The wind as prima donna

Like a ballet on water, the two slender yachts competing in the 1980 America's Cup have pirouetted around each other, tearing a few tutus and almost bringing down the house.

Sails were whipped to ribbons, rudders failed, masts were bent like twigs in a typhoon, and for a few days the sailing world held its breath at the possibility of America's losing the longest sports monopoly in history.

For the most part, though, this year's search for a perfect sailboat to win the silver trophy, held by the United States since 1851, ended up being a search for the perfect wind.

If the skippers of either the US 12-meter yacht Freedom or its challenger, Australia, did not think the next day's weather forecast suited their boats, they did something about it. They asked for a "lay" day, hoping for breezes more to their liking the day after.

The unflappable Dennis Conner, the skipper in the two-year, $2.5 million effort to make Freedom the cup defender, knew he had the edge on tactical ability, crew work, and overall boat performance.

But while Freedom plowed through Rhode Island Sound's waves like a hungry tortoise in almost any wind, Australia hopped like a hare in extra-fair weather.

The challenger, 3,000 pounds lighter and carrying 200 more feet of sail area than Freedom, was primed for light winds and showed it very quickly. After Freedom won the opener of the best-of-seven series, Australia took a big lead the next time out, only to be foiled because there wasn't enough wind to get either yacht to the finish line before the time limit expired. Then the next day, with the eight-knot wind conditions still to her liking, the challenger emerged victorious in what Bill Ficker, the US skipper on Intrepid in 1970, called the "greatest 12-meter race even in the history of the cup."

The lead changed four times and ended with the snowy Australia winning by 28 -seconds in a sunset finish that barely made it under the 5 1/4-hour time limit. The tacking duels on the three windward legs of the six-leg course were like Errol Flynn fencing matches, and the blue-hulled Freedom was forced to overshoot the marks twice and lose speed as it fell into the wind shadow of its opponent's sails.

although Freedom was able to reassert its mastery when the winds became stronger in subsequent days, even that one victory by the Australians was quite an achievement. Not since 1970, in fact, when Australia's skipper, Jim Hardy, was at the helm of Gretel II, had a challenger won a single race in yachting's grandest and most graceful event.

The Australians, in their sixth try for the cup since 1962, had proved the advantage of the latest innovation in sailing -- a mast whose top section is made of plastic that bends back like Nadia Comaneci on a balance beam. This allows extra sail area that catches every little puff in light wind.

After that second race, Conner admitted that bendy masts are on the horizon for the next cup contest, in 1983. The British boat, Lionheart, had brought the new spar design to this year's challenge, but she lost out to Australia in early trials. The clever crew from down under, however, picked up the idea and improved on it for the finals with Freedom.

"Unless the rules are changed, the bendy rig is the thing of the future. We're kind of at the tip of an iceberg," said Freedom's helmsman.

Even before the 1980 races were over, the British and French had announced they would be back in 1983 to make a go for the cherished price of sailing.

The next cup competition may be even more exciting -- and more dangerous to the American's grasp on the Victorian goblet -- because the sponsoring New York Yacht Club has ruled that challengers can use sails and rigging from any nation, not just their own. America's technological and sailmaking advantage will be lost.

In 1851, when the yacht America sailed to Britain and took a race that began the cup tradition, it won with sails made of Egyptian cotton. English yachts used flax, and it showed in their slower speed.

This year the Americans exhibited their skill in using Du Pont-made Mylar and Kevlar synthetic sails that hold their shape in variable breezes. The sail's success will prove a valuable spinoff to all sail racers who have used Dacron sails for the past 25 years.

But sails, crew work, tactics, and hull design have somehow just not been as important in 1980 as the weather.

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