The Mystic Seaport Museum on Greenmanville Avenue, Connecticut is a must-visit if you get the chance. Amongst its artefacts is a library of photos to die for and, deep in the bowels of the archives, the museum owns the copyright to a fascinating photo of Rod Stephens, the brother of legendary yacht designer Olin, playing the accordion whilst sitting on the grinding pedestal of the unbeatable Ranger in 1937. With Harold S. ‘Mike’ Vanderbilt steering, the vessel was a weapon that could ‘squat down and go’ using its waterline to dynamic effect and is widely regarded as the most dominant America’s Cup boat ever to sail.
In that summer of ’37, Ranger won 32 of 34 starts. It had a spinnaker made of two-ounce Egyptian cotton that was 18,000 square feet set on a 50 foot pole. Crash gybes were not advisable. Ranger absolutely thumped the opposition and won the Match with a landslide 4-0 victory over Tommy Sopwith’s Endeavour II, winning one race by 18 minutes and another by 17. Nice.
It was a true ‘slaughter on the water’ and no wonder a crew member had all the time in the world to play sea shanties on a musical instrument sitting atop a pre-Harken era prototype, such was the horizon job that the powerful vessel could achieve. It was a performance out of the top drawer of design by master draftsmen in Starling Burgess and Olin Stephens. Who actually designed the exquisite hull form was a question. Many years later, Stephens confirmed in the New Yorker Magazine that it was Burgess’s scale model that they had tank-tested, amongst dozens, that was the ultimate choice for the Ranger design – an admirable admission displaying great humility and deserved deference by the greatest designer ever in yachting. Period.
The fact that these magnificent J-Class yachts were largely scrapped and turned into bullets and armaments for the war effort is a crying shame but such is the way, even today, with AC yachts becoming essentially mere scrap moments after they finish their last race. Within the throw-away society that we all dwell, the Cup is no different from any other equipment sport. Yards are littered with the detritus of the great game and there is quite simply nothing sadder in our sport than seeing Cup boats rotting away, left to the elements or worse still, being used as tourist vessels on day trips with guard rails and ‘elf ‘n’ safety involved.
No such chance for the current crop though – the vast majority will have to be scrapped. The clipboard and luminous jacket brigade would never pass these monsters as seaworthy for ice cream licking landlubbers and stag parties in under-sized lifejackets. The knacker’s yard or public display in a windy square with the foil arms agriculturalised and used as climbing frames for kids and the selfie-taking masses awaits – and that’s just for the good ones.
But with Ranger and Australia II both deemed to be the stand out yachts of the 20th century, are we about to see another join their fabled ranks? Judging by the newsflow, Te Rehutai is on the brink of achieving what I predicted back at the start of the New Year of ‘stunning the world’ and could be on the cusp of Ranger-esque infamy. There’s an unstoppable whirlwind of chatter swirling that she’s not only fast but electric-fast. Looking at the on water media coming back, similar to Ranger, she squats and goes but this time she flies. A coiled spring of a hull form, the power on display is mighty.
Speeds being hit have never been seen before and it’s looking like Team New Zealand could be dead set to whitewash the Italians leaving them in their wake with embarrassing deltas akin to the magnitude of the 1937 results. Goodness me, we love a rumour don’t we? But Luna Rossa will know the polars across all the wind ranges and angles and will have calibrated their speed gun a million times to check the impossibility they potentially face. By the time of the first press conference, they will know if this is a match or if this is a Kiwi cakewalk. It will all be bluster on the podium to satisfy the sponsors. But everyone is predicting the latter.
So what options do you have when faced with a faster boat? Not a lot if truth be told. The penalty system in this Cup is so paltry to be almost negatable. A 50 metre drop-back against a speed machine is nothing – a few seconds at best – and if Burling runs and hides in the pre-start and satisfies himself with starting fully gassed to leeward or just happy trailing the Italians back to the line a boatlength behind and then burning through on outright pace, then what can Jimmy & Co do about it? Sit back, and admire them. Perhaps offer a little wave as they whistle through. We’ve all been there. They say it builds character but I’m not so sure. I hate losing. I hate it even more when everything is stacked against me and I have no chance of a straight fight. One-Design racing, that horribly mis-labelled discipline should really be called ‘Several-Design Racing.’ You know. I know. We all know.
If the rumours are true. Te Rehutai can book its climbing-frame slot alongside Black Magic, and KZ1 downtown in Auckland and look forward to a slow march into obscurity. A mere side-show in 20 years time with the rest of us looking up going: “and we thought that was the pinnacle…it could only go 60 knots.” But mystics are thinking otherwise. If you believe that mysticism is the spiritual apprehension of truth beyond the intellect then this isn’t a whitewash.
I believe in sport. Strange things happen in sport.
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