It was a typical June day in San Francisco when Mayor Dianne Feinstein cracked a bottle of Domaine Chandon over the bow of USA, the city's entry in the America's Cup derby. A blanket of fog hid the sun, and the cold, steady wind drove the christening balloons toward Oakland and the blessed warmth of the valleys beyond.
There was a time when America's Cup challenges were born of "alcohol and delusions of grandeur," as Australia's Sir Frank Packer once put it. Today they are more likely to be born of Perrier and wounded pride. While Dennis Conner and the New York Yacht Club were the visible losers when Australia II, with her daring winged keel, sailed away from Liberty on the next-to-last leg of the seventh and final race at Newport in 1983, American technology, marine division, sustained a blow to its collective ego equivalent to that dealt the U.S. by the Soviet Union's Sputnik launching in 1957. The result has been a cavalry charge of scientists into the breach for the 1987 Cup races off Perth, Western Australia. In the vanguard of the new 12-meter technologists is Heiner Meldner, 48, a German-born physicist who has taken a leave from his work on Star Wars weaponry at the government's Lawrence Livermore research laboratory in northern California to join the St. Francis Yacht Club's Golden Gate Challenge for the America's Cup. "If Australia II was the Sputnik shot for yachting, what we have in the Golden Gate group is the Apollo program," says Meldner.
Meldner is an expert in the uses of the world's largest computer, the Cray X-MP/48, which is capable of handling 1.2 billion instructions per second—BIPS to you. With it, he and Golden Gate colleagues Gary Mull, a naval architect, and Alberto Calderon, a fluid dynamicist, and 60-odd part-time volunteers from California's scientific and academic communities have been able to test the worth of hundreds of radical ideas for hulls, keels and rudders with a speed and accuracy never before possible.
Trying out a new idea—drawing the lines, building a scale model, testing the model—was a process that once took months. Now, using computers such as Meldner's Cray and highly sophisticated three-dimensional flow-analysis programs, an idea can be evaluated, from concept to dustbin, in eight hours. "I tell Heiner his computer just allows us to make mistakes faster than ever before," says Mull. Of course, being able to make mistakes is the whole idea, since it was fear of making mistakes that led American designers into the fatal conservatism that lost the Cup to the Australians in '83. While U.S. designers were improving existing designs by tiny increments—an inch here, a bulge there—the Australians, desperate for an edge after six tries at the Cup, were willing, with the help of Dutch computer experts, to take a technological plunge into the future.
August 24, 1986
"Alan Bond [chief of the victorious Aussie syndicate] apparently decided," says Mull, "and probably [designer] Ben Lexcen helped him decide, that to continue to make just a little bit better boat than the last time was not going to work, because the Americans were also making just a little bit better boat and always starting with the better boat."
Australia II's winged keel was a design "breakthrough," as was Intrepid in 1967, when designer Olin Stephens separated the rudder from the keel. Both advances made all other 12-meters of their day obsolete. Other attempts at radical change have failed humiliatingly—Britton Chance's Mariner in 1974 and Alan Payne's Advance in 1983, for two.
The 12-meter yacht that Feinstein christened USA on June 24 is known inside the St. Francis syndicate as R1, for Revolutionary 1, to distinguish the new boat from its predecessor, El, for Evolutionary 1. E1, launched last February, was a conventional winged-keel 12-meter design based on Australia II. It was intended from the beginning to serve as a benchmark for a more radical boat, but it was also meant to be a fallback entry for the Cup trials had the radical concept failed. Now that the syndicate has decided to run with R1, E1 has been relegated to the role of sparring partner.
Just how revolutionary is San Francisco's revolutionary 12-meter? According to skipper Tom Blackaller, previously a helmsman of two Twelves that failed to be selected as Cup defender, if one were to assign numbers for uniqueness on a horizontal scale with Liberty, a conventional pre-1983 12-meter, at 1 and Australia II, with her winged keel, at 3 or 4, "our boat is over here, at about 10." That, however, is all that Blackaller, or anyone else in the syndicate, will say. All have signed a nondisclosure pact that is said to be legally binding, and security around R1 is so tight as to make Australia II's blue plastic skirt in 1983 look like something out of a game of peekaboo. Meldner, whose office location in San Mateo is secret, meets interviewers in a pizza parlor. Even the names of the volunteer scientists who have worked on the R1 project are classified.
"The difficulty is that the list, to a knowledgeable person, reveals where our emphasis is," said Meldner one day between bites of pizza. "It's the same in the weapons business. We have to be careful not to reveal who is working on what, because an espionage technique is to put the pieces together out of 'O.K., this guy worked so much on that, and we know exactly what his specialty is.' "
"They are trained in paranoia out there in Livermore," says Mull. "As a joke I had a rubber stamp made up that Said, TOP SECRET, BURN BEFORE READING. I don't think Heiner even noticed."
Paranoia is not confined to San Francisco. Before the St. Francis challenge got under way a year ago, both Meldner and Mull worked briefly for Conner's San Diego challenge. Mull recalls a meeting there, held in a windowless room with double-sealed pneumatic doors, attended by syndicate officials and two former government agents, one CIA, the other FBI. There was talk, among other things, of telephone scramblers, locked drawing boards and messages to be sent by courier. Amused by it all, Mull wise-cracked to the group, "Who are we gonna hire to do our dirty tricks, Gordon Liddy?" When nobody laughed, Mull thought to himself, "Oops, maybe they already have."
Rumor has it that the Golden Gaters themselves are not above a trick or two. In 1984 Meldner organized a secret "intelligence" mission to Australia. Armed with a three-dimensional camera devised by the CIA to measure Soviet weapons during a May Day celebration, a team was sent to Perth to gather data. At the 11th hour, however, someone blabbed, and the mission was recalled. "Yachtsmen and secrecy are literally a contradiction in terms," says Meldner in the weary tone of a pro forced to deal with tyros.
Rumor also has it that San Francisco's big secret is a rudder in front of the keel as well as behind. Another holds that chain saw surgery was performed on the aluminum hull of R1 before the boat even left the yard where she was built. If the latter rumor were true, it would mean that all had not gone smoothly in the transition from design to reality.
"I can only tell you," says Blackaller, normally the most candid of America's Cup skippers, "that there is an awful lot of stuff written that is just bunk. We're going down there with a revolutionary boat, and if it works, and we have every indication it will, we're going to be revolutionarily fast."
Now that the designers have finished their work, the sailors take over. "You can go to race and you can go to war with the very, best technology," says Mull. "That doesn't mean you're going to win. It just means you are giving your side all the possible advantages you can. Then you pat the guys on the butt and say, 'O.K., it's your trip now.' "
The St. Francis crew had little more than a month of practice on San Francisco Bay to learn how to sail their new boat. A month is not much time, but they are a talented bunch, plucked by Blackaller from places as far away as Maine and as close to home as the junior sailing program at the St. Francis Yacht Club. On Aug. 9, R1 was put aboard a freighter to be shipped to Perth, a trip that was expected to take about three weeks. She and her crew will then have a month in Australian waters before the first race of the challenger trials, on Oct. 5. Again, not much time, but as Blackaller points out, the October races count only 1 point each versus 5 points for the November races and 12 for the December series.
Blackaller pooh-poohs the advantage allegedly gained by syndicates that have been practicing in the waters off Fremantle, Western Australia for a year and more. "We have 18-to 30-knot winds here on San Francisco Bay every day of the week between the middle of April and the middle of September. If we want to test the boats in smooth water we go inside [the Bay]. If we want water that's as rough as Perth we go 30 minutes outside the Gate to the Potato Patch Shoal, one of the roughest places in the world. The home team doesn't have that much of an advantage in international competition. I mean, I won the Star world championships in Spain and Rio de Janeiro. When they were here I finished third. It's some kind of media hype by the Australians, and I don't believe a word of it."
Hype is a valuable tool when wielded by skilled craftsmen. In 1983 the Australians hyped their secret keel with devastating effectiveness against Conner and the America's Cup race committee. For the '87 Cup, the six American challengers—not to mention the 10 foreign syndicates—are using various strategies. For the last two years the America II syndicate of the New York Yacht Club has played infinite variations on the theme of its vast experience and bottomless financial resources. From San Diego, Conner has struck fear into faint hearts by increasing his 12-meter navy to a previously inconceivable five boats. The Heart of America syndicate in Chicago claims to have the best sailor in the world, Buddy Melges, as its skipper, and nobody argues. The Eagle syndicate in Newport Beach, Calif., points with pride to its letterhead, which is sprinkled with the names of organizers of the enormously successful Los Angeles Olympics, among them Peter Ueberroth. The Courageous syndicate? Well, Courageous may be an old lady, but she did defend the America's Cup successfully twice, in 1974 and '77.
The Golden Gate challenge has hyped its technology. While city slickers in the men's grill at the St. Francis Y.C. may refer to their Twelves as V1 and V2 and brag about the Yankee ingenuity it took to hire a latter-day Wernher von Braun to design their boats, the hype is beginning to work. Oddsmakers in Australia have moved the San Francisco challenge up a notch or two in recent months, and corporate sponsors have begun to climb aboard.
If the hype holds water, if R1 's secret whatsit is worth keeping secret, and if the 1,001 things that can go wrong don't, the 1990 America's Cup will be sailed on San Francisco Bay, and the city that styles itself "the city that knows how" will have a chance to prove it.