He's Not Exactly Farragut, but He May Be Our Man

A merica, in its hour of maritime need, has always been able to call on the right man at the right time to protect our precious nautical heritage.

We are, after all, a seafaring nation. Barnacle Bill was an American. So was Popeye.

We had John Paul Jones to say: "I have not yet begun to fight," when that British captain of the Serapis wondered whether he might entertain the notion of quitting.

Farragut said: "Damn the torpedoes! . . . Go ahead! . . . Full speed!" as he rammed the gantlet of chains and broke the back of the Confederacy in Mobile Bay.

Commodore Perry messaged: "We have met the enemy, and they are ours."

Commodore Winfield Schley said, as he scuttled the Spanish fleet at the battle of Santiago, "Don't laugh, boys, the poor fellows are dying."

We have never had any lack of naval heroes. "Send them our latitude and longitude," Bull Halsey instructed when told that the Japanese admiral had sent out the message, "Where is the American fleet?"

But our sovereignty on the seas is threatened from a new unexpected direction in the 1980s. This time, it's not the perfidious Albion, or the Spanish court or the Confederate blockade runners or even Tojo's carriers or Nazi U-boats.

This time, it's our erstwhile allies, the cheeky Aussies. They have broadsided our self-esteem, delivered a massive blow to our maritime prestige and made off with a bauble that is emblematic of the highest seamanship in the world. Until they came along, it had been in our possession since the days when the ships were wooden and the men were iron and the navies of the world trembled at the sight of a U.S. man o' war under full sail.

The America's Cup is just a battered silver pouring vessel but its loss is as demoralizing to our naval tradition as a torpedo amidships of a nuclear carrier.

In the yacht clubs of America from Long Island to the Great Lakes, from Newport, R.I., to Newport Beach, Calif., it's a naval disaster on the order of the Spanish Armada. John Paul Jones would be aghast, Farragut livid, Perry in disbelief.

What is needed is a man to match our oceans, perhaps a one-eyed, one-legged terror of the deep whom Robert Louis Stevenson might have been moved to write a book about.

At first blush, Roderick Hopkins Davis does not look the part. No epaulets on the shoulders, powdered wig beribboned at the back, no three-cornered hat or buckle shoes. Charles Laughton wouldn't play him.

But a syndicate is pushing out an $8.5-million bet on Skipper Davis as the man to restore American prestige on the high seas, to put us back in the forefront of naval powers and let "Don't Tread on Me" flags flutter off the sterns once again.

Winning a silver mug in a sailboat race is hardly to be equated with winning the battle of Lake Erie or sinking the Bismarck, but we are talking here of national pride in seamanship and of the shocking loss of the emblem of that pride after 132 years in our possession.

A contest between aircraft carriers may be decided in a bomb-sight factory in Paducah but a contest between 12-meter racing boats will probably be decided by who's the best sailor on the water, not a toolmaker in a shop.

For the naval engagement off Fremantle, Australia, this fall and winter, Rod Davis probably has as uphill a fight as any under-gunned captain in our history.

John Paul Jones didn't have to fight his own navy just to get at the enemy. Skipper Davis' greatest battles may be with the American fleet.

Dennis Conner, the San Diego skipper who is on a mission to avenge his loss of the cup to the Aussies off Newport three years ago has not one but five racers in the water. He will take three to Australia.

If Conner's fleet can be bested, Capt. Davis will have to take on the crews from the New York Yacht Club, San Francisco, Chicago, Canada, Italy, France and Great Britain. The Russians presumably are waiting till they get a warm-water port, maybe in the Persian Gulf.

Rod Davis was not exactly born in a rigging but he has been on the bounding main since he was a toddler and has gone to weather almost as much as Magellan. He comes from a seafaring family. Dad was a career naval officer.

Of all the men who go down to the sea in ships, those who go down in submarines have to be the bravest and most skillful. And that's what Rod Davis' father commanded, an American U-boat.

Young Rod grew up on a naval base in the Florida keys where, as a schoolboy, he used to beat the flower of the naval officer corps in weekend races in the light air off the Florida strait.

Historically, America's Cup skippers have been tea merchants, drapery salesmen, bankers and TV or stock market executives but Rod Davis has never been anything but a seaman.

An abortive university career ended when he joined a sailmaking firm after the family transferred to Coronado. Foreign syndicates would buy racing sails but only on the condition that Rod would come with them to sail their boats in international races. He became as familiar with the tides off the Kiel canal or the bay of Naples as he did with the Catalina drift. The sea anywhere was his home.

An America's Cup quest is not a sport, it's a campaign. It's not like the Queen's Navy. You can't just buy a boat, go down to the waterfront and round up a crew with a promise of free grog and native girls anymore.

You have to make endless television appearances, raise money, refine and re-refine the boat's performance. The Eagle is only 65 feet long and as sleek as a canoe but the Pequod never meant more to Capt. Ahab nor the Bounty to Capt. Bligh than his ship does to Captain Davis. It's his vessel to immortality--or oblivion.

If he beats the arrayed naval might of his own country and the Canadian and European challengers, then he gets the determined survivor of the awesome Aussies who tried for a dozen years to get the Cup to Perth and have no intention of letting it go anywhere else.

Whatever else he does, Capt. Davis will not be able to say, "I have not yet begun to fight." But he may be able to say, "I have never done anything else but fight and I don't intend to stop now."

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