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Still The Best Defense, 30 Years Later

Even after 30 years, this crew still considers themselves the strongest of teams. From the "Jobson Report" in our October 2007 issue

March 17, 2009
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Following on the heels of the 32nd America’s Cup, the 1977 Cup-winning crew aboard Courageous reunited in August to mark its 30th anniversary. A three-day weekend in Newport, R.I., gave us the chance to reconnect with each other and sail our old 12-Meter once again. I used this rare opportunity to collect their thoughts about our experience three decades ago. I also asked for their opinions on the Cup, past and present, and while there were many viewpoints, one thing we all agreed upon was that the nature of a Cup campaign has changed dramatically since our heyday. Today, big salaries and international free agency prevail. In contrast, in 1977, there were no tryouts or salaries; we all grew up hoping to someday take part in the Cup. And thanks to Ted Turner, we got our chance.

The ’77 campaign lasted 10 months, with weekend sailing in the fall and spring and full-time practice and racing starting on June 1. By September, our tenacious skipper, Ted Turner, was leading a highly efficient team. We won the trials with a 10-1 record and swept Alan Bond’s Australia, 4-0.

But Ted ultimately gave us more than our Courageous experience; he gave us an extended family. Even though our own families and careers have led us down different paths, we remain a team in the truest sense of the word. In 2003, for example, when I was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, I was going through chemotherapy treatments, and in a show of support, every member of the crew showed for my induction dinner.
In 1977, Dick Enersen, another Cup veteran, made a film about our campaign, a film he labeled “The Best Defense”. And just last year Ted Hood remarked in a speech he gave at the New York YC that he thought the Courageous crew was the best America’s Cup team he’d ever seen. It was a nice compliment. But bringing us back down to earth was a clever slogan that Robbie Doyle’s wife, Janet, came up with, “The older they get…the better they were.” The phrase was printed on T-shirts for our team and our families. We wore them with pride.
When we went sailing on Courageous, as part of our reunion, I was nervous that everyone would jump into the tactician’s spot. After all, everyone on the crew had all gone on to successful sailing careers. Fortunately, the entire crew gravitated to their old positions, and for me, returning to the cockpit of Courageous felt very familiar. It was a happy feeling.

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On the first day, most of our children were sailing aboard Intrepid. It was a friendly outing until Intrepid came across our bow and tacked right on our wind. With that, a tacking duel ensued. As fortune would have it, we found a nice windshift to turn the tables and take the lead. It might’ve been our last hurrah, but we took it.

The synergy of the Courageous crew started with a clear vision and strong leadership. All of us had such a strong passion to participate that the individual gave way to the team. It is a lesson that can apply to crews on all boats. I asked each member of the crew whether they felt this way as well, and this is what each had to say:

Ted Turner (skipper): “I think the ’77 Cup Race was a high point of our lives. We were the underdogs going into that summer. We were going to have to perform at an absolutely superlative level. It was a crew of 100-percent winners.”

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Bill Jorch (navigator): “What I remember most clearly is that the crew never got down. We had a positive attitude. I always felt I wanted to give my absolute best because I didn’t want to let Ted down.”

Robbie Doyle (main trimmer): “You learned a lot about leadership the way Ted directed people. He gave everybody a little compartment to do their thing.”

Bunky Helfrich (sail trimmer): “We were able to form a bond that will never be surpassed. We were all amateurs. We sanded the bottom of the boat and did all the work ourselves. There was never any individual blame. If somebody messed up, somebody else was there to pick up the slack. It’s one of the finest things that happened to me.”

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Richie Boyd (sail trimmer): “Everybody was critically important in both sailing and maintaining the boat. We worked together, we slept together, ate together. All the pieces fit.”

Paul Fuchs (grinder): “You could see the way Ted was thinking. Everything worked. There wasn’t yelling. Everybody knew what they had to do. Things went smoothly. We were a family.”

Dick Sadler (grinder): “I never felt any overwhelming pressure or strains because I knew everyone else was going to be able to handle their job.”

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Stretch Ryder (pitman): “With Ted he had this aura around him. His ‘can do’ attitude was inspirational. He just let us do our jobs. You could rely on the guy behind you and the guy in front of you.”

Conn Findlay (sewer man): “I think one time we had a problem. It involved the front end of the boat. After it was all over, Ted came forward and asked, ‘Do you know what you did wrong?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes’. End of conversation.”

LJ Edgcomb (bowman): “We jelled as a team because people found their roles and their jobs. We had to figure out how to keep the boat in one piece. If you do the little things, you can win the big things.”

Marty O’Meara (crew boss): “The crew was extremely dedicated and very knowledgeable. If you had to sum it up in one word, which became a key word in the Turner campaigns, it would be tenacious.”

Jeff Neuberth (project manager): “It was a tight unit. Ted always had the theory that the sum of the whole is greater than the parts. It was a no-rockstar deal; everybody pulled together.”

There were some other America’s Cup milestones this year. Stars & Stripes, for one, won back the Cup from Australia 20 years ago, and Intrepid won four straight 40 years ago. Both crews marked their respective occasions with special events. Perhaps Olin Stephens should have a special toast to his team on Ranger, which won 70 years ago. At 99 years old he is the last surviving member of that team, which makes me wonder what there will be to celebrate in 20, 30, 40, or 70 years from now. I bet the crews will be celebrating the same things: good friendships, a sense of accomplishment, and a healthy concern for the future of competitive sailing.

As for Courageous, the boat has never looked better. Craig Millard made a long-term charter with the Museum of Yachting and brought the boat up to speed. With several modifications the boat may be faster than it was during its Cup days. Jimmy Gubleman and a team of American sailors are currently campaigning Courageous in Europe. I’m going on a hunch that the boat will do well, just as she did for us.

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