Recent photographs of Australia II, the Australian entry in the 1983 America's Cup race, reveal - or, rather, almost conceal - what the press delightfully calls a ''secret weapon.'' As the sloop heels over, the shimmering bulk of a keel is visible below the water - a keel whose vague outlines suggest a design that no one has seen before.
The Australians are, not surprisingly, a tight-lipped lot, which is extremely provoking: It sets the native speculation industry into high gear. Journalists and naval architects offered varying estimations of the design; scuba divers attempting to photograph the keel underwater arrested; and the New York Yacht Club requested a ruling from the International Yacht Racing Union on whether the Australian yacht violates the design criteria for America's Cup. (It does not, said the union.)
Something about sailing gives rise to these peripheral antics - and keeps them peripheral. This may seem like an odd claim: I can already picture yacht crews everywhere up in arms, pointing out that the Australian design represents a real advance in nautical engineering. I'm certainly not disputing that. Yet I've always found something a little different about sailing.
I begin to long for the America's Cup trials, for example, every winter, about the time that contract disputes in football and baseball (not to mention the intricacies of spring player drafts) arouse as much fan fervor as an average game. Sailing, too, has its shoreside entertainment. The yachtsmen tease the press, the fans, each other; they tacitly encourage people to write about the ''emotional simplicity'' of sailing, how it turns normally sane men and women into childish sneaks and wizards. Yet, when the race is under way and the boats cross the starting line, they enter another arena.
There is certainly nothing sacred about boats on the water. Nevertheless, there is something about setting out from a dock that makes all landlocked speculation and accusation seem a little - well - irrelevant. If we are the speculators, we are quite literally left behind, which offends us at first: It disturbs the protocol by which the objects of our speculation shall not leave our own region of operation except by some act which will allow us vastly increased speculation - the simultaneous disappearance, say, of two lead characters in a prime-time TV show. On the other hand, if we are sailors, we find that on the water there is often relatively little to say.
This may be the one fact of sailing that is hardest to remember when one is on land. Aside from the necessary orders to the crew, and perhaps some navigational consultations, one has the feeling that everything that needs to be said has already been said. This in no way detracts from the camaraderie on a boat, which often, in fact, grows stronger from having peripheral concerns cast away. A sailor's leaping to the spinnaker is a vivid kind of speech, a speech-act if ever there was one, and clearer for having no extraneous sounds attached to it. The departure from land, being temporary, may have more symbolic than actual force; if real life is defined by the length of time one spends living it, then life ashore, even for America's Cup sailors, is more real than life at sea.
But this is of course nonsense. When yachts put out to sea, the deft and commonplace symbols of re-creation are inescapable: We love them with the force of those islanders who saw divinity in Captain Cook's gleaming sails, although to remain true to our modernity we have difficulty admitting it.
For me, the key to sailing - what sets it apart from other sports and, like all secrets, constantly threatens to become trite - is this notion of transformation. The water is the other realm; it changes people. I see this even in small and intimate ways - with my sister, for instance, whose archetypal battle with chaos is played out, day or night, in virtually all the rooms of her Maine household. So as not to trip and fall into outer darkness, one must be careful where one steps, except in the dining room, which by and large the forces of light have cleaned up.
Nevertheless, I am always shocked when she rows me out to her Day Sailor. Halyards are taut, knots have been tied with evident care - even the lines are coiled. It's a little scary. And the gear is stowed in the cubby cabin so that one can actually find it.
What started out as a minor necessity on the water - a moderate degree of neatness to keep one from tangling one's foot in some line or other and falling overboard - has become a trait of my sister's character. Moreover, it is a trait against which she explicitly rebels on land. Its value at sea is incalculable, and, in a way, devout.
It may not be wise to risk pointing out these inconsistencies to sailors. They are apt to sail away, leaving one on the dock, and since sailing is one of the metaphors I use for my own departure from all that is peripheral and distracting in the world, being left on the dock is not a happy fate to contemplate.
During those couple of weeks, every few years or so, when I am able to be in Maine, sailing with my sister, saying little or nothing, holding an imprint of the glittering water on my eyes when I close them, I think sometimes of the America's Cup yachtsmen, seeking a kind of perfection on the water. Rimbaud, I recall, defined eternity as ''the sea allied with the sun''; and here we are, right in the middle of that alliance.
I hope the Australians get all the mileage they can out of their keel, which is at once a little frivolous and more serious, more promising, than it first seemed.d the world.