When I recently spoke at a junior sailing regatta, I thought I’d have plenty of stories to regale and inspire these young sailors about the heroes of our sport and the lessons we can learn from their examples. But early into my presentation, I looked across the audience and noticed blank stares when I mentioned a few household sailing names that readers of this magazine would instantly recognize. Sensing something wasn’t resonating, I paused and asked them a few questions about a handful of sailing’s legendary and now Hall of Fame sailors.
Not a single one of them had ever heard of Ted Turner or Buddy Melges. It was the same with Dennis Conner and Ted Hood, so I tried my luck with a few more contemporary greats. Mark Reynolds and Paul Foerster? Nope. How about Betsy Alison or Anna Tunnicliffe?
Surely, they would know of Anna. Nope. Blank stares.
I was stunned, and afterward I wondered why, or how, these young sailors didn’t identify with any of these modern-day champions. And the more I thought about it, I realized it’s not just our youth sailors that struggle to identify the greats of recent years. It’s adult sailors too. When prompted, my peers will most likely call out the likes of Conner and Paul Cayard or Dawn Riley.
How is that so? Conner’s peak of notoriety was more than three decades ago when he lost and won the America’s Cup and paraded through the streets of New York. But so many other outstanding American sailors since then have had great and inspiring successes, earning their Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman recognitions.
This is a problem. Who are the modern-day greats that these junior sailors will identify with 20 years from now? And why are our present-day champions not resonating with the rest of us in the same way the greats once did?
I can only begin to speculate, but let’s consider public visibility. In 1962, at the age of 12, I received a new magazine called One Design Yachtsman (Sailing World’s founding title). And at the time, I read all about the great sailors of the day: Briggs Cunningham, Bus Mosbacher, Ted Hood, George O’Day, Lowell North and Buddy Melges, to name only a few. Since then, the number of journalists who follow sailing for major newspapers and periodicals has declined dramatically. Prominent papers like The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Detroit News, Boston Globe and San Diego Union-Tribune once employed writers to follow sailing. Today, only The New York Times gives our sport any attention, and even that is sparse.
Sailing occasionally appears on our TV sets and computers, but the commentators and producers are employed by the events they cover, which means there is not the same independent coverage as there was in the day when networks like ESPN dispatched production teams to certain events. Viewership ratings have been low for the few sailing shows that do make it to air. (SailGP, however, recently reported that it averaged 1.6 million viewers for its CBS coverage of the 2022 event in Spain, “making that the most watched sailing race since 1992.” —Ed.) There is no shortage of short sailing videos with music and quick-cut edits on YouTube and social media channels, but there’s rarely a storyline. No hero. No protagonist. No continuity. Perhaps our future idols are simply drowning in bytes.
Too often, what we do hear from top sailors is scripted by public relations agents. Absent are the raw and honest musings that made sailors like Tom Blackaller, Turner and Conner so famous. They had color and enthusiasm and, at times, could be outrageous. Their remarks were fun and interesting, and the sport benefitted from their notoriety. By contrast, today’s professionals—and this is true across many other professional sports—are far more calculated with their interviews. Once the best-of-the-best reach the podium of the America’s Cup stage, they’re groomed and media-trained to say a lot without actually saying much at all.
“Yeah, tough racing out there… The boys put in a good effort… We made a few mistakes…”
Historically, there had been a culture of sailors “giving back” to the sport by serving on sailing committees, raising funds for charity events, speaking to junior sailing groups, helping less experienced sailors improve their skills, and serving as ambassadors. Lending a hand does not seem to be in the DNA of many professional sailors these days. The sport relies on volunteer support at all levels, and every sailing organization would benefit from recruiting experienced sailors to serve in some meaningful capacities.
Another contributing factor has to be the proliferation of professional sailing and day-rate champions. The most prominent pro sailors of recent times rarely own their boats and don’t volunteer their time often enough to speak at sailing clubs or promote the sport beyond their self-interest, next gig or Olympic campaign. The pro sailor helps win the title and collects the check, while the owner gets the trophy and all the recognition. But owners come and go.
Turner was named Rolex Yachtsman of the Year four times in the 1970s because of his ocean-racing victories and America’s Cup successes. He was the skipper and owner of his boats. Buddy Melges was named Yachtsman of the Year three times for winning on his own boats in diverse classes, including the Flying Dutchman, E Scows, Solings and Stars. Both Turner and Melges were frequent speakers at yacht clubs and always available for interviews. We don’t hear enough from today’s top sailors, but writing articles and public speaking are good vehicles for promoting the sport—and themselves.
Does the loss of strict nationality requirements in the America’s Cup have something to do with the lack of American sailing icons as well? You bet. When the Golden Gate YC (Oracle Team USA) defended the America’s Cup in 2013, there was a lot of excitement generated by the miraculous come-from-behind victory, but the achievement was tempered when people realized there was only one American sailor on the winning boat. There’s a reason why sports fans follow specific teams, which usually revolves around geography. World Cup soccer and Olympic competition are built on national pride. Sailing is no different. Everyone wants the home team to do well. We need the Cup to get back to it and stick to it.
Our Olympic performance has been well below the gold standard set over many decades, and that’s not helping create future idols either. The US Sailing Team has earned one bronze medal in the last three Games. With the constant reshuffling of Olympic disciplines and classes, as well as a revolving door of underfunded young athletes, we don’t get to get to know them enough before they move on to careers outside the sport. The athletes also need to be better at promoting themselves beyond their social media followers and Olympic sailing circles. There are not many Olympic class fleets broadly raced in the United States, so building back and supporting Olympic classes would be a helpful start to get our American athletes on the podium and our minds.
Heroes in sports are admired for their athletic ability and victories. We seem to have lost a generation of sailing superstars. It would be helpful if race organizers, yacht clubs, racing classes and the few journalists still covering sailing focused on the individuals who are winning on the water and inspiring others. Top sailors have a responsibility to promote the sport by helping others. While it takes effort at many levels to celebrate our champions, it’s important we work together to do so because the sport of sailing needs a boost and it needs its legends.