After the race, skipper Tom Blackaller let me sail our 12-meter, USA, back to the harbor in Fremantle. Western Australia. It was like a gratuity from a wealthy man or an early birthday present. I was suddenly out of the grinders' pit, where I had spent the last 11 months at the winches, and behind the wheel of the America's Cup boat from San Francisco.
Tactician Paul Cayard didn't want to drive. It was Dec. 30, and we had just lost our third straight race to Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes in the semifinals of the challenger series. One more loss and we would be out, and Conner would be facing New Zealand in the challenger finals for the right to meet the Aussies for the Cup. Cayard sat on the deck in the very aft part of the cockpit, eyes closed, trying to sort out the hundreds of tactical decisions he had made through the long afternoon. The toughest part about America's Cup competition is that the boats aren't created equal; before meeting us in the semis, Conner and crew had widened the wing-lets on the Stars & Stripes keel, giving them a nasty speed edge that they wielded like a chain saw Cayard's job was to coax our boat in front of Conner's Today it hadn't happened.
I have to give Cayard credit—he worked damn hard, like a before-the-mast slave and not at all like a rock-star sailor who only shows up on race day. Cayard had been there in Anderson's Boat Yard on the outskirts of Sausalito during the toughest, longest, most miserable days of the program last summer, when we scraped two-man longboards covered with sandpaper across the aluminum hull—"fairing" it's called—making it as smooth as heaven-spun silk. We started with 36-grit sandpaper and finished with 600-grit, going at it 18 hours a day seven days a week This was as much a part of the America's Cup as riding the fine roller coaster over the thick abrupt waves off Fremantle.
Blackaller didn't want to drive the boat back to Fremantle, either. His hands had been nailed to the wheel since we had left the dock seven hours earlier, and he was ready for a break. Blacky strolled the foredeck, inspecting the mast and boom fittings, looking over the Indian Ocean toward Madagascar, looking at nothing in particular.
What was this old warrior thinking? Was he wondering if the results had been worth his time? For any competitive ocean racer the America's Cup is the ultimate quest, but now he was very near to losing a third campaign, losing to his nemesis, Conner. Blacky had a page full of excuses if he wanted them: shaky crew work, inadequate funds, faulty boat design. But the responsibility for the final result—win, lose or sink—rested on his shoulders.
TDB, Thomas David Blackaller Jr., was permanently etched on the chalkboard at the USA compound that listed the crew for the next day's racing. Blackaller, 47, was the heart of our syndicate and the money-raising effort to pay for our two boats and a million dollars worth of sails; he had also skippered USA in all but one of the races in our 23-14 Cup campaign.
USA was the most revolutionary boat in the 12-meter fleet, a loony beast with a unique front rudder, an aft rudder the size of a barn door and a secret keel nicknamed the Geek. (I can now reveal that the Geek was a 22,000-pound, torpedo-shaped hunk of lead that was suspended below the hull by a small blade of stainless steel.) The boat wasn't finished until June '86, which didn't give us much time to learn the techniques for making her go fast. We might have overcome that obstacle by practicing like maniacs. We didn't The reason was simple: Blacky hates to practice; he likes to race and nothing more.
Still, he and his beautiful wife, Christine, would have looked good in a parade up Market Street, the Cup bolted to the front of a Cadillac.
While Blacky and Cayard were thinking, I was driving. After all this time as a grinder—working the winches that trim the jib and the spinnaker—I only now noticed how compact the boat looked from this vantage point. From here the grinders' pit looked smaller than a phone booth, and the bow seemed only a few yards away. I should have ventured back here earlier.
Sailing was a new sport to me. I had won a gold medal rowing a double scull in the '84 Olympics, and over the last year I had learned to apply my strength to the winches. This adventure had started with a phone call from a rowing friend, Bruce (Sheik) Epke, who called me at my home in Corona del Mar, Calif. "Come on up and do some sailing." Sheik had said. "We need a grinder." So I learned to grind, which wasn't too difficult. The hard part was surviving the on-shore work marathons and what, to the uninitiated, resembled on-the-water chaos.
The third time out the Golden Gate, on a wild windy afternoon, we were racing another 12-meter, Canada II, for practice. We had just rounded the windward mark and were on the final leg; the spinnaker was perfectly filled and the mainsail fully extended. But the jib had been released too soon, and bowman Tommy Ducharme had not been able to control the massive sail as it fell toward the deck. A few yards of jib had slipped into the water, and it was acting as a sea anchor; I hustled to the foredeck to help bring the sail under control.
I grabbed the foot of the jib and leaned back with all my weight. Though the sail barely eased, I had enough slack to take one step backward—and fell through the starboard hatch. A clean fall. Barely bumped my forearms on the frame. Straight to the bottom, where two sharp-cornered aluminum bars, used as steps, waited for me. I imagined that the edges of the slanted floorboards six feet below would soon be painted with my blood. The fall seemed to take a long time—long enough to wonder what my mates would think when they peeled me off the floor. I prepared to hurt.
My right knee struck first, not against the steps or floorboards but against the soft nylon bag that had held the spinnaker seconds before. Then the rest of my body curled into the bag. I appeared from every angle to have fallen the whole six feet, but really I was no more than six inches below the hatch level. I climbed out of the hold and resumed my jib retrieval. I glanced toward the cockpit and saw nine open-mouthed faces looking at me, waiting for me to spout streams of blood or curses or to show something for my downward tumble. I just nodded and went back to work.
In Fremantle we had our share of excitement, like that crazy afternoon when we raced Eagle, the 12-meter from Newport Beach, in the second of the three challenger round-robins. The wind screamed through the rigging with such awesome abandon that merely staging a race under those conditions bordered on the suicidal. The wind gauge showed 24 knots true at the start, and then a squall came roaring down the course.
For the first time Blacky said, "O.K., guys, don't worry about the other boat. Just hang on and keep your heads down." Gone was his usual bravado; he was preoccupied with keeping USA in one piece. I couldn't help but think back to all those little modifications we had made to the mast and rigging in the name of saving weight—in the next 20 minutes the squall was going to test the mast's breaking point.
The wind increased to 29 knots as the squall came in. Wave after wave tumbled over the bow, water by the truck-load, one wave every three seconds. The ocean suddenly turned white, hot-white as in a laundry-detergent commercial. The force of a wave is much stronger than expected when it breaks over your back. The wave then disappears quickly, making a clean, fast exit, like a good thief. It takes with it some body warmth and leaves you with renewed respect for the ocean's power.
With Eagle leading the way, we found the first mark and rounded 30 seconds behind our opponents. Then the fun began. We didn't bother using a spinnaker—we didn't own one that could withstand that much wind. So with only the main and jib we took off after the Beagle, our opponent's nickname. A minute past the mark we began to pick up momentum, awakening the latent surfer in all of us We had plenty of power and we had the right surfboard for these conditions: a 65-foot-long 30-ton beast that was shaped especially for this day Everyone worked the grinder handles: Craig Healy on aft mainsheet pedestal, Big Mike Erlin and Zig Whitmore on mid-mainsheet handles Hank Stuart Scott Inveen and myself on jib handles, with Epke cranking the bilge pump. We worked in unison, like a demented punk-rock band playing to an underwater audience. The spectator fleet was locked safe and cozy in the harbor—the ocean belonged only to the racers. Blacky had given the wheel over to Cayard, and when I glanced around I could see Paul leaning into the swells, cranking bottom turns, working back up the face; we were flat-out surfing.
Eagle was just ahead, and with each wave we drew closer until we needed only one more good swell to blow past—the wave we wanted was spawned somewhere off Antarctica. Mainsheet trimmer Stevie Erickson saw it first, and as the wave drew closer to our transom he yelled to his waiting grinders, "Trim main! Big gainer on the way. Go for it!" Healy, Mike and Zig spun their handles with every ounce of strength, and then the jib-grinders took over, drawing the jib closer; we had just enough acceleration to push us over the top and lock USA into a deep-green, full-fledged, 15-foot wave. As we dropped in. the spray shot off the gunnels, pelting our dry suits like marbles, and each crewman let loose screams of exquisite pleasure—it felt so fine and fast, as though we were sailing over Niagara Falls.
Today's race against Conner was not as windy or exciting. We fell behind in the early legs and played follow-the-leader most of the day. As USA reached toward home I could see the skyline of Perth a few miles inland. I would not have missed the adventure of trying to win back the Cup for anything. I learned a whole new language, and the friends I've made are the best in the world. The racing is wonderful when we win—frustrating beyond words when we lose.
With the help of some impatient instructors like Russ Silvestri and Epke, I learned to grind like a madman, wet-sand the Geek until it shone like a diamond in the hot morning sun and pack spinnakers with the same care usually reserved for parachutes. Spinnaker-packing, a basic prerace chore, was a confusing puzzle when I first joined the syndicate, but I learned the drill so well that during the last months I was put in charge, and none of the spinnakers failed to open. They didn't always open as quickly as Blackaller liked, but it was better they opened a shade slow because if it's early, the chute might take a sudden dive into the water.
I learned to love the wind. After a few months of practice. I only wanted more wind—the windier it was the better—something I never thought I would hear myself saying when I was rowing and wanted it to be as still as possible. Let it hoot; break the masts and tear the sails; make the bowman pray for his life and twist the skipper off the wheel; let the front rudder shatter and the spectator boats hide in the harbor. Let it blow.
About 100 yards from the harbor entrance Blacky took back the wheel. Since arriving in Freo, he had perfected an "in-the-harbor" mainsail dropping technique that was the rage of Fremantle; now he was ready to resume center stage. A crowd had gathered on the breakwater to watch this tight, stylish maneuver. It showed up the boats that came in docilely under bare poles, towed by a tender. Too bad the international yachting jury didn't award style points. We would have been in the finals for sure.
Too bad the adventure is over.
Now that the racing is over, Brad Lewis plans to trade his boat shoes for a word processor.