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You have to feel for Roger Vaughan. There he is, trusty notebook in hand, striking out with the crew of Mariner to record a heroic quest for the 1974 America's Cup. But barely is The Grand Gesture (Little, Brown, $10) under way when George Hinman, "Commodore" of the syndicate, makes the author walk the plank for the high crime of having long hair and a mustache. "It just burns me," says Hinman, resplendent in crested blazer and ice-cream pants. "Can you understand that?"

Vaughan digs. Dutifully shorn, he scuds bravely on in the face of darker storm warnings. "Going to be a short book, huh?" says one sailmaker after watching Mariner's debut. Reynolds du Pont, one of the 150 or so backers who anted up $1.1 million for a supposed breakthrough in aluminum hull design, is blunter: "If Mariner was a wooden boat, we'd have a bonfire."

Vaughan, like some ill-fated Ishmael, has obviously signed aboard a doomed vessel. Alas, one feels, the poor guy cast his bread upon the waters—and it sank.

Or did it? As misfortunes mount, the reader is irresistibly drawn into the deepening swirl like driftwood into a maelstrom. No matter that Mariner fails to qualify. As Vaughan ably shows, if men are noble in victory, they are merely human—and far more fascinating—in defeat.

The result is a superb sea adventure, a barnacle-on-the-hull chronicle that reads like a novel. Buoyed by Vaughan's technical expertise, the book sails, indeed boils along, in the turbulent wake of Skipper Ted Turner, an outrageous Ahab who hurls verbal harpoons at the boat's aloof designer, Britton Chance, a whale of a villain.

The Keystone Cops Go Sailboat Racing, as Turner christens the venture, abounds in rich insights into what the madness off Newport is all about. At one disastrous stage, for instance, the Mariner men meet to vote on a burning question: to cuff or not to cuff their dress slacks. "Losing," says Turner, going under, "is simply learning how to win."

So as Mariner sinks slowly in the East we leave Turner spearing Chance ("Really, I'd like to rearrange his features"), Chance blaming Turner, Hinman vowing never again, and Bob Derecktor, the boat's builder, concluding, "The only thing I wonder is why people keep doing it."

As the lone survivor, The Grand Gesture is the best answer yet.