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.
One of my favorite America’s Cup press conference comments, however, came in 1995, from skipper John Bertrand, of Australia. He showed up at the media event red-eyed and frazzled after his boat, One Australia, cracked in half during a race and sank to the bottom of the Pacific. Moderator Bruno Troublé asked, “Can you describe what happened to the boat on this leg to windward?”
Bertrand, with a deadpan stare, simply responded, “Well, the boat broke in half and sank. That’s what happened.”
That was all that he needed to say.
Emotions were running high before the 2003 America’s Cup. You’ll remember the young New Zealander Russell Coutts had left his country’s team and was now racing for Alinghi, the Swiss challenger. There was a lot of tension around the docks. During an interview with Coutts, I asked him if he was nervous going into the first race. He thought for a second, then responded, “Where would you rather be for the first race of the America’s Cup than on the boat?” It was a good answer, and I knew right then that Russell Coutts was confident and ready. His team won in five straight races that year.
And I’d be remiss not to include the most famous of all the Cup’s quotable moments, this one made as the schooner America neared the finish line after racing around the Isle of Wight in 1851. Queen Victoria is said to have asked a fellow spectator aboard the royal yacht, Britannia, “Who is in first place?”
The answer was short: “America, your Majesty.”
Following up, the Queen asked, “Who is second?”
The answer was direct, “Your majesty, there is no second!”
While the Cup has given us plenty of notable and colorful commentary, no other source can top my friend Buddy Melges. I could probably write a book of Buddy’s finest sayings.
“To win, you have to present the boat to Mother Nature,” Buddy once suggested. I’m still trying to figure out that one.
He was once asked about his secret for winning, and he answered with a smile, “You have to sail your boat more quicklier.”
Yes, Melges could make up his own words, and I’m sure everyone would just nod in agreement. The Word according to Buddy.
One time I sailed with both Turner and Buddy on the same boat. During the starting sequence, Buddy was unsure which end of the line he wanted to favor. Turner asked him, “Buddy are you having trouble making up your mind?”
His response was priceless: “Well yes, and no.”
We all got a good laugh out of that one.
It’s not only Buddy who comes up with great one-liners, though. Over the course of my sailing career, I’ve heard many a strange thing uttered as crewmembers banter back and forth on the rail during a distance-race watch, or during the heat of battle in a buoy race.
I was racing in a European Maxi boat regatta, for example, and we had a noted sailmaker onboard. He instructed one of our crewmembers to, “Load up the backstay and see what it can take.” That crewmember loaded up the backstay until it was loaded, alright. The mast broke and went right over the side.
Then there was the time during a sunrise watch on a Chicago to Mackinac Race when a crewmember heard a noise and hopped up on deck, yelling, “What was that?”
The owner answered in a nonchalant tone, “Oh, that was the crack of dawn.”
There are plenty of other great sayings I’ve picked up from my experiences (and I admit to repurposing one or two on occasion, myself). Let’s start with: “If you can’t tie a good knot, tie plenty of them.”
OK, fair enough. But I suggest the corollary should be: “He who ties plenty must untie as many.”
And what about: “Why do some skippers yell more and more about less and less?” That’s probably because everyone stopped listening long ago.
And there’s this: “Every crewmember you add to your boat, you square your potential problems.” I suppose this means that the old saying about more hands making quick work doesn’t apply to sailboat racing. It could also be said that, for every crewmember you add to your boat, you square your potential deli store bill
Of course, there are plenty of classic sailing maxims yet to be uttered. This year, I encourage you to keep a logbook onboard and record any compelling comments you hear, whether on the water or ashore. At the end of the season, you’ll have some great material to share with the crew. Make them guess who said what. Then, send them on to the editors ([email protected]), and I’ll add them to my list, too.