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Aug 1986
Sailing with the Kiwis near Perth, as they prepare for the America’s Cup Public Post
Jul 1986

The crew of a 12-meter yacht from New Zealand practices for the America’s Cup trials. (Photo by Peter Rinearson.)

Published in the Seattle Times on August 3, 1986. Just a few months later, these “Kiwi” sailors put New Zealand on the America’s Cup map by losing to Dennis Connor of the United States in what amounted to the semi-finals of the America’s Cup race. Today the America’s Cup involves catamarans rather than the “12 meter” boats that had been used for three decades when I wrote this account.

FREMANTLE, Australia—Though the America’s Cup is a race of 12-meter yachts, no sailboat 12 meters long could ever hope to win it.

Such a yacht wouldn’t be nearly fast enough, because it wouldn’t be nearly long enough. A sailboat’s speed is limited by its waterline length, and the “Twelves” that will compete near Perth beginning in October are about 20 meters long.

Surprised?

How about this: A yacht can defend the America’s Cup trophy against challengers, even if neither the yacht nor any of its crew ever won the cup in the first place.

Everyone in yachting seems to know these things. But I didn’t, until I hung out in Perth and Fremantle for a few days, and spent a few hours on the water with New Zealand sailors training for the America’s Cup trials later this year.

The term “12-meter” refers to a formula, literally a mathematical equation, that balances a boat’s length against its sail area and displacement (weight). The designer of a 12-meter yacht must weigh the advantages of length against the advantages of sail size, in pursuit of a winning compromise.

In the end, when all the numbers are plugged in, the formula’s quotient must be exactly 12 meters, or 38.37 feet.

Twelves are the dragsters of the yachting world. They’re expensive, fast, and good for nothing except racing. You can’t sleep in a 12-meter yacht, because there’s no bed, or even cabin. There’s no railing either, which helps explain why six people fell overboard during the world 12-meter fleet racing championships in Fremantle last February.

Though these boats are more than 60 feet long, there’s no head (toilet). “You just hope people watching haven’t got big telephotos,” said Graeme Woodroffe, the skipper of a New Zealand 12-meter yacht.

The skipper sits or stands near the rear (stern) of the yacht, on the starboard (right) side. Also called the helmsman, he steers, and is one of three people on board whose primary task is to think.

The other two thinkers share the stern of the yacht with the skipper, and offer constant advice. The tactician watches the competing boat or boats, and suggests strategies. The navigator’s primary concern are the winds and currents.

In a sense, the tactician matches wits with other sailors, while the navigator matches wits with the elements.

At the opposite end of the boat, the agile bowman seems to dance on his precarious perch as he hooks and unhooks the large headsails which are changed repeatedly during the race. Without railings or a lifeline to tie him in, he must maintain balance even in lively waves and weather.

When a headsail is to be changed—when, say, a spinnaker is coming down and a genoa or a jib is going up— the bowman is handed the sail by the pitman, who is stationed just behind the mast and keeps an inventory of sails under the deck (in the “pit”).

Just in front of the mast is a sailor called, reasonably enough, the mastman. He assists in the general mission of keeping the sails adjusted for efficient contact with the wind.

Two teams of two sailors, one on the starboard side and one on the port side, provide the muscle and some of the moment-to-moment judgment that cause sails to be adjusted or changed. One member of the team is called a grinder, the other a tailer.

Sails are manipulated by hauling in or letting out lines. The grinders do the most physical part, the comparative “grunt work.” The tailers assist, and make decisions. These four men are stationed behind the mast and ahead of the skipper, navigator and tactician.

Hours of intense racing can be brutally demanding, and the men up front are chosen carefully. They must be good sailors, team players, and “big, strong men, because it’s very physical,” said Harold Bennett, a coach for the New Zealand challenge.

Not every heavy demand is physical. There’s a lot to think about during a race, which follows a 24.1-mile course around three marks (buoys).

Six of the race’s eight legs are back and forth between the first and second marks, but on one leg the boat sails from the second mark to the third mark, and on the next leg it sails from the third mark to the first mark, making the course a triangle.

The marks are about three miles apart. The first leg is always sailed into the wind.

During the 12-meter world championships in Fremantle last February, 16 yachts sailed at once in a series of seven races. In the initial contests, the strategy was to win.

But because the world champion is decided on the basis of points, in later races the point leaders sometimes had to worry more about stopping some particular other boat from winning than they did winning themselves.

It led to some tricky strategy—a melding of politics and athletic prowess.

The championship was won by the yacht Australia III. However, the best-known U.S. 12-meter racer, Dennis Connor, didn’t compete. He is waiting for the important race, the America’s Cup.

Sailing strategy for the America’s Cup differs considerably from that of the world championships, because it is match racing—one boat against one other. When many boats compete, as they will this year, the trials last for months.

Ten minutes before a match race begins, the two yachts are at opposite ends of the starting line. A white flag is waved, and the competitors sail toward one another, each trying to maneuver into a position where the etiquette of sailing will provide the right-of-way.

With luck, a skipper may gain a huge advantage, by forcing his opponent to cross the line prematurely. A boat that crosses the line too soon must turn around and start over—and in competition of this caliber, the outcome of a contest lasting three or more hours often is decided by a matter of seconds.

Because each race has only two contestants, and because there are 12 yachts expecting to compete, the America’s Cup competition will stretch from Oct. 5 into February of next year.

Initially, there is a challenger elimination series and a defender elimination series.

Challengers—it looks as if there will be about 8 or 10—are boats from any country other than Australia. About half of the serious challengers are from the United States.

Meanwhile, four Australian yacht clubs have fielded boats that will compete in a defender series late this year. One of them is the Royal Perth Yacht Club team that won the America’s Cup trophy away from the New York Yacht Club in 1983.

The winner of the defender series isn’t assured a spot in the final series. The Royal Perth Yacht Club may select any of the four Australian boats to defend the cup, regardless of the outcome of the series. The winner of the challenger series faces the designated defender for the actual America’s Cup regatta, which begins on Jan. 31.

If the challenger wins the best-of-seven competition, the 134-ounce silver trophy as well as the right to host the next competition in three years passes to the yacht club and the country the winner represented.

If the Australian boat is successful in its defense, the ornate trophy stays at the Royal Perth Yacht Club.

This is true even if a boat from elsewhere in Australia were to win the America’s Cup. In fact, the only way a different Australian yacht club can ever win the cup is if it first passes to a country other than Australia. Then, a different Australian yacht club could have a crack at winning it.

Had history taken a slightly different turn, there might not be any silver trophy to fight over.

After an American syndicate won the trophy during a yacht race in England in 1851, it was suggested that the cup be melted down into commemorative medals that the five members of the syndicate could pass to the heirs.

Instead, one of the syndicate members conveyed the trophy to the New York Yacht Club in 1857, stipulating that it become a perpetual international trophy. From that moment on, the trophy was known as the America’s Cup.

It stayed with the New York City Yacht Club until 1983, when a foreign team—Alan Bond’s syndicate from Perth—won the America’s Cup race for the first time.

Bond’s boat had a secret, technologically advanced keel that proved too much for the American defender, which was skippered by Dennis Connor.

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