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Where Have All The Flowers Gone, Long Time Passing....
by Chris Caswell
(August 21, 2009) It occurred to me that there might be a place for a column I did for Sailing Magazine a few years ago.
It mentions Blackaller and other of my heroes who seem to have left the America's Cup arena to faceless accountants and billionaires intent on pissing on each other's shoes.
I thought Scuttlebutt readers might share the same sentiments.
You know, I miss the America’s Cup. No, not that ugly bottomless mug that’s been bouncing around for fifteen decades, but the racing, the people, the excitement. The Aura.
There used to be a “roar of the greasepaint, smell of the crowd” sort of visceral attraction that I just don’t find anymore, and I’m sad that people who are first savoring the America’s Cup at this point will never know what it once had been.
You know what it comes down to? I miss the people.
The America’s Cup used to be a floating circus of fascinating characters--some you liked, some you didn’t--but all combined to add something to the sport.
Where are the Ted Turners? The Tom Blackallers? The Baron Bichs? At times, they seemed to be a taco short of a combination plate, but they brought the America’s Cup to life, because they were all bigger than life.
Let me give you an example. In 1983, I checked into a hotel somewhere in mid-America while the America’s Cup was being contested and, on the way to my room, the bellhop noticed I was wearing a sailing shirt. “Hey, whaddya think about Dennis?”, he asked. Startled, I could only reply, “Dennis who?”.
He looked at me like I had sprouted wings. “Dennis Conner, of course--ya think he’s gonna win?” This fellow, who had probably never seen a body of water larger than the nearby lake and who admitted he knew nothing about sailing, was fascinated by the entire America’s Cup cast of characters: Conner, Australia’s Alan Bond, Tom Blackaller and the rest. The Cup was filled with quirky, outspoken sailors who were real people and they gave the event a personality.
Today, the sailors are a faceless lot, with all the zest and flair of an accountant doing someone’s payroll taxes. Ask most people to name three skippers of Cup boats and I bet few could do so. It’s not just that the America’s Cup racing is thousands of miles away, it’s that the whole thing has gone corporate and somehow left the spectacle behind.
It is, of course, a mirror of what most sporting events have become these days. I’d much prefer the Mickey Mantle of my childhood to a multimillion dollar bonus baby who charges for his autographs and who is memorable only for his dullness. Baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and now the America’s Cup. I should have seen it coming.
When Ted Turner, to the combined horror and relief of the New York Yacht Club, successfully defended the Cup in 1977, he arrived at the traditional press conference in the sailing condition known as “three sheets to the wind”. He was, in a word, ripped. Seated in front of the world’s press, he slowly and happily slid under the table. How can you not grin when you think of Turner?
Six years later, the irrepressible Tom Blackaller decided to spin a few midnight donuts on Dennis Conner’s lawn, causing DC to snap publicly, “How can you run a Cup campaign with a 12-year-old mind”?
Take French challenger Baron Bich, short in stature but a giant in ballpoint pens, who grew so infuriated with his skipper that he fired the man and took over the helm one memorable day, under the concept of “my boat, my rules”. Dressed impeccably in a white blazer, white yachting cap and even white gloves, he proceeded to get totally and hopelessly lost in the fog off Newport.
And then there was Alan Bond, who threatened to place the revered silver trophy in front of a steamroller and turn it into the America’s Plate when Australia won the event.
How about Bob Miller, the designer who conceived the notorious winged keel that removed the Auld Mug from the NYYC trophy room in 1983. He was underwhelmed by his real name, so he had it legally changed to Ben Lexcen after researching hundreds of phone books to find a name like none other.
The names and scenes replay across my memory like reels of old movies. Peter Scott, the skipper of the hideously slow British challenger Sovereign, who was better known as an eminent bird watcher than a sailor. Sir Frank Packer, the crusty Aussie who epitomized the indomitable never-say-die spirit of Down Under. Jim Hardy, a gentleman vintner from Australia who, as skipper of Gretel II, temporarily forgot a basic racing rule that any junior skipper would know and tried to tag out Bill Ficker’s Intrepid before the start, leading to the first America’s Cup collision in 75 years. Or Michael Fay, the wealthy Kiwi who blindsided San Diego Yacht Club with a challenge not in 12-Meters but with a 123ft maxi, only to be turned away when SDYC responded with a 60ft catamaran.
There is one last hold-out of the old school, Paul Cayard, who carries on the gracious and gentlemanly tradition of his mentor, the late Raul Gardini. Win or lose, Paul is always a perfect spokesman for the sport. The rest of the sailors, however, seem to be interchangeable.
I suppose that this faceless crowd of the current America’s Cup teams are the predictable result of the semi-professionalism found on the serious sail racing circuits, where talented skippers and crew expect compensation to sail in events such as the Admiral’s Cup. Given that precedent, it’s really no surprise that they have quickly learned how to court their bosses, whether they be wealthy owners or America’s Cup syndicates.
Even the syndicates contribute to the bland porridge of the Cup. I liked the America’s Cup better when there were faces behind the syndicates--the Packers and Bonds and Fays--back to when Sir Thomas Lipton was a good-natured perennial challenger and loser. Even Bill Koch, as much as he was generally disliked, brought a flavor to the America’s Cup. Today, it seems like the teams are run by a bunch of suits straight from some corporate boardroom, concerned only with their merchandise sales or hits on their Internet web pages. It’s not a sport, it’s a business.
No, the America’s Cup is a different place and not necessarily a better one. As the costs grew beyond the reach of a single owner, the corporations stepped in and the sailors learned to become the courtiers of the almighty sponsorship dollar, more intent on keeping the bean counters happy than remembering what this sport is really all about.
The America’s Cup may be the Holy Grail of sailing but, in many ways, it’s not that different from a weekend club race or a junior regatta. It’s about the wind and the sea and pitting yourself against those two elements as well as a bunch of your friends. I wish there were some way to bring back the laughter and the enthusiasm and the zest to the America’s Cup.
I miss my heroes.
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