A Matter of Discourse
A Matter of Discourse
From the America’s Cup to the European Maxi circuit, our sport serves up many a memorable chestnut. "Jobson Report" from our March 2012 issue.
Spoken words can be powerful. They can be amusing, informative, and infuriating. They can praise, and they can sting, but most of all, they can reveal how one feels about an individual, competitor, friend, foe, or a particular issue or situation. Sailors, as we know, tend to speak in terse, direct phrases while racing, and then wax poetically (both orally and with hand gestures) once ashore, about races won and lost, of missed opportunities and tactical prowess.
I’ve heard countless colorful comments uttered by sailors, both on and off the water. Many of the most memorable have come from the emotionally charged press conferences of America’s Cups past. Today’s Cup sailors are trained to interact with the media and the public, to choose their words carefully during press conferences, to laud their competitors first, and to hide their raw emotions inside their sleeves when they know others are listening.
The presence of onboard cameras and audio feeds used for the America’s Cup World Series, however, has given Internet spectators unprecedented access to conversations onboard during competition. Much of the dialogue is fascinating, and listening to it reminds me of the not-so-distant days of the Cup, where a few noted sailors were unafraid to speak their minds. How amazing it would have been to have live-feed cameras to capture the Cup’s most colorful and notorious characters.
Luckily there were cameras onboard from time to time during training days, and one of my favorite moments caught on film was in 1974, with Ted Turner, who was never short on words. Turner and his tactician, Dennis Conner, were anxious to race their new 12-Meter, Mariner, which featured an innovative keel design.
Luckily, the camera crew was aboard Mariner for its first race. After a good start, Conner was quiet.
He studied Mariner’s speed against Courageous. Turner was eager to know how fast they were sailing, but didn’t dare look around. Finally, he asked, “How are we going?”
“They are higher,” Conner responded.
After a long pause, Turner then asked, “What about our speed?”
Conner answered in the sonorous tone of a golf announcer, “They are faster.”
Turner contemplated the responses before remarking with a big sigh of frustration, “They are higher and faster? It’s going to be a long summer.”
Mariner, of course, was dismissed early in the series.
Conner and New Zealand challenger Michael Fay were bitter rivals who sparred frequently during the 1986-’87 Louis Vuitton Cup. Conner once fueled this fiery relationship by questioning the legality of New Zealand’s fiberglass hull, publically suggesting that core samples be taken so as to examine the boat’s laminate. Fay responded indignantly: “You’re not going to put holes in my boat.”
He must’ve been laughing inside as the non-sailing writers wrote about a scenario of drilling holes in the hull and the boat sinking.
In early round-robin races, New Zealand won all but one race; Conner and several other challengers were frustrated by the lack of knowledge about the contents of the New Zealand hull. At a contentious press conference, Tom Blackaller, another American challenger, remarked about the fiberglass hull, “Something screwy is going on here. Something is not right.”
Conner took the microphone and asked, “Why would you build a boat out of fiberglass, unless you want to cheat?”
Blackaller then remarked, “I wouldn’t have said that.” The fight was on.
Headlines in New Zealand newspapers blasted Conner. He never backed down, and the sample was never taken, but the bad blood lived on for years.
Today, this would all take place in courtrooms.
Prior to the America’s Cup in 1983, Australia II designer Ben Lexcen was angry with the New York YC for questioning the legality of the boat’s keel design. At one heated press event, he stated, “If we can win the America’s Cup, we’re going to steamroll it and make America’s plate.”
At the prize-giving after Australia II won, New York YC commodore Bob Stone presented Lexcen with a hubcap from an old Pontiac and said, “It would be better if you steamrolled this, and not the Cup.”
At least everyone had a good laugh.