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In fierce secrecy and at enormous cost, French pen lord Marcel Bich is pushing a formidable challenge for the America's Cup. A famous U.S. yachtsman, employing 007 techniques, penetrates the veil

While not quite so well guarded a secret as la force de frappe or nuclear tests on a remote island in Polynesia, French preparations leading to a challenge for the America's Cup off Newport next summer have proceeded behind a discreet curtain of silence. If this seems uncharacteristic, it is symbolic of an effort most un-French in popularly superficial terms. For not only is the Holy Grail of yachting being pursued with Gallic ardor, but all clues lead to the conclusion that finally a challenge is being mounted with an efficiency to match past American measures for defense.

As I snuffled along the trail from the shores of the Mediterranean to the bastions of the New York Yacht Club, with a scouting expedition to Switzerland and 007ish contacts in darkest Paris, the magnitude and thoroughness of the French preparations emerged bit by bit. The more I learned, the more I was impressed. In the words of Bob Bavier, helmsman of Constellation during her victorious defense at Newport and afterward on practice races off Marseilles, "If the French don't make it, it won't be for lack of trying. Nothing is too much trouble to do, no detail is too unimportant to follow through." After a pause he added, "And no expense seems too great." Indeed, by the time the French get to Newport next summer they will have spent between $1.5 million and $2 million on the quest.

Since 1964, the year Sovereign was defeated in four straight races by Constellation, the French challenge has been in the making. That autumn Sovereign was bought by Baron Marcel Bich, an industrialist who had created a worldwide empire through the ubiquitous ballpoint pen labeled with his name minus the "h." Never the isle so little, never the kiosk or stationer so remote, but over the clutter of merchandise the sloped block letters BIC leapt forth from a display. With a current worldwide production of six million pens per day, Bic is the unquestioned sales leader in the United States and throughout Europe.

The story goes that Bich became involved in 12-meters through a casual conversation. On a hunt his Dutch shooting companion, Pierre Goemans, mentioned he was going to England the following week, and Bich is reported to have requested that he buy for him a "joli bateau," which turned out to be Sovereign. This canard is apparently the earliest vintage of an astonishing crop of rumors surrounding Bich, stemming partially from his steadfast refusal to talk to any journalist. Not only is the story out of character but, according to his son Bruno, the baron first became fascinated by the beauty and power of Twelves through a picture story published by Paris-Match in 1962. He was also intrigued by the symbolism of the cup and its history of exclusive Anglo-Saxon rivalry.

Ostensibly Sovereign was to be a day sailer for the Bich family, which includes nine children, and indeed it was thus that her career under the tricolor began, as a replacement for a cruising boat of ancient vintage. During the summer of 1965 the family toasted on deck in the Mediterranean sun and swam over the side when the breeze died. But when the wind blew Sovereign came alive as only a 12-meter can.

It is impossible to say just when the baron was bitten by the America's Cup bug, but certainly by fall he was a victim of that most insidious and costly of sporting diseases. According to one version, his thinking about a challenger soon reached the stage where he conferred with André Mauric, a leading French designer. Mauric confessed knowing nothing of the class: to familiarize himself the quickest way possible, by taking off lines which would give him a point of departure, the ideal solution would be to have access to the fastest hull in existence, Olin Stephens' Constellation. "You will have her for Christmas," Marcel Bich is supposed to have answered.

Negotiations were carried on by the same Pierre Goemans, who is still listed as the owner. In the spring of 1966 Constellation was sailing practice matches against Sovereign. To assure adequate manpower, Bich made an arrangement with the army to borrow conscripts. In peacetime, promising athletes are sent to the Bataillon de Joinville, a training center near Paris, where they can contribute to French achievement in world arenas rather than peel potatoes in some remote post. Not many of those assigned to Bich had had much boating experience, but practice was rigorous.

When Bob Bavier was flown to Marseilles at the end of summer in the baron's private jet for a replay of his role as helmsman of Constellation against Sovereign, he found "a good crew—dedicated and very enthusiastic." Asking for beer to take along in the best American tradition, he detected shocked expressions, but only gradually did he realize anyone else would have been thrown off for such a breach of training. Bich ran a tight ship. "You sure as hell knew who was boss," Bob reminisced recently, "but at the same time he was a very charming guy with a good sense of humor. He told some funny stories on himself about his early experiences with Sovereign, like carrying a spinnaker down a narrow channel ending in a mud flat, without knowing quite what to do, while his mother-in-law chatted about what a lovely day it was. Incidentally, Bich was good on the helm of a Twelve, yet he never fooled himself into thinking that with more practice he could do the job himself. A less realistic man might have gotten delusions of grandeur. Bich is not only self-deprecating but never kids himself. Maybe that is his strength."

On boarding Constellation in '66, Bob Bavier was surprised to find her rigging festooned by electric wires, planted by Sud Aviation—builder of such jet transports as the Caravelle and the supersonic Concorde—to measure stresses and strains in the hope of designing a better mast. Concurrently, André Mauric was beginning to test 12-meter models in the French navy's tank, when miniatures of the atomic submarine Le Redoutable were not being towed. At Lyons, center of the textile industry, the firm of Ferrari, specialists in production of material for parachutes of all weights, was busily experimenting with synthetic sail-cloths. Afloat, the quest for the best helmsman and crew continued.

That winter Bob McCullough offered to charter Constellation for the American trials preceding the Australian challenge with Dame Pattie, and she became paired with Olin Stephens' newest, Intrepid, although raced independently. It was a perfect ploy for Bich and Goemans, to say nothing of Mauric: Constellation would be campaigned all summer against the best America had to offer, giving the French a yardstick to measure improvements in the class.

Meanwhile, however, practice off the port of Hy√®res on the Mediterranean would be hampered through lack of a second boat. So Marcel Bich's brother-in-law, Roger LaForest, a tycoon in his own right as manufacturer of Silver Match cigarette lighters, bought the other British hopeful from the '64 season, Kurrewa, virtually a sister ship of Sovereign. Her name was changed to Lévrier des Mers: "Greyhound of the Seas." Crew training went on under a former crewman, Britain's Robin Fuger, and Yves Pinaud, an Olympic yachtsman who had later become coach of France's national yachting team.

Bich, with son Bruno, hied himself to Newport to watch the '67 proceedings, and before the final trials were over it was apparent that Olin Stephens had achieved a great leap forward in 12-meter design with Intrepid. So Bich approached the syndicate managed by Bill Strawbridge with an offer to buy Intrepid if she won the cup in four straight races. Terms were discussed, but after Intrepid had overwhelmed the Aussies, the syndicate declined to let her leave.

Thus the French did not have the fastest yacht afloat as a basis for a challege in 1970, but then Bich made a brilliant gamble. Two months after the cup matches, he approached Britton Chance Jr. of Oyster Bay to discuss a design. Young Brit Chance had never tackled a Twelve, but he reigned supreme in the world of 5.5s, another class requiring a delicate juggling of factors within the framework of a rigid measurement rule. For the Olympic Games in Acapulco, 17 5.5s were building to the design of Chance & Co. in various countries, and they were to finish 1-2-4-5.

At the end of January, Chance received a firm order "for a design at least as fast as existing 12-meters or, if possible, faster." It was made clear that the boat was to be used for comparative model studies in tank testing and as a trial horse for a Mauric-designed challenger yet to be built. "Chance & Co. was given a free hand in all details," Brit Chance has written. "Economic limitations were imposed only by the cost-effectiveness studies that we made."

Plans were delivered in June 1968 to Hermann Egger in Neuch√¢tel, Switzerland, a renowned builder of 5.5s and other racing craft. "He is like a man who makes a watch," I was told by an Italian client. "No one else combines such workmanship and accuracy." While the hull took form in the shadow of the Alps, most of the gear was being manufactured in the United States. The mast was fabricated by Bob Derecktor in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Special winches were ordered from Barient of California. Sophisticated metals and advanced engineering of these and lesser items like blocks resulted in efficiency comparable to similar equipment on Intrepid but with a considerable saving of weight. Sails were by Ted Hood and Lowell North.

When christened in mid-August of this year by Mrs. Sargent Shriver, wife of the U.S. Ambassador to France, Bich assigned his million-franc-plus baby a no-nonsense name, Chancegger, simply combining the names of designer and builder. In her, Brit Chance indeed achieved The New Look in Twelves, as he entitled an article in Yachting. Sectional shapes, combined with a small keel area, reduce wetted surface by about 30 square feet below any existing vessel in the class, while the sum of weight-saving details increases the ballast/displacement ratio by 3%, improving both stability and efficiency. The sail plan shows a longer fore-triangle and a short, low main boom, increasing the aspect ratio, which should result in better performance to windward.

"Chancegger is fast—very fast—and very sensitive on the helm," I was told by the dean of European racing skippers, Louis Noverraz, one of the first to sail the new-creation. With a lifetime score of 1,500 firsts, former champion of Europe in both six and 5.5 meters and this year's winner of the Championnat International de Suisse with a score of six firsts in six starts, the 67-year-old Swiss master can be considered a reliable judge of boat speed. "In every match to date," he said, "Chancegger simply walked away from Constellation on every point of sailing."

This had been foretold by model tests, but the more important question of how she might compare with Intrepid, the superboat of the previous defense, was answered in an odd way. As Olin Stephens was committed to design a new yacht for the Bob McCullough-George Hinman syndicate, Bill Strawbridge's group, owners of Intrepid, commissioned Brit Chance to study the possibility of making her even faster before the next campaign. Chance thus came into possession of the lines. As a preliminary to modifications, he engaged in extensive tank tests and, according to informed sources, Chancegger is faster than Intrepid.

So Marcel Bich apparently won his gamble. With the latest brainchild of Olin Stephens barely past the blueprint stage, the design of Charley Morgan not finalized in the towing tank, Brit Chance pondering the modifications to be made in Intrepid and the Australian hopeful still on the builder's ways, Chancegger is undoubtedly at this moment the fastest yacht of the 12-meter class in the world. Thus, instead of trying to catch up from behind, as have the English and Australians in past challenges, the French possess a boat so advanced it will tax the ingenuity of rival designers to come up with a faster, more efficient racing machine.

There is one great catch, of course. The new boat is useless as a challenger. In the deed of gift of the America's Cup, a clause stipulates that the competing yacht and its components must originate in the country making the challenge. Some latitude is allowed by the New York Yacht Club in its interpretation of the rule, but Chancegger could never qualify. Bich did not expect it to. He was willing to go to the trouble of building a fabulously expensive vessel simply to provide a springboard for the next move, the construction of the challenger, which will bear a simple, majestic, sentiment-evoking name: France.

Unfortunately, for reasons beyond the control of Marcel Bich, Chancegger did not begin sailing until after André Mauric had to deliver his plans for the new boat to Hermann Egger at the end of July, in order to meet the rest of the schedule. Brit Chance is not one of those cynics who believe Mauric's design will be only a carbon of his own. "He had the lines of Constellation for four years and of Chancegger for 13 months. I don't think his boat will be a direct copy. With all that time he should come up with something better," Brit told me. Many rumors surround the testing program, but Bruno Bich confirms that Mauric towed "more than 12 models."

One of the major difficulties confronting Bich is that nothing even remotely resembling a modern racing yacht of this size has ever been produced in the country whose name will appear on the transom. Space age metals like titanium, exotic alloys of aluminum and high-strength types of stainless steel, together with the capability of welding, extruding, cold-rolling and precisely machining them, must be available. It may come as a surprise to nonsailors, but refinement of the slowest form of locomotion man ever devised has reached the point where the technology of a nation largely governs its chances of winning.

This is where the particular genius of Marcel Bich will come in. "If there is any Frenchman who can beat you Americans at your own game, he is the man," remarked a French acquaintance of Bich during my stop in Paris. "After all, he has already done so in business, when he bought out the Waterman Pen Company, which was failing, and rebuilt it to dominate the ballpoint market." In one of his rare statements, Bich revealed that during the six years it took to show a profit on Waterman-Bic, he pumped $10 million into the United States. "Everyone was telling me it was sheer madness," he admitted, "and one more year of losses would have left me bankrupt in France as well."

Bich is a self-made man. He received his start at the end of World War II by investing $1,000—his total capital—in a small factory making traditional fountain pens. Soon he switched to ballpoints encased in plastic, and advertised heavily when other French businessmen felt it was a waste of money. His organizational ability and vision took him into one country after another, until now he sells his product in 65. "Surfing is my method," he once explained, "and success requires full control of the surfboard. No stockholders, no bankers should step on the surfboard."

As a loner and rugged individualist, Bich has his detractors. An intimate calls him "an unbending character with gruff manners." Members of the Yacht Club de France are bitter because the challenge came through the tiny Yacht Club d'Hy√®res in the Midi, but reportedly Bich felt that his early efforts were snubbed and belittled by the august gentlemen of Paris. At first his quest for the cup was looked upon as a publicity stunt by many on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, a subsidized équipe of cyclists competes yearly in the Tour de France, wearing BIC on their jerseys as TV cameras grind, and BIC also appears, with other decals, on GT racing cars. But Bich has always shunned personal publicity to the extent of being a mystery man even to French journalists, and wastes no time on anyone he does not wish to see. He seems about as far from being a latter-day "Sir Tom" Lipton as can be imagined.

Numerous are the rumors surrounding the baron—some Frenchmen even question the authenticity of his title, although other sources trace it to 15th century nobility created by the Vatican in the Aosta Valley, north of Turin, whence came the Italian branch of the family. It was also said at one time that for advertising purposes he would call the challenger Pen Bic, to trade on the name of the famous Pen Duick of Eric Tabarly, overlooking the fact the play on words makes no sense in French, where a pen is a plume and a ballpoint a stylo √† bille. As far back as three years ago at a party in Paris, I was treated to an elaborate account of an interview between Bich and President Charles de Gaulle, in which Bich asked for 10 million francs ($2 million) in tax relief to launch a défi. The general caught the phrase "challenge the Americans," came to attention and saluted, and Bich was given everything but the key to the Bank of France. This, too, seems extremely dubious.

For me, Marcel Bich and his quest for the cup are best explained by quotes from two vastly different sources. Roger Priouret, a friend of Bich, wrote in the economic magazine Expansion: "He is an ambitious man who had one passion in life: to make money." The second quote is a remark made by Bich to Bob Bavier three years ago. "Now I can't think of anything else but 12-meter racing. I go to a directors' meeting: someone talks about a competitor bringing out a new pen and I say, 'That's O.K.—we tack for the mark: they've overstood,' and everyone looks baffled."

Thus in 1964, at age 50, Marcel Bich apparently changed goals in life. Yet as president of L'Association Française pour "La Coupe de l'America," the official title of the organization behind the challenge, he will employ the same skills. France is a highly developed industrial nation, producing aircraft second to none, so the technical problems can be solved, given enough planning and drive. Bich has long been applying both. Son Claude, 29, trained in the production division of Bic, is now working with a company called Acma, which specializes in delicate machine work and fabrication of parts to extreme tolerances and frequently acts as a subcontractor to Sud Aviation and Matra, a builder of racing cars. Claude has the responsibility of producing winches, blocks and other fittings on deck and aloft. These, no doubt, will be patterned on gear aboard Chancegger.

There was no local builder comparable to Hermann Egger, so Bich persuaded him to establish a yard at Pontarlier, just across the Swiss border in France, to comply with the country-of-origin requirements. The New York Yacht Club granted permission for the lead keel to be cast in Switzerland, before being brought across the frontier for finishing, and is allowing the aluminum mast to be extruded by Nirvana Spars, a Swiss company at Yverdon headed by Albert Coeudevaux, a noted helmsman.

The biggest remaining technical hurdle is the one which has caused every recent challenge to fall flat—sails. Early efforts by La Société Ferrari de Rochetaillée sur Sa√¥ne reminded a French observer of "des sacs de pommes de terre," despite the firm's impressive title. In Geneva, Louis Noverraz related a step in Bich's education in the importance of aerodynamic perfection aloft. "One day I was at the helm of Constellation trying Ferrari sails against Sovereign, which had up her best English suit. We won by a small margin, under four minutes, but the baron was delighted. I shook my head and said, 'With American sails we would have won by 20 minutes.' So the next day, in similar conditions, Connie switched to sails by Hood—and our margin was 21 minutes."

Ferrari for some time has been on a crash program of developing fabric in various weights, running from mainsail to spinnaker cloth, and insiders hint that samples are rapidly improving. The firm has been joined by a sailmaker from Nantes, M. Burgaud, who has worked closely with Jean-Marie Le Guillou, winner of the world championship in 5.5s this year at Sandhamn, Sweden, and a leading candidate for helmsman of France. The New York Yacht Club has given permission to use sailcloth made anywhere in Europe, and a German firm is furnishing promising fabric. Finally, Ted Hood has set up a sail loft in Nice. There is nothing in the rules that would prevent his organization from cutting sails from local cloth—or doing the whole job if it manufactured the fabric in France.

Crew work does not seem to be a problem. "My guess is they will have a first-rate organization," says Bob Bavier. "So many were tried that even if they found only one good man out of any 11, and they brought him back, they would have more than enough candidates." Brit Chance, after sailing on the Mediterranean last year, found the competing crews "mechanically almost perfect, almost overtrained from going round the buoys so often." Louis Noverraz tells of spinnakers up and drawing within a boatlength of a mark, and slow-motion movies showing flawless techniques.

The process of elimination to find the best has applied even more rigorously to potential helmsmen than winch pumpers. The roster of those who have been invited to try out reads like a Who's Who of French yachtsmen, right down to winners of minor regattas, with outside experts like Bavier and Louis Noverraz providing bench marks.

Now it looks as though selection has narrowed down to Jean-Marie Le Guillou and Poppie Delfour, both young and aggressive. Le Guillou is only 25, but he teethed on a tiller. He is a volatile Breton whose arguments with two brothers crewing aboard his 5.5 can sometimes be heard many kilometers inland. But he proved to have cold competitive courage by coming back to win the world championship a year after failing to be selected for the 1968 Olympic team. Nevertheless, according to reports, Poppie Delfour at one point had the better record in match competition, defeating Jean-Marie three out of four in one series. A former 5-0-5 helmsman, he was an early member of the Bich team and has been sailing Twelves for three years. A final choice probably will not be made until the last minute.

The future timetable seems fairly certain. At the end of August practice ended on the Mediterranean, and the four-boat fleet was transported in pairs by motor convoy to Trinité-sur-Mer on the Atlantic coast—no mean logistical feat in itself. Practice will continue through the winter. Construction of France began Sept. 1, and it is hoped she will be launched in March for intensive trials before being shipped to the United States. July 1 is the target date for France and Chancegger to resume practice off Newport. The huge mansion called Miramar, sleeping 60 (in the winter a girls' school), has been rented by AFCA as a shore base.

During the period preceding the elimination races, there not only will be time for familiarization with conditions off Newport but intense competition between helmsmen and crews for selection. Then, on Aug. 18, begins a series of best four out of seven races against the Australians, to be sailed under America's Cup conditions on America's Cup courses, presided over by a neutral committee headed by Beppe Croce, past chairman of Olympic juries and vice-president of the International Yacht Racing Union. The winner of this series will meet the winner of the American final trials, which will be sailed concurrently in adjoining waters.

So far reports from Down Under indicate that the next Australian challenge is cast in the pattern of '62 and '67, with an emphasis on the former, when Sir Frank Packer masterminded the campaign of Gretel. Only a single new boat is being built, but the former challengers do exist as trial horses. Rumors displace two-time Helmsman Jock Sturrock but do not name a successor. After putting on such a good show with Gretel, winning one race and coming close in another, the summary four straight defeats of Dame Pattie by Intrepid were bitter for the Aussies. Much effort has gone into producing better fabric and sails, and manufacturers of other gear now have a considerable background. Crew work has always been good and can reasonably be expected to be even better.

The American defender will be formidable, whether the word is pronounced in French or English. Olin Stephens, to date without peer in the world, has designed a successor to Intrepid for a syndicate headed by Bob McCullough and George Hinman. The first is owner and skipper of the successful ocean racer Inverness, and as helmsman of the chartered Constellation during the '67 campaign proved himself a fine organizer as well as extremely skillful around the buoys. George Hinman is also not only an experienced ocean racer but has had a long background in class racing. As skipper of American Eagle during the same '67 campaign he was a master of match-racing tactics, being especially impressive on the starting line. Combined with the know-how of Olin and Rod Stephens, it will be a difficult combination to beat.

Intrepid is still owned by the syndicate formed by Bill Strawbridge and Burr Bartram, and will be given everything necessary to make her even faster than last time, when she seemed as close to being a breakthrough design as is possible to achieve under the restrictions of the rule. Brit Chance, who formally terminated his connection with the French effort after he undertook to modify Intrepid, can be counted on to add—or subtract, as he is a specialist in reduction of wetted surface—an extra something. An important change will be the hand on the helm. Bus Mosbacher has bowed out for reasons of family, business and his job as the State Department's chief of protocol. His replacement is Bill Ficker, world Star class champion in 1958 and co-helmsman of Columbia during the last trials.

Down in St. Petersburg, Designer-Builder-Sail maker-Helmsman Charley Morgan is employing an unorthodox yet logical method in the construction of Heritage, the first candidate for defense to come out of Dixie. By beginning with the deck and working down, he is buying time for additional tank tests. "We can go ahead with what we're sure of," he explains, "while awaiting a decision on such items as the ultimate keel form." Charley Morgan was associated with Columbia in '62 and since has kept in close contact with developments in the class, meanwhile practicing with great success four of the arts of the sailor. Thus when he declares that he is encouraged with model tests to date and believes "we will be very competitive," there can be no doubt he will come up with a fast boat, well campaigned, having the additional advantage of shakedown trials during the Florida winter.

So there appears to be a possibility that the proceedings off Newport next summer might provide some of the drama of the historic trials between Columbia and Vim in '58, which have made events since—except for the brief surge of Gretel past Weatherly in the next matches—seem anticlimactic by comparison. At least something new will be added: Gallic flair spiced with determination and efficiency.

To gain the right to challenge, the French must defeat the Australians in their full-dress rehearsal. Perhaps they will not, as this will be the third time the Aussies have played on the center court of yachting with all the world watching. But so astute an observer as Bob Bavier picks France. "If the Australians had two boats sailing in two different camps, I might think differently," he reasons, "but the French will have competition all the way. I'm counting on Bich to get the best possible of everything together, then keeping hands off despite being a forceful guy."

Regardless of which nation comes to the line for the start of the actual cup races on Sept. 15, boat and crew should be honed to a finer edge than any challenger in history. For the first time it will be necessary to battle for selection right down to the wire, an advantage hitherto enjoyed solely by the defenders. It will probably take more than this to tip the scales, but Marcel Bich is realistic, and he does not think of this as a one-shot do-or-die attempt.

"In 1970 we have perhaps a 25% chance," he has declared to many people since the beginning of his quest. "We lose. We come back three years later with a 50-50 chance. We lose again. But we come back in 1976 and win the cup." Voilà!