America's Cup victory may go to the shapeliest mast

Get ready for a sailing "Spar Wars" on the waters off Newport. The America's Cup finals open tomorrow (weather permitting), and it will be a Battle of Masts as the United States and Australia once again match up in a best-of-seven race series for the famed silver goblet of yachting.

The big difference between the defending US boat, Freedom, and its challenger , named Australia, will be in the masts.

Australia's new mast, recently fitted into its white hull in a last-minute and desperate move, resembles a finger cocked at the top joint.

The extra bend at the top of the yacht's tall "stick" allows about 200 extra feet of sail not availableon traditional straight masts.

Such an advantage in light winds could -- just could -- make the 12-meter yacht from down under float like a jet butterfly past its well-oiled American competitor.

Winning one or more races would be a sweet swan song for "Gentleman Jim" Hardy, the Australian skipper who is considered the kindliest bloke on any Newport dock or deck. He is back for his third cup challenge after losing in 1970 on Gretel II and in 1974 on Southern Cross.

If Australia loses this time to the seemingly unbeatable US defender, Dennis Connor -- as is now predicted -- the always eloquent Hardy could simply say that the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in himself but in his spars!

But then he would be like any racing sailor who often blames defeat on boat equipment rather than sailing skill.

The truth is, however, that Jim Hardy is not just any sailor. And once Australia had beaten Sweden, England, and France this summer, earning the right to challenge for the cherished cup that the United States has held since 1851, he and his crew pinned a large part of their hopes on the new mast.

When I found the veteran helmsman at Australia's berth along a Newport wharf, he was swinging from a bosum chair up the mast, polishing the metal so that it was slick as the skin of a great white shark.

"The only time that success comes before work is in the dictionary," said skipper Hardy after his labors. He was trying to make the mast as smooth as possible to prevent air turbulence over the sails.

"Twenty percent of the items on a boat account for 80 percent of the success in racing," he said, standing in his salty-white leather boat shoes. "So we concentrate on the 20 percent."

At the top of the list are sails and spars, the muscle and skeleton of a racing sailboat. More than previous cup challengers, the Australians are sporting sails in 1980 of a quality almost equal to American brands.

"This is the first time that I have see an American-style mainsail on a foreign boat," says Andy MacGowan, manager of the Newport Offshore Unlimited boatyard where Australia is docked.

That leaves the spars to make the technological difference in 1980. Hull shapes are considered almost equal.

The bendy-mast idea was first tried in cup contests this summer by the British Challenger Lionheart, which won only a few races against the Australians. The strange-looking stick is considered the most dramatic innovation in 12-meter racing in years, and although it is still unproven, the races against the British were close enough to persuade the Australians, who had a more experienced crew, to make a new mast in a Newport warehouse.

Most masts have some degree of bend, but the Australians and British went one step further, fashioning the top out of fiber glass. The flexibility and strength allow the crew to "shape" the sails to wind conditions.

The French protested the use of the British mast to an international committee, but the old seafaring empire won over its traditional enemy. The Aussies expect to do better than the British, because their boat is lighter and their crew more experienced.

But it is the little things that count to Jim Hardy. "I have a pet theory that masts must be smooth," he said.

To illustrate his point, tells the story of the "Spruce Goose," that giant amphibious plane that billionaire Howard Hughes constructed more than three decades ago.

The first time the flying "boat" flew, the plane went only 50 feet high. Engineers thought it needed more power, so they put bigger engines on it. This time the Spruce Goose did not fly at all. Then a mechanic suggested that the wings be dusted off to help the air flow.

Sure enough, it flew.

"If the mast airfoil is clean, it can add one second a mile to our time," the Australian skipper said. Over the cup's 24-nautical-mile triangular course, that cuts 24 seconds off the race time -- a big margin in races where boats often finish within one or two minutes of each other.

With an innovative mast and a little polish on it by the skipper, Australia could give the United States some interesting races.

"I'm not sailing with hope like other times. I expect to win," said Hardy with a hunger and a cocky confidence that are found throughout the Australian crew.

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