The statement “The America’s Cup has changed a lot in the past 40 years” qualifies as a gold medal, AAA, five-star understatement of substantial proportions. Certainly, the boats are in a different league than the plodding ol’ 12 Metres, but the thing I have been thinking about is how the crews are assembled. To write on this topic properly I would need to consult THE Tome on the America’s Cup, the late Bob Fisher’s two-volume history, An Absorbing Interest. Interestingly Amazon quotes the weight, 12.42 pounds, but not a price. Point being I reckon most of the ol’ school crews were some variant of professional sailors; later refugees from the declining age of sailing cargo ships. Beginning with my consciousness of the America’s Cup and 12 Metres, the crews were all “yacht sailors.” Well, sorta.

Gretel’s skipper, Jock Sturrock born in 1915, was a multi-time dinghy champion in his youth and a four-time competitor in the Olympics. This particular record compares, outdoes actually, all but Sir Ben Ainslie when considering the Olympics and the Cup in one breath. BUT whereas Coutts, Bertrand (yup THAT one), Giles Scott and the Kiwi pair of Finn sailing grinders were all, well Finn Sailors, i.e. dinghy sailors.

Sturrock on the other hand won a slew of titles in various dinghies in the late 1920s into the ‘30s. Here he tacked over to keelboats albeit smaller ones – Stars, 5.5 Metres Dragons, 6 Metres. All joined at the hip by their ploddingness compared to anything in the AC fleet since the wing-sailed Oracle in the 2010 Cup.

Sturrock, selected by syndicate head and moneyman Sir Frank Packer was, in 1962, aged 47. In 2000, Jimmy Spithill, sailing in his first AC regatta, was 21. At least Spithill had some match racing experience in his favor. Some of the more, to me, stunning aspects of the 1962 challenge by Packer includes the following considerations.

There were no 12 Metres in Australia. Packer chartered Vim after the 1958 match and brought her to Sydney to use as a trial horse. In classic Aussie humor she was in short order known as the Household Cleanser. (An Ajax-like household cleaner product available in Australia at the time was called Vim.)

I cannot find any references to anyone sailing on 12 Metres in Sydney, though there were several 8 Metres operated by members of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, the challenging club. Match racing was unheard of, except perhaps for the top two boats in close proximity in a fleet race. Match racing as we now know it – gunnel-to-gunnel knife fights – did not exist in Australia.

No one had designed a 12 Metre or built one. Gretel’s designer Alan Payne ran tests at the Stephens tank in Hoboken on thirty shapes he had developed. And I don’t know how many Aussie yachtsmen had sailed in Newport, RI.

Today’s AC crews are assembled through the same basic old boy network-style system: sailing mafia. As the crew of Gretel were largely all known to each other from racing on Sydney Harbor and particularly the Hobart Race, the current batch of crews are part of the professional mafia of elite sailing. That has not changed BUT the 12 Metres guys were all Yachtsmen, as in sailors of yachts. Yachts of course in the day being big and heavy with wire headsail sheets and halyards, big, heavy – doubly so when wet – cotton sails, or maybe prototype terylene or Dacron.

At around 65 or so feet and 65,000 pounds or so displacement, the early Twelves all had the same gear, so having guys in the boat familiar with such kit was the easy choice. My own introduction to this rarefied air and the AC was not dissimilar, but I came in from dinghies. Finns, in fact…and I also had a pretty good introduction.

January 1977, I had just returned from the Aussie Finn Championships in Melbourne. I had not won, as I had the state championships in November, but I had roughly halved my position from the previous event, 14th to 7th, I think. The guy organizing the 1977 Gretel 2 challenge was a local character and very skilled yachtsman (and Dragon sailor), Gordon Ingate.

Ingate had a Tempest left over from the 1972 Olympics. The previous winter series on Sydney Harbor I was crew for his daughter, Christine, on this thing. We had a blast, and once in a while I would waft by Gordon at the Squadron bar. “Hi, Gordon.” “Hi, Joe,” and off we went. Chrissie and I kept in touch, and I called when I got back from Melbourne. We ended up at the Squadron one Friday evening after sailing. Gordon wandered by again, we exchanged pleasantries and then he said (roughly cited, diluted by 45 years), “I’d like you to come for a sail with us on Gretel.” That was it. No applications, no price haggling, no nuttin’. It was not try-out; it was come for a sail with us. Middle of January, 1977. I was 21.

So, in 1962 Little Joey Cooper of Kings Cross, Sydney, Australia was listening with bated breath to Gretel surfing by Weatherly to win a race in the AC, on the first try. (Weatherly is now in the Newport 12 Metre charter fleet.) And in 1977, fifteen years later, I was being asked to come for a sail on her namesake, Gretel 2. Well, who was I to refuse such a gentlemanly invitation? We were after all, at the Squadron, home of Sydney gentleman yachtsmen. I agreed.

A mate of mine, Geoff Gale, grand Laser sailor and skilled boat man, was running the yacht and it was he who greeted me at the dock when I arrived at whatever the agreed upon time was. And I do mean DOCK. This fine, refit 12 Metre (from 1970) was parked on a mooring in a cove just west of the bridge. The dock was in fact a very robust stone pier. We were shuttled out to the boat in some sort of watercraft. What, exactly, escapes me.

The Dacron Hood mainsail was flaked on the boom. The forestay was a Hood Gemini twin stay. There were some Dacron headsails and a couple of kites in the sewer. The other guys on board this day were either guys from the 1970 campaign or yachting mates of Gordon’s, mainly both: Yachtsmen, used to handling the big gear. Which was good because the spinnaker afterguys were galvanized wire, maybe 5/16” diameter, as was the mainsheet, the runner tails, and the genoa sheets, all with rope tails spliced in. The main halyard was wire and handled on a Barient winch fastened to the mast down below. NOT a reel winch, a regular drum winch and not very big either. It (seems like it) took forever to raise the main. Meantime a few of us were hauling a headsail on deck. You ain’t handled a heavy sail until you have hauled a 300 lb. Dacron genoa on deck through a small hatch in the deck of a 12 Metre. We finally got underway, sailing off the mooring and east under the bridge, towards the Opera House (or at least where the Opera House stands today).

Jolly and jovial it all was, the guys, many of them Ingate’s regular offshore crew, all retelling their favorite sea story and dreaming of winning the America’s Cup. In the preamble, prior to slipping the mooring, I was assigned to a grinder. Where else would you put a 21-year-old, 6’4”, 200 lb. killer fit Finn sailor? After some time sailing down the bay, we came around on the wind. The grinder kit was a custom-designed and manufactured arrangement that was not intuitive. Anyway, I let one of the regulars change gears. I just cranked, and soaked up the atmosphere.

“Ready about!” was the call. All tensed up. You felt the boat turning up into the wind. The deafening sound of flogging Dacron, J-Locks hitting the shroud roller and the mast, screeching wire on stainless steel drums erupting all around. We were tacking onto starboard, and I was facing forward on what was to be the new windward side. Imagine my surprise when I felt a massive whack on my right upper arm. I still don’t know how I knew, but I know I had one of those wire genoa sheets over my head whacking my outboard arm. Instinctively I did a duck-shrug kind of move and the sheet vanished over my hunched shoulders and ducked head into the relative safety of the port tailer’s hands. I don’t recall stopping grinding during all this. I think the culprit was a poor castoff from the starboard tailer, but at this remove, who knows.

Now, I don’t know if it was this calm grace under cock-up-ness or the fact I was a Finn Sailor, the youngest by two years (Geoff was two years older than me. The next oldest, or youngest, guys were in their mid-30s and – previewing Jerry Kirby – the bowman was in his mid-50s), OR that someone thought I was a pretty good sailor. Regardless, sometime in April, or maybe even May, I got The Letter. In sum, I had won the Guernsey.

Oh, the Guernsey, is, was in Australia at that time the heavy cotton pullover top the rugby football players wore. A Kiwi firm called Canterbury made them for a while and pictures of Russell Long’s crew in 1983 show guys wearing this kind of apparel. Getting the Guernsey means you have made the team and so will be given the Guernsey to wear. The rest is, well, history. ■

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