbreds.