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Two sailmakers with new boats and one wavemaker with a winning oldie begin trials off Newport to determine the defender of the America's Cup, the nation's oldest sports prize

Through the last dark shades of winter and all this spring, on the Pacific off Point Loma, Calif. two handsome 12-meter hulls, the old Intrepid and the brand-new Enterprise, tested their worth against each other, loping over long swells in easy wind for mile after monotonous mile, first on one tack, then the other, then changing headsails and doing it all over again. On the Atlantic Coast, in heavier weather and lumpier seas off Marblehead, Mass., the new 12-meter Independence and the old Courageous were doing the same.

On one fair day in light air aboard Enterprise, Skipper Lowell North had his crew tighten the leech cord of the main a mere half inch and adjust the lower runner and permanent backstay a tad. As a consequence, in five minutes they had moved out almost two boat lengths on Intrepid. Aboard Intrepid, Skipper Gerry Driscoll had his mainsheet man take a fraction of a turn, and in another 10 minutes Intrepid had regained a length and stolen another to windward. Back East, after Courageous had rounded a leeward mark, her slack running backstay caught a lobster pot, and Skipper Ted Turner and his crew lost two lengths to Ted Hood and the men of Independence. On the second downwind leg, Independence's spinnaker fouled and the pole poked a hole in it, robbing Hood and his crew of the margin they had freakishly gained.

Thus it has gone all spring: hours and hours of solid testing and training, pocked with occasional disasters. The crews have been working unremittingly. The riggers and wrench monkeys have been busy, tweaking this and that about, trying to wring another sliver of a knot out of hulls and spars. The sailmakers have been hard at it, cutting and recutting. Compared to the slick, smooth Dacron and nylon that propel these four 12-meter yachts, the sails of ordinary pleasure craft look as messy as an unmade bed.

One recent evening, a lady unfamiliar with the complexities of ultrasailing strolled the docks of the San Diego Yacht Club, looking first at Intrepid, then at Enterprise. At the time. Intrepid had been washed down and tied up after a day of toil. Because she was built when the rules allowed winches and most of the other mechanical clutter to be tucked belowdecks, she lay at rest on her lines looking as pure and clean as a yacht can. Enterprise presented quite a contrast. In compliance with the new rules, most of her machinery is aboveboard. Her deck is a profusion of cockpits and mini-cockpits connected by hatches and hatchlets that lead downward into her resonant aluminum bowels. If no better use can be found for Enterprise when her campaigning days are over, she will make a dandy jungle gym for kids. As is the fate of many hulls that fall into the hands of Lowell North, Enterprise already bears the scars of modification. In her boom alone there are so many abandoned drill holes, it looks as if a Mafioso has been potting away at her. At the sight of Enterprise, the strolling lady exclaimed, "Are you telling me that Intrepid, that beautiful thing over there, is the old boat, and this poor creature is the new one?"

Esthetics aside. Enterprise and Intrepid looked very even in their practice tiffs and so did Independence and Courageous. A fortnight ago Intrepid was withdrawn from the cup when sufficient funds could not be raised to modify her. To the superficial eye, the three remaining boats appear fit enough right now to defend the America's Cup; in the minds of the skippers and of the two syndicate managers responsible for the defense this September, none of the hulls is as ready as she should be, and the days of reckoning are at hand. This weekend the first series of elimination trials to select the U.S. defender begins off Newport, R.I.

Intrepid defended the America's Cup against Australian challengers in 1967 and 1970, and Courageous prevailed against a third Aussie boat in 1974. Because Enterprise and Independence have proved in practice to be, at the very least, as good as the veteran defenders, it can be safely said that the U.S. has a competent squad. So why are the two syndicates uneasy? For a multiplicity of reasons, the most significant being the intensity of the opposition and the freakish weather that has been upon us for the better part of a year.

This summer Australia will be back with two challengers in its fifth quest for the cup. Australia, a new hull, has been working out on the windy west coast of her homeland, while Gretel II, the famous old light-air boat, has been training off Sydney, where sailing would be endemic even if the wind blew only straight down. For their third try, the French have come up with a boat, France II, that on the basis of structure and configuration can be fairly described as a bold compromise between the best of yesterday and tomorrow. On their first challenge, the Swedes are coming with a small boat, Sverige, that, though light in displacement, has a high ballast ratio and a large sail area.

For certain, in this array of challengers there is disparity, and the American defender must have the versatility to excel in a variety of sea and wind conditions. There's the rub. To date, the American boats have not had a chance to test themselves over a range of conditions. The cold frontal winds that plagued most of the country this winter left a balmy pocket hanging over Southern California. As a consequence, in February and March when the winds off San Diego are often fresh. Intrepid and Enterprise too often got zephyrs. In four months there were only five days with the wind over 14 knots.

In three America's Cup campaigns stretching back 10 years, Intrepid met 11 other 12-meter hulls—six of them of later vintage than herself—and beat them all. Her total match-race record was 71 wins and 17 losses. Against her only true peer, Courageous, she won 11 and lost nine. Because of a poor headsail choice and subsequent rigging failure, with the score tied 4-4 in the final eliminations in 1974, Intrepid lost the decisive race—and the chance to defend the cup a third time. Except for that fateful match, she lost only one other race to Courageous in winds steady over 12 knots, and that by a mere two seconds. She is, in brief, as fine a medium-and heavy-air yardstick as any new boat could want, but thanks to this spring's quirky climate, her talents were largely wasted. Such was his desperation by mid-May that Skipper Lowell North contemplated towing Enterprise 30 miles offshore where in constant sea breezes he could at least evaluate some of her sails by computer, if not against her stablemate Intrepid. "We have accomplished most of what we wanted to do in light air," North said, "but we really wanted heavy work. You don't like to go into the first round short in any area."

By contrast, Independence and Courageous had more heavy wind and fractious seas than they needed. In April and May they were scheduled to work out against each other a total of 29 days. On five of these days, high winds kept the boats on their moorings. Out of the balance they had only four days of wind under 12 knots. On one fine soft day about noon, just 10 seconds before the starting gun of a practice race, the wind swung 160 degrees, turning the start into a downwind farce. By the time the windward mark was reset, the wind was up so smartly it widened a crack in Courageous' boom and bent Independence's severely. By two o'clock the following afternoon the wind was steady over 50 knots, tearing two dozen fine sailboats off their moorings in Marblehead Harbor. "In this business it takes a lot of time to learn a little," Skipper Ted Hood observed, his voice tinged with despair, "and we are running out of time."

In their soft-air practice races this spring, Enterprise beat Intrepid 24-7. Busting around in heavier air off Marblehead, Independence and Courageous split even in two dozen matches. Considering how closely matched Intrepid and Courageous were in 1974, from these preliminary contests Enterprise would seem to be the best of all, but picking a winner on the basis of preseason scores—a shaky system in any sport—would be particularly deluding in this case. Intrepid seldom had her kind of wind and, more significant, six of the crew who served on her with Gerry Driscoll in 1974 are now aboard her rival. This spring Driscoll not only had to put together a new crew, but also use old sails—notably headsails that, despite some recutting and luff tucks, no longer retained the shape they had had at the start of the long, hard summer three years ago.

There is still another reason why Enterprise should not be picked as the favorite this soon. In between the three sets of elimination trials, Independence and Courageous will continue testing against each other—and, in similar fashion, during the lulls between their three series to pick a challenger, the Aussie boats, Australia and Gretel II, will be working out against the Swedes and French. Because Intrepid will not be going to Newport, Enterprise will have to go it alone, depending on team experience and computer readouts to evaluate her sails and handling. Twelve-meter boats are fast, but contrary to some of the blather published about them, they are not nimble and quick. When brought about competently to windward in moderate air, a 12-meter needs about a minute to get back to speed; in light winds of, say, six knots, it needs two minutes or more. Yet, playing ring-around-the-rosy and chase-tailing a rival before the start, and tacking upwind, are important aspects of the game, and the collaboration of helmsman, tactician and deck apes in such maneuvers is not easily digested or analyzed electronically.

Ironically, Intrepid's absence from the scene is in large part a result of her immense popularity—both practical and sentimental—over a decade. Never has an expensive sailing lady been so much in demand and led so wayward a life because of it. Indeed, such has been the demand that, except for some peculiar twists of fate, there might have been two Intrepids in action this year.

After Intrepid won 23 of 24 match races in her first cup campaign in 1967, the French wanted her to serve as a trial horse in their first attempt. Her syndicate, feeling there was still lots of life in the old girl, declined the bid. After Intrepid's second successful defense of the cup, the syndicate deeded her to the International Oceanographic Foundation in Miami so that it could peddle her and use the profits for marine science education. A West Coast syndicate bought her for $95,000 and turned her over to the Seattle Sailing Foundation, which campaigned her to the brink of glory in 1974. In early 1975, to bolster their 1977 challenge, the Swedes offered $171,000 for Intrepid but were outbid by Robert Fendler, a savings and loan proprietor better known for the loud, brawling hydroplanes he has backed on the thunderboat circuit. When Fendler's financial bubbles burst, Intrepid became a ward of the U.S. courts, eventually being sold to a Hawaiian marina and condominium developer, Bob Miller. When Miller missed the payment deadline, the Enterprise syndicate got Intrepid for $102,000.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast Ted Hood was offered the chance to skipper Courageous again in 1977. Both Hood and Lee Loomis, the 1948 Olympic gold medalist and sailing-team manager who was called on to handle the business end of the effort, felt that taking Courageous would be worthwhile only if a good trial horse could be had. They tried unsuccessfully to charter or buy Intrepid from Fendler, who at the time apparently was still solvent. Failing there, they considered building an aluminum Intrepid, but by that time Intrepid's designer, Olin Stephens, was already involved in Enterprise and obligated not to abet rivals. For want of a trial horse, Hood and Loomis decided the only alternative was to build a new defender and let her fight it out against Courageous—a costly venture that was considerably moderated because Hood volunteered his services as designer and sailmaker without fee. And so it came to pass that, although she will not compete this summer, Intrepid has already served the U.S. cause doubly—as preseason rival for one of the new Twelves and, in effect, as spiritual mother of the other.

Through the U.S. eliminations, the same sort of nip-and-tuck battles Courageous and Intrepid waged three years ago should be repeated, this time in a three-sided war. Because Lowell North, one of the world's foremost sailmakers, is skipper of Enterprise, and because his only sailmaking peer, Ted Hood, is serving both Independence and Courageous, the three contenders should be quite even in sail power. Olin Stephens, who designed four of the five successful 12-meter defenders, confesses that his new Enterprise does not differ greatly from his old Courageous. Ted Hood also confesses that his design, Independence, is quite like Courageous.

If sails and hulls prove to be as equal as logic suggests they will be, then the crews, which are the most malleable link in the chain of success in any prolonged match series, will tend to equalize through the long summer. Anyone searching for an advantage in one of the contenders this early is hard put to find it, even in the three skippers. The men are of established excellence, albeit very different in their ways.

Lowell North of Enterprise is a perpetual noodler, constantly in motion. During a sail and rigging evaluation, one moment North is in the aft cockpit and in the next he is at the bow or eyeballing the mast. He suddenly disappears down one hatch and after several minutes of rummaging around pops up in another, exclaiming, "I've found our trouble. I forgot to turn the switch on." In comparison, once committed to a trial run, Ted Hood of Independence rarely quits his post at the helm. In anything short of a gear-busting crisis he is as steady-going as a bargeman taking the town's garbage out to deep water. He is practical New England economy, both in his actions and his words. Ted Turner, skipper of Courageous, uses words the way Niagara Falls uses water. He is one of the world's finest examples of perpetual emotion, but behind his labial flaps there is quite a brain. During the longest training period Courageous and Independence had together, Turner's Atlanta baseball team was well on its way to a string of 17 consecutive defeats. Niekro was winless, Matthews was injured, Messersmith was ailing—laments of that sort poured so constantly from Turner that one would never have thought he cared a whit about the America's Cup. But Turner's mouth and mind do not always travel in the same direction. At the end of one day in hard, steep seas, he won one start and race from Hood, then lost the second. Back at the dock he observed, "Things could be worse. I could have a good baseball team and a bad boat."

When examined carefully, the distinctions among the skippers turn out to be more apparent than real. North, the noodler, always has one eye cocked on reality. Hood, the pragmatist, is quite a noodler. Turner, the man who seems to be going several ways at once, is actually the best leader and organizer.

The battles to pick the U.S. defender have customarily had more drama than the America's Cup challenge series. It may not be good show biz to present the best action first, but again this year it looks as if the preliminaries will outshine the finale.



The 1974 victor Courageous (left) and the spanking new Independence went head to head throughout the spring.



Enterprise (27) left Intrepid behind in California—and on this beat. Skipper North uses an ingenious hiking device as Helmsman Malin Burnham observes.



With everything aboveboard, Ted Hood, at the wheel of Independence, can oversee deck apes.