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The race for the America's Cup.

Richard M. DeVos, an accomplished sailor and president of the Amway Corporation, looked in turn into the eyes of each of his dinner companions at the famed New York Yacht Club (NYYC) and lifted his glas in a toast. "To the cup," he said. "Let's bring it back to America."

DeVos, who serves as finance chairman of the America II Challenge syndicate sponsored by the NYYC, was toasting the world's most famous trophy--a 100-guinea, 27-inch Victorian silversmith's creation known as America's Cup--which now resides in the Royal Perth Yacht Club, Perth, Australia. A symbol of international yachting supremacy, the cup deserted the United States in 1983 for the company of a tenacious crew of Australians who had thrilled the world with their plucky seamanship. For the first time the United States had lost the world-famous America's Cup race, after 24 consecutive successful defenses.

The America's Cup race, held every three years, is named for the trophy given to any nation that can muster a 12-meter boat good enough to defeat all competitors. Many countries never field a boat, but the United States, Italy, Canada and Australia, to name a few, always muster at least one syndicate eager for glory.

The America's Cup was originally commissioned by England's Royal Yacht Squadron in 1848 as a prize given to the winner of a 53-mile race around the Isle of Wight. The race's name officially became "America's Cup" three years later when the schooner America claimed it by out-navigating 14 British competitors. America's captain was Commodore John Cox Stevens, the founder of the New York Yacht Club, whose club fought off every challenge for 132 years until Alan Bond's Australia II syndicate ended the dynasty.

The boasts, hoopla and excitement of the America's Cup haven't changed much since, but technology has. Today's boats are generally about 63 feet long compared with the 143' 8" winner of the 1903 cup race, Reliance. Millions of dollars have been spent by the collective syndicates on design--more so than ever since Australia II won the '83 race primarily because of its radically different keel designed by Ben Lexcen, a self-taught genius employed by the Bond syndicate. Lexcen, abandoned by his father as a small boy and raised in semipoverty, invented a keel with wings that he once boasted "looked like a giant plesiosaur with wonderful rounded flippers."

As a result of Lexcen's ingenuity, all the leading contenders for the cup are obsessed with the quest for a better design. Bill Langan, America II's chief designer, employed by the prestigious firm of Sparkman and Stephens, states the reason: "The loss of America's Cup can be blamed on many factors: overconfidence, complacency, nature of the selection process. But in the final analysis there is only one conclusion: The Australians beat the Americans with a technically superior 12-meter."

Richard DeVos and such well-known Americans as Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Ted Turner, Walter Cronkite and William F. Buckley, Jr., have formed the America II Challenge syndicate to raise $12 million in private and corporate funds to regain the cup from the Australians. The rematch is slated for January 1987, following a runoff to eliminate all but one challenging nation, which earns the privilege of trying to wrest the cup from the Australians. The race will be held off Fremantle Harbor near Perth, a bustling boom town.

All members of the America II committee are stonily quiet about the technical aspects of their boat, because each development is kept as secret as a classified Pentagon paper. It is known, however, that the streamlined 12-meter, white with blue-and-red, Yankee-style pin stripes, is nicknamed "Lego" by its crew after the child's toy: The keel, the mast and the rigging can be unbolted and replaced in a matter of hours, rather than days. Research by the America II design team relies not only upon testing scale models in giant tanks to study their virtues and flaws, but also upon a new field called computational hydrodynamics--the use of a computer to make accurate numerical calculations of the lift and drag of a boaths keel. America II's executive director, Tom Ehman, says that recent breakthroughs in the laboratory of Sparkman and Stephens have helped his syndicate surpass the 1983 accomplishments of the Australians. "We've got the finest group of people involved in the design process," says Ehman. "It meets or exceeds anything that anybody else has done."

In August '84, while all other syndicates were merely dreaming lofty dreams, the former Olympic silver medalist Captain John Kolius had already seen the lauching of America II. By November '84, working from their training facility on the Swan River in Perth, Kolius and the crew had tested the choppy, unpredictable waters of the Indian Ocean.

Unlike the relatively calm waters of the Atlantic off Newport, Rhode Island, where the cup traditionally was held, the waters near Perth are termed "a confused sea" by sailing experts. Boats designed for the Atlantic's 12- or 13-knot breeze handle poorly in Fremantle's 18-knot "Doctor" sea breeze.

The 32-year-old Kolius shows clearly how well he knows the time limitations he faces before his 12-meter boat is ready for prime-time competition. "It's one year, ten months and 24 days until the first race," he quips, "but who's counting?"

Kolius was rated only a long shot to win the cup in 1983. This year, with the resources of the America II syndicate fully behind him, the J-24 class world champion is rated the man to beat by Bond's Australian syndicate. Reserved by nature but blessed with a quick, dry wit, Kolius delivers little hype when discussing the America II. "She's right now doing better than any boat around," he says cautiously, "but we're not stopping here. We have an incredible amount to do even with the huge lead we have now. I will say this: No crew is as physically or mentally prepared as is this crew."

The demands put upon the youthful-looking Kolius are immense, but Tom Ehman insists the captain is up to the task. "John has the concentration it takes to win something like this," says Ehman. "He's very intense and dedicated, a guy who is a born, natural leader and sailor, a seat-of-the-pants guy with good judgment. There's nobody better suited for leading us on the quest before us. He's the best skipper in the country, and we're lucky to have him."

The United States will be no shoo-in for the role of challenger against one of several Australian syndicates vying for the honor. In fact, the United States is only one of several countries, including highly regarded challengers from Italy, Canada and New Zealand, now feverishly preparing for the all-important trials to be held in late '86. A record 24 syndicates from the other nations have plopped down the hefty $12,000 entry fee. (Five of the original challengers have already called it quits, and another half dozen are expected to fold.)

The America II Syndicate and the NYYC are out to subdue all other American and foreign challengers. Following the 1983 trials, the NYYC selected Dennis Connor, the skipper of Liberty, as the defender of America's Cup. Connor, a 1976 Olympic medalist, who edged out Kolius in the preliminaries, lost the 1983 cutp to Australia. Connor is once again slated to challenge the Aussies with the San Diego Yacht Club and his syndicate called "Sail America Challenge '87."

Connor, a far more boisterous man than Kolius, is a beefy, 42-year-old veteran who joined the San Diego Yacht Club as an 11-year-old child and declared even at that age that his goal was to win the America's Cup. In 1980, Conner achieved his lifelong dream, only to suffer defeat three years later. But Conner is a determined athlete with excellent credentials. His achievements include four Southern Ocean Racing Conference victories, two Congressional Cups, two Star World Championships and an Olympic bronze medal won in 1976. In addition, in 1974 Conner labored as both helmsman and tactician on the victorious America's Cup entry Courageous.

Connor lives to win, pure and simple. A typical day of practice begins at 6 a.m. as he takes on all his crew members in racquetball, another sport in which he's said to be unbeatable. The fierceness of his competitive nature is reflected in his book on the sport, entitled No Excuse to Lose. "I'm not really into sailing," he will tell you. "I'm into racing. I wouldn't enjoy just going out for a relaxing Sunday-afternoon sail."

Tom Ehman assets that unfamiliarity with the tricky, shark-infested Indian Ocean will spell trouble for Connor's Liberty. (As of this writing, Liberty had yet to be released by its designers for practice runs.) "All the physical demands that are put upon the boat make us feel all the more certain that our winter of work puts us ahead of everybody," Ehman exults. "Those other syndicates who haven't been there don't even have a clue as to what it's like."

Disagreement with Ehman's statement comes from a third American syndicate, Courageous II, the first Boston-based challenger in 50 years. Courageous II is unique in that three men are "trying out" for the role of skipper and that the 12-meter may just have the most sophisticated keel on the waters with its so-called "vortex wings" design. "The vortex-wings concept is a pretty solid one," asserts Courageous II vice chairman David Vietor. "It gives you an awful lot of increased stability, which is a speed-producing characteristics."

No matter what design is chosen, all competitors have one thing in common--the same passionate ambition. "Each syndicate wants to be the national flag bearer," Vietor says.

Incredible numbers of man-hours and dollars are being pumped into that very goal. So, at this time, let's lift our own imaginary glasses to echo Rich DeVos' toast. As the NYYC's commodore, "Bus" Mosbacher, puts it: "We want back that piece of furniture [the cup] that belongs in that room downstairs." Chimes in Chuck Kirsch, the chief executive officer of the America II Challenge, "It's only on loan."

Let's bring the cup home!
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Nuwer, Hank
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1985
Words:1673
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