The America’s Cup

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The chief competition now came from Australia, which first challenged, in 1962, with Gretel, a fast boat belonging to the publisher Sir Francis Packer. The skipper of the American defender, Weatherly, was the talented and shrewd Emil S. “Bus” Mosbacher. Normally the most aggressive man on the course, he realized that this time he had to lay off and try to win by his wiles. His strategy worked, yet sometimes Gretel was simply too fast. In the second race Gretel caught a huge wave and surfed by as her crew shouted war whoops. In the fourth race the Australians were moving up so rapidly that Mosbacher, hoping that they did not know where the finish line was, tried to lure Gretel off course onto a slow point of sail. She fell for the trick, and Weatherly held her off to win by only twenty-six seconds. In 1967 (after another American crew had won an easy victory over the British in 1964), Mosbacher made sure to return in the fastest boat. Designed by Olin Stephens with a radical keel separated from her main rudder and with almost all her crew belowdecks, Intrepid was another America’s Cup superboat. She beat the Australian challenger Dame Pattie by an average of more than four minutes, or half a mile per race.

In 1970 the America’s Cup underwent four changes whose cumulative effect, while not obvious then, was to transform competition and lead inevitably to a challenger’s win. First, a generation willing to spend far more money arrived on the scene. In 1970 the New York Yacht Club accepted a second challenge from the Packer syndicate with Gretel II and, more important in the long run, one from the French manufacturing tycoon Baron Marcel Bich, the man behind the Bic pen.

Second, because there were two challengers, the boat that ultimately sailed against the defender was honed by close combat in elimination races.

Third, in 1970 the Americans for the first time came to seriously question their technology. The New York Yacht Club had usually been at the forefront of most developments, from yacht design to construction using space-age materials like titanium. But that year the model testing system that Americans had developed to a high exactitude somehow misled their designers into producing slow, lumbering hulls.

And fourth, an extremely aggressive public relations campaign on the part of the challengers began to shift control over the event away from the New York Yacht Club.

Although the trimmer Gretel II had a speed advantage over the redesigned Intrepid, she lost the match because her crew simply did not sail well. They won the second race easily but were later disqualified by the New York Yacht Club’s race committee for colliding with Intrepid at the starting line. Though in the wrong on the rules, the Australians won the public relations battle. “An Australian skipper complaining to the New York Yacht Club is like a man complaining to his mother-in-law about his wife,” Frank Packer insisted in one of his more colorful protests. Gretel did win one race and came close to winning two more, but in the end her crew either did themselves in or were outsmarted by the American skipper Bill Ficker. The dispute put the New York Yacht Club on the defensive for the first time, and it finally relinquished some of its authority over the cup by appointing an independent international jury to decide fouls.

Power was being defused in other ways too. A new method for financing defenders arrived in 1974. The money for a cup campaign would now be raised not from a small number of millionaires, all New York Yacht Club members and friends, but from thousands of people, through tax-deductible donations to foundations or educational institutions that owned the boats. By 1980 the American skipper Dennis Conner could confidently declare, “I have 300 million Americans to represent. I have a lot to think about, and I don’t want to let them down.”

The defenders’ $1.5 million budget that year looked skimpy compared with the increasing outlays by the Frenchman Bich and a growing band of challengers, including Sweden, Canada, and Italy as well as Britain and Australia (in time Japan, Spain, Switzerland, and Russia would also challenge). The Swedes, in 1977, developed the “industrial challenge,” in which Volvo and more than sixty other Swedish companies supplied money, technology, and research. Not unlike America in 1851, Sverige was intended to show off her country’s technology in the international trade fair into which the America’s Cup was rapidly evolving. The difference lay in the now blatant commercial interest. Other competitors asserted their own financial goals. Alan Bond, a Western Australian real estate developer, said that he challenged four times between 1974 and 1983 partly because Newport offered an excellent opportunity for making contacts and doing business. “Successful men come to the America’s Cup to be with other successful men,” he said.