Newport, R.I. — In the first America's Cup race, a cresent moon hung over the horizon and a brilliant sun glinted off the ocean waters -- reminders to the world's best sailors that their high-technology boats, new synthetic sails, and onboard computers are mere toys on nature's fluid playground.
The point was well taken by the victorious US yacht Freedom: a fast boat can only win if a crew understands -- and works with -- the wind.
"That's what distinguishes the good sailors: their ability to pick their way through the wind shifts," said John Marshall, Freedom crew member and president of North Sails, a top US sailmaker.
Seat-of-the-pants sailing, an art well-practiced by swashbuckling buccaneers up to the 19th century, has somehow gotten lost in the science and technology of big-boat racing in the last decade.
But the sailing art returned in the opener of the best-of-seven race series in which Freedom is expected to defend America's heritage by beating australia in the 24th foreign challenge for the cup in 110 years.
Over the six legs of the 24.3-mile triangular course used in the international sailing contest, Freedom simply dodged through the unpredictible wind shifts and gusts better than Australia during the four-hour race.
"We had a light, fickle wind," says Australia's skipper Jim Hardy, "It was an impressive piece of boat handling [by Freedom]."
Even at the start, which Freedom lost by six seconds, the Americans showed when to stop being solely combative with their opponent in order to take advantage of a new breeze. About two minutes before the starting gun, Freedom ejected itself from a circling match with Australia -- a common dog-circle-dog maneuever in Cup racing -- and positioned itself at the opposite end of the starting line.
The wind had softened -- a signal that it was about to shift direction, said Freedom skipper Dennis Connor after the race. Just which way the wind would go -- clockwise around the compass -- had been determined by an hour of practice before the race. Freedom, unlike Australia, had recorded the breeze's oscillating nature.
When the new breeze filled in, Freedom was ready for the "lift," and able to gain a few crucial boat lengths closer to the makr upwind. That lead was retained and widened over the entire course.
"You can't put a puff in your pocket.So you must translate the heavier wind energy into getting a better position," said Marshall, a professional sailor who is ranked one of the best in the world (he says Dennis Connor is them best).
"Oscillating wind shifts usually come in some orderly fashion. On the East Coast, a sea breeze from the south usually goes to the right, or west, during the day. In the spring and fall, small and rapid weather systems may bring persistent shifts.
"I look for the new textures on the water, the sheens that look a little more white and indicate a new breeze is incoming.
"Most races are won or lost on how well a sailor reads the wind shifts. The trick is to look for the rhythm of the wind and get in phase with the shift," said Marshall. "When the wind goes beyond the pattern of oscillating shifts, then something new is happening.
"It's these simple-minded things that count. But I don't want to oversimplify it, otherwise how could I win all the races I do!" added the Olympic bronze medal winner (in the Dragon class in 1972).
Despite the intutitive touch, Freedom's crew still double-checkes it hunches against a newly-invented computerized instrument that calculates "true" wind speed. This piece of data is difficult to come by in a moving boat. Australia lacks this latest technical wizardry, and skipper Hardy admits it is missed.
"It's the most important instrument on the boat," said Marshall. "If the speed drops from 16 to 14 knots, that's hitting me over the head like a mallet that a shift is coming."
Knowing when a breeze is notm going to shift can be just as important. On the the third leg of the Sept. 16 race with Australia, Freedom hoisted a smaller and flatter spinnaker in anticipation of a stiff but steady breeze. Australia kept its "fatter" spinnaker and was forced to put up a regular foresail, or geneo. The difference was an extra knot of speed.
"It's worth it to be greedy and put up a spinnaker in a strong wind. Then you can say, 'Oh, those dummies didn't put up a spinnaker. Watch us do it."
"If there's that much money in the bank, it's worth learning how to rob it," quipped Marshall.