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America's Cup Agonistes

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In the likely event you haven't heard -- or perhaps more likely don't care -- there's been another America's Cup festival this summer. It's about to climax way out in San Francisco Bay where the winds may be lusty but not the enthusiasm for a once magical sporting spectacle. Nor does that have much to do with the fact the American boat is getting drubbed.

Hard to believe it's been 30 years since we lost it.

My favorite America's Cup summer was 1974 when Newport was still, for a few precious weeks every three or four years, the utter epicenter of the sailing world as well as the ultimate salon of High Society.

The festival was then a mere 123 years old with America mounting its 23rd defense, most having been staged in the choppy waters that roll between Block Island and the rest of the Republic. At that point America's record was 65-6 in individual skirmishes while never losing a Series, making it the most lopsided competition in the history of sport.

That was because the New York Yacht Club in fastening its iron-grip on the Cup had stacked the rules -- over the first hundred years for the schooners and J-Class boats and then after 1958 for the gorgeous 12-meters -- in such a way as to make it impossible for them to lose the bloody bauble. It was still the age sportsmen called themselves "gentleman" with the distinction being clearly affirmed by the fact they alone were not only allowed to make all the rules but enforce them too. It must have been a by-product of what we loftily regarded as, our "manifest destiny."

And it was also, of course, entirely goofy albeit in an oddly wonderful way. By the late 20th century the festival -- at least in its traditional form featuring those 12-meter beauties -- was courting obsolescence if not downright irrelevance. Yet we clung to it, wistfully! It was my pleasure to have been assigned to cover six of them, from 1967 to 1983, and undeterred by an ignorance of sailing, let alone a competence in so much as a rowboat, I gladly complied, the ambience being as much an allure as the racing. They were the last six Cup-runs orchestrated out of rollicking Newport and, for my money, the last six that had any genuine meaning.

The summer of '74 may have been the high water mark of this grand illusion. The Aussies, who were always good fun, were the challengers and the Yacht Club dandies in their blue blazers and straw hats -- seemingly more nervous than usual -- had turned to a modest and taciturn plebeian from Marblehead to handle the defense, Ted Hood.

Courageous, an iron-willed gem of a 12-meter, represented America. Southern Cross bore Australia's colors and for months there'd been much fancy talk about her being a very special boat. Adding to the fun was the bombastic leadership hotshot entrepreneur Allan Bond gave to his Aussie delegation. He was the sort of character F. Scott Fitzgerald might also have called "an elegant roughneck" and he had lots of great fun ruffling the easily ruffled feathers of the boys in the blue blazers.

Quite as usual, everyone who was anyone was in town for the grand finale. It was a splendid if tattered mob of veteran bores and curious natures that included boat crews and yachting swells, leisure class relics, giggling hippies, and classless interlopers; all reveling in being borne back aimlessly into the past.

As was then the custom, the weeks leading up to the Finals in September were cluttered with parties lighting up the tired old mansions on Bellevue Avenue. It was a great human spectator fleet of teetering fortunes and dusty manners that launched their Cup observances with the "English Speaking Union Ball" at Rosecliff where just months before Bob Redford's remake of "The Great Gatsby" had been filmed.

Three nights later roughly the same crowd reassembled at The Elms, a few doors down the avenue, with even the motley out of town media being invited (as long as we promised to behave). It was the occasion of one of my more boffo moments in the business.

I was having great fun watching the royalty hobnob with one another when I became ensnared in a conversation involving several fortunes, including one purportedly the owner of Schaefer Beer, when a middle-aged matron inquired, "And what is your name?"

"Clark Booth," I said firmly.

"Oh yes," she replied. ''Of the Gin Booths!" She sort of wheezed the word "gin," giving it a kind of aroma, and I sensed being struck with instant respect. "Yes, yes," snipped her husband, a more elderly sort. ''The Booths have long had a place down here." When I later shared the story with my dad, then the weary manager of a struggling bookstore, he got a huge kick out of it.

The night bore on achieving a brilliance deriving from its own desperate yearning. Twenty waiters in red jackets poured drinks non-stop along a bar half the length of a football field. There was no sign of Gilda Gray, but a man pointed to a grove of trees and said he'd just seen Walter Cronkite chatting in its shadowy recesses. A rumor swept the lawn that Jacqueline Onassis would be arriving the next day. It seemed almost impertinent of the races to interrupt all this fabulously rich frivolity.

But they reared two days later and quickly proved once again anti-climactic. With fog hovering ten miles out, daringly aggressive skippering by Hood right at the starting-line stunned the Aussies leaving them reeling. Only minutes into the first match, the legendary John Ahern of the Globe -- himself one of the event's great characters -- breezily declared, "This Race is over!" By which he meant the entire challenge. Sure enough, invincible Courageous romped in four straight.

Ever good sports, the Aussie crewmen partied uproariously back at their Newport dock, devouring much champagne while rendering rousing renditions of "Waltzing Matilda." Then they boarded a dinghy aiming to join their American foes celebrating aboard Courageous down the harbor, only to capsize halfway there. It was glorious!

Undaunted they went home knowing they'd learned much. Successive challenges in '77 and '80 were much tighter. The technology was fast-changing and they were ahead of that curve. More importantly, the rules were changing too. There were bitter disputes ending in the courts. The boys in the blue blazers no longer ruled the roost.

When the Aussies returned in 1983 with what everyone knew would be the toughest challenge ever they'd become wildly sentimental favorites, especially with the American media which found Johnny Bertrand, skipper of Australia II, far more charming than his technocratic and humorless U.S. adversary, Dennis Connor.

And I vaguely recall one of the old pros -- probably Johnny Ahern -- warning; "Be careful what you wish for, lads. If they ever take the Cup, we'll never get it back!" Words that were written on the wind! In a seven-race epic, Australia stunned the world.

In this year's 34th renewal, Emirates Team of New Zealand is on the verge of crushing America's Team Oracle, the defending champ. As of the writing, Emirates leads by seven races pursuing New Zealand's third cup.

It now takes about a dozen to win the thing but the races are much shorter and faster in their dazzling supersonic catamarans that don't so much sail as skip over the bounding main like atomized space-craft as the 11 crewmen hang on for dear life. These so-called ''boats'' make the old 12-meters, for all their beauty, look like ragged ghost ships from the age of the Sea Hawks. But are they as authentic? I don't think so!

Nowadays, it's all about the high-technology yet more dangerous than ever. A legendary sailor was lost along the way. So drama persists. It's even more expensive, exclusive, exotic, elite.

But sadly lost are its once fabled music, charm, and mystique. Gone too, its emphasis on the skill, strength, and valor of men driven to engage the almighty seas, in all their mystery. Gone above all, a timeless romance with the past that made it special and quaint.

Or, so it seems to me. Maybe it's sour grapes. But I don't think so!

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