The National Sailing Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the San Diego YC was a special day for me in many ways. It was humbling to be included among such a diverse group of inspirational sailors.
In the weeks before this magic day I immersed myself in the biographies of each of my fellow inductees, and while doing so, I discovered there was a thread that connected us. Maybe, I thought to myself as I listened intently to each of their speeches, adversity in its many different ways is what can propel a great sailor forward.
**Betsy Alison **was named Rolex Yachtswomen of the Year a record five times, an accomplishment no other American man or woman has ever achieved. In 1988, when women were granted a class in the Olympic Games, Alison was one of the athletes that tried to secure a berth. She tried three times in total, but never made the Olympic Sailing Team. Setback after setback, she never lost motivation. She moved on and now leads the U.S. Paralympic Team.
In 2008, SKUD skipper Nick Scandone was battling Lou Gehrig’s disease. He and his crew Maureen McKinnon-Tucker qualified earlier that year to race in the Sonar class in China. His health was deteriorating rapidly and Alison and Tucker were relentless in helping Scandone prepare for what was a gold-medal winning effort. For Alison, it was a bigger victory than had she won her own medal.
**Hobie Alter **rode the surfing craze to success as a craftsman of surfboards in his small shop beginning in 1958. While surfing was satisfying, he could see the potential to get more people on the water through sailing. Combining his love of both sports he designed a 14-foot catamaran called a Hobie Cat. Today there are 18 models of Hobie Cats and more than 100,000 boats on the water bearing his name. It took considerable courage and commitment to shift from surfboards to beach cats, but the sport is better because of it.
Charlie Barr was a three-time winning America’s Cup helmsman by the age of 37 in 1903. Two years later, Wilson Marshall, owner of the three-masted schooner Atlantic, wanted to hire Barr to skipper his boat in a race across the Atlantic Ocean. Barr was reluctant to do the race because his wife was very ill. But, as he contemplated the challenge of racing across the ocean, he realized a big payday could be helpful to his wife. He accepted the job and pushed Atlantic hard, winning the race and setting a record that stood for 100 years.
Paul Cayard is one of only a few sailors to skipper for both a challenger and a defender in the America’s Cup (1992 and 1995), but both were unsuccessful campaigns in the end. Undaunted by such failures, Cayard took his natural skills to ocean racing and made a comeback in the grueling Whitbread Race. He was comfortable in the ocean, and after 33,000 miles he became the first American skipper to win the around-the-world race.
** Dennis Conner** was at the top of his game in 1983, but his 12 Metre Liberty was off the pace compared to challenger Australia II, which featured an innovative wing keel. Conner took the best-of-seven series to a final race, but in the end lost to the Aussies. It took several months for him to recover from the crushing defeat, but he slowly regained his drive to compete and mounted a challenge. Over the next thee years he built three new boats, recruited a top crew, and trained aggressively in the big winds off Hawaii. In 1987, Conner and his team aboard Stars & Stripes reclaimed the trophy, becoming national heroes in the process.
** Nathanael Greene Herreshoff** was a brilliant engineer as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, set on developing a steam engine. Unfortunately, one of his experimental engines blew up. There were fatalities, and the young Herreshoff lost his license to work on steam engines. After the tragedy he shifted his focus and went on to build yachts. Between 1893 and 1920 he designed, built, and sailed on six successful America’s Cup defenders. And, for good measure, he later improved the steam engine.
Ted Hood was a successful sailmaker in the early 1960s and went on to design, build, and mount an America’s Cup defense named Nefertiti. Hood and his young crew performed well in the early trials, but for the finals they anticipated strong winds and modified their 12 Metre accordingly. The wind went light, however, and Nefertiti struggled against its rival Weatherly. It was a tough defeat for Hood, but 12 years later a new 12 Metre named Courageous was in a tight battle to become the defender. He was asked to steer the boat on the last day of the trials. They won the race and went on to defend against Southern Cross.
Buddy Melges already had a gold and bronze Olympic medal on his wall to complement his many national and international titles when he was asked to skipper an America’s Cup challenger named Heart of America. Melges gave it the old college try, but did not make it to the semifinal round in 1987. He was 57 years old at the time, and there was speculation the “Wizard of Zenda” would never sail for the Cup again. In 1992, however, Bill Koch recruited Melges to be a primary helmsman aboard America3. At 62, he became the oldest sailor to steer an America’s Cup yacht to victory.
Bus Mosbacher was the helmsman of Vim in the 1958 defense trials for the America’s Cup. The boat was built for Harold Vanderbilt in 1938, but 20 years of yacht design gave Columbia, a new Olin Stephens design, a speed edge over Vim. Mosbacher was a tough competitor, but unable to convince the New York YC selection committee that his team was the best choice to defend the Cup. Mosbacher, at 36, and his young crew were bitterly disappointed. Weatherly was another boat that lost in the 1958 trials, but in 1962 Mosbacher took to Weatherly’s helm and won the Cup. Adding to his legacy, Mosbacher steered Intrepid to victory in 1967.
Lowell North, according to his protégé Dennis Conner, is one of the greatest American sailors to ever live. He won a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics and several world championships. In 1977, North skippered Enterprise in the America’s Cup trials. It was a new 12 Metre, designed by Olin Stephens. But things did not go well that summer for North. He experimented with new sailcloth and sail designs that showed promise, but did not work as well as hoped. After the trials, North and his engineers took a new approach to sailmaking, which would revolutionize the sport.
Joshua Slocum shipwrecked off South America in 1890 with his family aboard his boat. After such trauma he decided to sail around the world alone, sparing his family further undue stress. After completing his circumnavigation Slocum published a book in 1899 titled Sailing Alone Around the World. It’s a must read for aspiring mariners.
Olin Stephens was on a roll with his America’s Cup designs. Intrepid, for example, was a major design breakthrough. In 1970, however, his boat Valiant was seriously off the pace compared with the older Intrepid. At the age of 62, Cup observers began to wonder whether he’d lost his touch, but in 1974, Stephens rallied by designing two-time winner Courageous and followed with Freedom, another winner in 1980. The 72-year-old sailor still had the feel for designing fast 12 Metres.
**Ted Turner **was a champion in every class he raced. His best racing took place in the ocean. By 1973 he had been named Yachtsman of the Year two times. In 1974, Turner was invited to skipper the 12 Metre Mariner. Unfortunately, the boat was seriously off the pace of the other 12- Meters. People wondered if Turner was not up to the task, but in 1977, with many of the same crew, Turner acquired the use of Courageous and won the Cup. This victory helped prove he was a great sailor. Inspired by his win, he went on to build a very successful business career.
**Harold Vanderbilt **handily won the America’s Cup in 1930, but in 1934 his boat Rainbow struggled against Endeavour. The British challenger was a technological marvel and won the first two races in a best-of-seven series. Luckily for Vanderbilt, the British crew walked off the boat after a dispute with its owner T.O.M. Sopwith. Rainbow won, but barely. Three years later Vanderbilt took no chances when he built Ranger. At the time, its designer Sterling Burgess enlisted the help of 29-year-old Olin Stephens. Ranger was so fast that she was known as the Super J.
There’s a lesson in every one of these historical footnotes. If things don’t go well, there will be opportunities to perform better if you have the courage to learn from the past. It takes a commitment to excel, to make a rebound after a big disappointment or challenge.
Later this year we will welcome a new class of Hall of Fame inductees, and I’m willing to bet that each of these sailors will have their own accounts of how they overcame adversity to reach personal heights.