Publish date:


Bus Mosbacher's big grin has iron and experience behind it, and he'll need both to defend the 111-year-old tradition of the cup America has never lost

The first, and quite often the last, impression one has on meeting Emil (Bus) Mosbacher Jr. (left), the skipper of the America's Cup defender Weatherly, is his smile. Our generation has been so wantonly smiled upon and beamed at by its heroes, politicians and Miss Rheingolds that the grin, as an expression of amusement or affection or indeed anything, has become about as worthless as an empty milk container. Mosbacher's smile somehow transcends this toothy prodigality, perhaps because the man himself is a throwback to a more charming, gracious and respectful age. It is singularly radiant, nigh on perpetual and, if its springs are sometimes baffling, it is always, and clearly, well meant.

The first, and quite often the last, impression one has of Mosbacher on reading his infrequent quotes in the newspapers is that he is a well-bred marshmallow. His remarks are characteristically bland, brief and beside the point. Mosbacher has been properly brought up, but he is not an animated marshmallow. Being a gentleman, and highly circumspect, he will never publicly criticize another skipper or boat or, as a matter of fact, say anything that can possibly be construed as rash, controversial or captious.

Mosbacher, in keeping with his style, is also conspicuously modest. The other day, when he was asked why he had rejected a publisher's offer to write a book on sailing technique, he replied: "If you're going to write on a subject you should know it." Bus Mosbacher, as even he must be aware, is considered, at 40, to be the finest helmsman of our time, "We call him The Wizard," says Vic Romagna, Weatherly's foredeck chief and spinnaker man, himself acclaimed the world's best in those departments. "After I've sailed with a man for a time I always can tell what he's going to do next," Romagna says. "I'm seldom wrong with Bus—but then I equivocate. I allow him two or three choices!

"The other boats actually are scared of him. When we come to the line you can see them squirm like eels. Once when we made a mistake and another boat crossed first, her skipper was so shook up he made a mistake and we passed him." ("Starts," Mosbacher has said, serenely, "are of great importance. In a fleet race a good 25%; in a match race, such as the America's Cup, perhaps 50%.")

Mosbacher's sense of decency is as unflagging and natural as his incredible smile. "Bus is the kind of guy you can sit down with while he has five gin and tonics," an acquaintance says, "thinking, at last I'll see the real Mosbacher. but he'll never say one thing that's out of line or knocks a soul. He just keeps right on smiling. You know, I've got to say it: he's really a nice guy!" His discretion is similarly rigorous. He was reluctant, for instance, to let it be known that his 10-year-old son had tears in his eyes when he broke the news to his father that Weatherly had been selected as the cup defender. "Ten-year-old boys aren't supposed to cry," Mosbacher says. "He might be embarrassed."

It was just like Bus not to have been at the Newport Shipyard pier, where Weatherly ties up, when the selection committee launch came alongside with the good word. Although almost everyone on the dock thought Weatherly would be chosen after handily defeating Nefertiti in the final trials for the third straight time, Mosbacher had calmly led his crew to Seafair, the Newport mansion they occupy this summer, instead of standing by. "The feeling was," he says lamely, "that the committee hoped to see us again in a little more breeze. It made for one nice thing, though. I had finished showering when my two older boys [Mosbacher, who is married to the former Patricia Ryan, has three sons: Emil III, 10, Richard Bruce, 9, and John D., 6] bounded into my room, the oldest a step ahead, of course. 'Daddy, Daddy,' they cried, 'you won, you won!' 'I know, I won, sons,' I told them. 'No, Daddy,' they said, 'you were selected!' " And how did Mosbacher feel at that consequential moment? "Well," he answered cautiously, "you remember when you wanted a red bicycle for Christmas real bad, and then Christmas morning finally came and you crept downstairs and there it was?"

When he isn't sailing, Mosbacher works in what he calls "a small family business"—an oil, natural gas and real estate investment concern which was founded by his father, who is now semi-retired. "We consider Dad chairman of the entertainment committee," Bus says. A generous man with little use for newfangled devices, Emil Sr. was delighted when, pinch-hitting for Bus in his New York office this summer, he found that the check-writing machine had made an error. While certainly not Standard Oil, the firm is no "small family business"; Bus and his kid brother Bob, 35, who directs the Houston branch, employ about 100 people. Bob Mosbacher is an outstanding sailor in his own right. In 1958 he won both the Mallory Cup and the Southern Ocean Racing Conference championship.

The brouhaha attending the America's Cup races and the publicity his success has brought him embarrass and distress Mosbacher, although, naturally. he is too courteous to complain about it. He is bewildered when reporters he hardly knows casually stroll into Seafair and join him at the breakfast table. He feels that, as an amateur, he should not be subject to the same invasions of privacy that, say, a Mickey Mantle, who is paid for his heroism, suffers. He won't admit it, but Bus would be just delighted if the cup races could be sailed in his bathtub back home in White Plains, N.Y.

Although Mosbacher has the glowing and, at times, even eerie good nature of a Prince Mishkin or, perhaps more appropriately, a Billy Budd—the smile, for example, seems to indicate an awareness, however naively arrived at, of a joy or goodness beyond common experience—he has iron in him. His triumphs as a sailor—Junior Champion of Long Island Sound, Intercollegiate Champion two years in a row at Dartmouth, dominance in Long Island Internationals after his wartime service in the Navy, canny leadership of Vim in the 1958 cup trials and the SORC title in 1959—are as much due to the way he selects and molds a crew and his qualities of command as to his attention to detail and design, his brilliant starts and his peerless work to windward. "He took an old crock of a boat and made it go," Romagna says, "but, more important, he took 10 guys and molded them together."

"On Weatherly" Mosbacher says firmly, "I like to hear any well-thought-out, reasonable suggestion—once. 'O.K., thank you,' I'll reply. I don't want to hear it again. I may have possession of a bit of information he doesn't have, but I don't want to take the time to explain it. A good crew should serve as assistant eyes, but only to give me information, not to say 'Hey, look at the dame in the yellow bikini.' Well, I guess that's all right, too. I give the only orders. It is not a democracy.

"What I demand most in a member of my crew is thought, the ability to think of what he's going to do next," Mosbacher has said. "I want a good seaman, but he also has to be intelligent, a nice person who'll give me no backwater, temperament or excitability. Of course, he can't be lacking in a degree of physical agility or strength. I know this sounds like the Boy Scout oath. The most important thing is the ability to work together. I'm not interested in brawn or reputation. I sailed with all but two of our crew before this summer. That's the sign of a misspent youth, I guess; you meet a lot of people. And I've had the same 10 guys with me since we started in May. One of the boats had 30-odd people on and off it."

There is no question of the loyalty of Weatherly's crew. "If one of us honchos goofs," says Romagna, "he says to the guy next to him, 'Give me a knife. I want to cut my throat.' "

"There were some mistakes when we first started racing," Crewman Don Matthews recalls. "We'd foul up something and only those who knew Bus could sense the displeasure. There was no yelling, no threats, no curses. [Mosbacher is incapable of shouting. In fact, his voice is so mild his commands have to be relayed forward.] Bus would say, 'We're going to jibe the spinnaker just as we get to the mark. I'll give the word and I know we'll do a much better job this time.' It wasn't much, only a bit of assurance that our crew was better than we thought it was. It was also a small tip that we had better be better, just a small hint that the jibe could be completed better than it had been, and all the time he has that friendly smile on his face. You know we did it better the next time and even better than that later."

Vic Romagna remembers a disastrous day in the trials this summer when a spinnaker went into the water. "I rushed back to the stern to get it hauled aboard," Romagna says, "feeling terrible at having let Bus down. He gave me a tight little smile as I passed. 'Don't jump!' he said."

"Bus's crew has confidence in him both as a sailor and as a man," says Teddy Hood, skipper of Nefertiti and the celebrated sail designer; Hood sails are also on Weatherly and Gretel. ' "Weatherly," Hood argues, "is 50% Mosbacher. He might even have brought Easterner [which won only one race] into the finals. He has concentration and experience. Some people have the experience but can't concentrate. He has more experience than the rest of us to call on for every little thing that comes up. The fellow that writes the book on yacht racing may not be the best sailor. It's the fellow that remembers what's in it and can apply this knowledge at the right time."

"Most of yacht racing," Mosbacher says, "is study, work and development. There are no radical breakthroughs, like suddenly discovering you can hit a golf ball farther if you use the back of your club. It is a combination of chess and bridge, with a certain amount of physical ability thrown in. It is tactics, strategy, organization and a happy association with nice people. It is also a game of details. [Weatherly's, changes, for instance, are not only in her keel, ballast, stern and boom—Mosbacher and his advisers also systematically removed every bit of excess hardware topside, where weight hurts the most.] Some people think we're overdelegated and overspecialized, but you've got to be precise."

"Bus is a perfectionist," Romagna says. "He doesn't miss a thing. You might not hear about it for two days, but you'll hear about it."

Bus is a diminutive for Buster, a hated nickname he says came home from the hospital with him. He didn't go for Emil, either ("Every kid," he contends, "wants to be named Tom, Dick or Harry") and he told his wife it would be over "my dead body" if she named their first son Emil. She did, of course, and Bus has survived. But he does have positive, if curious, ideas about his kids' education. "I don't think," he says, "a husband should teach his wife to drive any more than he should teach his sons sailing. I'm trying to get them to learn without me. They went to a sailing camp this summer, and they loved it. But, thank God, sailing hasn't developed a population of teachers. It isn't overproed like golf and tennis."

Although Bus has sailed in almost every kind of boat since he first held a tiller at 4½, he considers it a ridiculous question when asked which class he likes the best. "The greatest place to sail is in a dinghy," he says, "but it's like saying which is better—a soufflé, a steak or just a cold glass of water. At different times and in different circumstances you like or want different things. They say you climb a mountain because it is there. Well, this particular mountain is the America's Cup, and a 12-meter is absolutely a magnificent vehicle for this kind of race. It's a tremendously exciting, interesting thing sailing these 12s; it's the sport to the nth degree: design, seamanship, teamwork. But, you know something, with all the sailing I've done, I still sometimes say to myself, even, yes, right in the middle of the elimination series: 'What am I doing here?' "

One afternoon last week Mosbacher sat in his corner office 35 stories above New York's Madison Avenue. From his window he watched the Queen Elizabeth go up the Hudson. It was an omen. The next day he learned that a committee representing marine management, labor and the Maritime Administration had chosen him as the first recipient of a trophy for outstanding seamanship. His acceptance speech will, no doubt, break all records for diffidence.

Bus talked about the America's Cup, that almost repellently ornate silver jug. "It has become," he said, "the finest symbol in sport. It's one of the few things left in this world that's a symbol of the way things used to be. There are all too few fine things left." He was interrupted by a phone call. "You know," he said, "one of the best things about sailing is that this damn thing can't ring out there." His caller had asked him how he felt about being selected as the defender. "I'm very delighted," he had replied, "but awful scared.

"About three months ago," he explained, "I was having lunch with two friends at the New York Yacht Club, which has kept the America's Cup in a glass case for 111 years. I was asked if I knew what they'd put in that case if we lost the cup. 'The skull of the guy who lost it,' I was told, 'with a little round hole right here.' " Mosbacher jabbed himself lightly between the eyes. Of course, he was smiling.