At 91, Still Racing After All These Years

Herb McCormick profiles America's Cup veteran Jack Sutphen, who continues to race competitively in San Diego's Pacific Class sloop fleet. "First Beat" from our July 2, 2009, /SW eNewsletter/

At 91, Jack Sutphen, who served as Dennis Conner's sparring partner for multiple America's Cup campaigns, is still going strong.

At 91, Jack Sutphen, who served as Dennis Conner's sparring partner for multiple America's Cup campaigns, is still going strong.Herb McCormick

The year was 1929, and Jack Sutphen's family had just moved from New Jersey to Larchmont, New York, a decision that was not sitting well with the matriarch of the clan. One can imagine that Larchmont wasn't a laugh a minute, particularly after the stock-market crash in nearby Manhattan, and Mom wasn't happy about that, or the fact that she had a long summer ahead of her minding her young son on a minute-to-minute basis. That's when she spied the newspaper ad with the incredible deal.

The Larchmont YC was offering sailing lessons for kids, six days a week, all summer long. All you had to bring was your sandwich. It didn't matter that neither Mr. or Mrs. Sutphen, nor young Jack, had ever been in a sailboat. It was six days a week! Just a sandwich! Jack Sutphen was going to become a sailor.

And what a sailor he became.

Today, Jack Sutphen is 91 years old. He is sharp as a tack. His sailing resume is incredible, but the figure that stands out most is his participation in nine America's Cup campaigns, seven with Dennis Conner, a feat that earned him induction in the America's Cup Hall of Fame. He's still racing sailboats, mostly his 31-foot Pacific Class (PC) sloop, as an ubiquitous member in good standing at the San Diego YC. And talk about coming full circle: He continues to knock around in a Herreshoff 12 ½, the same design in which he first set sail from the Larchmont YC all those years ago.

On a visit to San Diego last month to do a print story for Sailing World on Dennis Conner, I had the chance to sit down with Sutphen for a long lunch to discuss his unique relationship with the legendary Cup skipper-as the helmsmen for the alternate boat in Conner's two-boat programs, for many years he served as his sparring partner on a daily basis-and his own long and noteworthy sailing career, which happens to be ongoing. The week before my trip, Sutphen had nabbed a third in a 14-boat PC fleet, coming up short behind the class's reigning world champ and some guy named Vince Brun.

Too bad for the other guys: "It's kind of embarrassing when a 91-year-old beats you," said Sutphen, with a well-earned smile.

As a youngster, sailing took a seat behind hockey, his first sporting love. He matriculated to Williams College and captained the freshman squad, but then World War II came along and he found himself in command of an 85-foot air/sea rescue boat for the Army Air Corps, a tour of duty mostly spent in the Gulf of Mexico. By that time he was also a married man, to Jean, whom he'd first laid eyes upon when she was winning every race at a swimming meet-"in a silk bathing suit," Jack is quick to remember-at the age of 15. Their marriage lasted 61 years and produced two children.

Jean's gone now, but Jack's still going strong. He even has a girlfriend. Well, sort of. "At 91, they're not really girlfriends anymore," he said. "They're associates."

For a decade after the war, Jack refereed NCAA college hockey games all over the east, even in Madison Square Garden. But he'd picked up a thing or two racing against the likes of Arthur Knapp back in Larchmont, and that experience led him to a job at the iconic sail loft of Ratsey & Lapthorn in City Island, New York. In that capacity he got his first taste of the America's Cup, fashioning the sail inventory for Weatherly in the 1958 Cup series.

For the 1974 America's Cup, he'd graduated from the loft to the boat, as the alternate skipper to Bob Bavier in the Courageous camp. Things were different back then.

"I think we were the last of the amateur crews," said Jack. "We didn't get paid anything other than shirts and socks and ties and jackets. We lived in Hammersmith Farm in Newport (the childhood home of Jackie Kennedy and the "summer White House" during her husband's administration). Every night we ate at a huge table in jackets and ties. Can you imagine? Bavier used to play tennis in the mornings before going out to practice. That's the honest truth. Can you imagine?"

The summer went reasonably well until the very end, when Bavier and Suthpen were bounced off the boat in favor of Ted Hood and a young California hotshot named Conner. "I think (Dennis) felt bad about that," said Sutphen. Whatever the reason, the uneasy incident would come to forge a surprising bond, for when Conner decided to launch his own campaign in 1980, he called upon Sutphen to join his team.

His stories of life with Dennis are endless and fascinating. "He really lived that 'no excuse to lose' credo," said Sutphen. "As a sailor, he was ahead of his time. He might be the greatest ever."

Sutphen was at Dennis's side when the Cup was lost in 1983, and still riding shotgun when Stars & Stripes won it back in 1987, which he calls "the best campaign ever." That year, Jack became leader of the infamous "Mushrooms," the B Boat crew, so called because they were kept in the dark, could be canned anytime, and were fed a lot of, um, crap.

He has so many stories he could write a book, and in fact, he has. Messing About in Boats for 80 Years is the name, and within its pages is one illustrated anecdote after another about his rich life on the water. It can be ordered through the publisher at their website (www.classicyachtfoundation.org).

If you find yourself at the San Diego YC there's a good chance you'll cross paths with Sutphen, and if you do so, say hello. It's not every day that you get the opportunity to shake hands with someone in the Cup HOF. But think twice if you get an invitation to sail a PC race. After all, as the man correctly noted, it's no fun getting schooled by a man in his nineties.