Sloops du Jour off Newport
Ahead of us a fine, 14-knot southwesterly breeze ruffles a quicksilver sea. In the hazy sunlight the horizon line is a blur of radiant mist. Through it, as the ferryboat Provincetown lumbers closer to the starting line, we suddenly make out the tall, spectral shapes of Courageous and Australia, coursing around beyond the committee boat. Seeing them for the first time is surprising, like getting an unexpected glimpse of a pair of large white unicorns playing in a formal garden.
Most of the spectators aboard Provincetown seem to be masochists who laid out $100 for the whole series. On my right a pretty, middle-aged woman holding a small Australian flag confides that she comes from Virginia and watched the 1974 races from this very spot. "I've spent five days on this boat this time," she adds. "I feel as if I'd crossed the Atlantic in her." On my left is a Canadian. There is a heavy scattering of Australians.
Nearly everyone seems to be rooting for hapless Australia. Just after the start there is a moment of hope: she edges ahead and tacks to starboard, taking Ted Turner and Courageous with her. But soon the two ships are driving into the haze as they tack toward the windward mark 4.5 miles away. At a distance, they sometimes resemble two white tents set side by side on a field of blue. As Australia drops behind, boredom is kept at bay on Provincetown by the practice of underdoggery, a game I know well from a boyhood spent as a diehard Red Sox fan, living in New York and watching the pin-striped Yankees destroy my hopes for a pennant year after year. The America's Cup brings out all the low dodges, delusive hopes and suspensions of common sense so essential to refined underdoggery.
Largely because of the cup rules about the procurement of cloth, design and sail-cutting talent, this year's series, like so many in the past, was anything but the dramatic duel of titans, the mystic mano a mano on the deep that sailors dream of and the New York Yacht Club ritually invokes. The outcome has been virtually certain since the first leg of the first race, when it was discovered that Australia—mainly because of the poor cut of her jibs—could neither point as high nor go as fast to windward as Courageous.
But hopelessness springs eternal on Rhode Island Sound. After three crushing defeats, Australia's loyal underdoggers were busy recalling all the old familiar whiny excuses, among them the "She can only move in light air" ploy. Shamelessly followed this summer by its corollary: "She can only move in heavy air." As the two boats—Australia 44 sec. back—beat up toward the spectator fleet, now placed upwind of the first mark, the word goes round. "Forty-four seconds behind! That's her best first leg ever."
But the sight of the two boats at the mark is chilling. Approaching it closehauled, Courageous shows her genoa jib and main as two smoothly perfect curves. They could be carved from ivory. Rounding, she swiftly hoists a small lime-colored spinnaker that instantly is set like a rock. Australia's jib is looser. Her mainsail shows ripples and ridges near its trailing edge. Her yellow spinnaker balloons uncertainly. She trails Courageous along both downwind legs. Aboard Provincetown we do not officially give up hope. But there is much passing about of gingersnaps, brownies, Bloody Marys and gin and tonics. Amidships, a young woman does pastel portraits at $15 a head. Below, people play cards or doze.
At the turn beginning the second windward leg, Courageous, now 56 sec. ahead, drops her spinnaker—she seems to make it disappear into her hull like a magician palming a green handkerchief. She trims her sails and heads into the wind. Australia, following, cannot match the angle at all and begins to slide sickeningly to leeward. On Provincetown the last conspiracies of underdoggery collapse. There is even talk of shuffleboard.
But at 3:40 p.m., when Courageous lopes over the line with a lead of 2 min. 25 sec., things take a livelier tack. Guns boom and horns blare. From all quarters of the sea, boats of every description head for Newport Harbor, like chips being drawn into a vortex, and thus begins one of those rare events that turn out to be even better than the oft-told tales about them. Australia and Courageous, under fast tow, slew and surf on the waves while the fleet presses around them. Fireboats fill the air with spray. Big boats and little boats, fat boats and thin boats, even a redheaded kid risking his neck on a sail-equipped surfboard, all churn along together.
Crewmen on Australia crouch on the wet foredeck to catch cans of beer tossed to them by passing boats. Champagne bottles follow. Courageous gets her share too. Small wonder that Skipper Ted Turner later turns up plastered at a press conference, after he and his crew and the Australians are tossed into the harbor. Now, as red Roman candles begin to soar and the hooting and cannonading increase, chorus after wobbly chorus of Waltzing Matilda begin to ring across the waters. The 23rd cup defense is over.
It does not seem to matter much that the U.S. trials, as usual, were a better test of class than the defense itself. Or that these festivities are out of proportion to the event. Or that more action should be squeezed out of an assemblage of nearly $10 million worth of 12-meter sloops—a fleet race afterward, perhaps, and maybe also some match racing in which, as in California's Congressional Cup, the crews swap boats to be sure it is the sailors and not their equipment that determine the winner. When the lady from Virginia gathers up her things and says, "See you right here in three years," I instantly make it a date.