Russell Long is the youngest skipper ever to go after sailing's most coveted prize, the America's Cup, but as the summer wears on, he feels more and more like the Old Man and the Sea. "Someone said I was 24 now and would be 35 in September," Long says. "I think I'll be 35 by the end of this week and 90 by September."

The final competition to select the U.S. defender of the 129-year-old goblet begins next week, and Long is sailing against two aggressive, experienced helmsmen: San Diego's Dennis Conner, 37, on Freedom, and Atlanta's Ted Turner, 41, on Courageous, the same boat he piloted to victory in the last Cup challenge in 1977. At the moment Conner is a clear favorite, having won 32 races and lost only three in the June and July preliminary trials. As the sleek 12-meter yachts joust in the waters off Newport's Brenton Reef, the marvel is that Long and his Clipper are still in the contest. After all, he is just out of Harvard and had never taken the helm of a 12-meter until last summer. Most of his previous skippering was on 15-foot dinghies.

Turner was the catalyst. He knew Russell through his father, Sumner "Huey" Long, a shipping broker and accomplished ocean racer. The Atlantan had sailed aboard Long's Ondine 10 years ago and nicknamed the youngster on the same watch "Russell the Muscle." When Turner had difficulty last year finding a competitor to help him prepare for this summer's trials, he offered the job to Russell. In April 1979 Long accepted on the condition that he have the option to buy the boat he would be skippering, Independence, for $225,00. Then he cannibalized Independence, using her rigging, spars, deck gear and keel on a newly designed hull. He saved $150,000 by doing so, and Clipper was born.

Clipper and Courageous axe berthed next to each other on Bannister's Wharf. Remarkably, Long has outraced Turner and emerged as Conner's main rival. (Clipper's 6-15 record in the July series bested Turner's 1-11.) "Russell's learning curve is going up," his father notes, "but it will have to go almost straight up to defeat Dennis." In any case, Russell has the instincts to be a good 12-meter skipper—a combination of small-boat aggressiveness and deft big-boat handling.

The new kid on the dock is easygoing most of the time, claiming to be simply "a cheerleader." But he has had enough grit to bump longtime friends from his crew when he felt they couldn't cut it. "We're improving all the time," Long insists. "On a scale of 100, if Freedom is a 95 then we're an 80. They can't get much better; we can."

With his Robert Redford good looks and Eastern Establishment upbringing (he was raised in Manhattan), Long fits in well with Newport's social summer population. His parents divorced when he was 3, and at 7 he sailed with his father in England's rugged Fastnet race. "Much of the time I was seasick," he recalls. "As I grew older, I preferred tennis and girls, not in that order." After attending St. George's, a private school three miles from Bannister's Wharf, Long went on to Harvard, only to flunk out after one term. He took a series of jobs (delivery boy, encyclopedia salesman, hotel manager) before re-enrolling in 1975. This time he breezed through, majoring in psychology and competing on the Harvard sailing team.

Long has devoted the last 16 months to a $1.2 million fund-raising campaign to race Clipper. Rather than rely on the family fortune (his great-grandfather was R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco king, and a great-great-uncle founded Reynolds Aluminum), Russell sought out corporate and private contributions. The largest ($150,000) came from Pan Am in exchange for naming the boat Clipper.

In Newport, Long and his crew (average age: 26) live in a sprawling mansion called Ochre Lodge. Coat and tie are required for dinner, except Saturday's cookout. Russell's telephone bill is sizable, since his girlfriend Cindy Warfield, a Ford model, is in Paris for the summer. He usually runs four miles a day (in 1979 he finished the Boston Marathon in 3:09) but does not demand such intensive training of his crew. "They're all pretty adult," Long says. "There's no wild boozing before a race."

Australia, France, Sweden and England are contending for the right to challenge the U.S. boat in the Cup final in September. If Clipper can't overcome Freedom's lead in the August trials, Long plans to adopt Dennis Conner's tactics of painstaking preparation and try again. Conner has devoted the last two years to the cause. "If the next Cup challenge is in 1983," Russell figures, "that means starting almost immediately."