America’s Cup doc ‘Courageous’ tells tale of scrappy underdog Ted Turner’s 1977 victory

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Friday June 16th, 2017

The America’s Cup—the 35th iteration of which begins Saturday afternoon in Bermuda—has shined itself up a great deal in recent years. Not the trophy itself, the oldest in professional sports, but the regatta to determine who wins it. Gone, since 2007, are the classic monohull sloops; in are the wing-sail catamarans, foiling at record speeds. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is the man to credit and blame for all of this change, which was debated by sailing purists (and challenger yacht clubs) for the first half of this decade but is now accepted, resignedly or otherwise, as the state of the sport.

These updates to Cup racing make for a better in-person spectacle and especially for better television, and I will be among the many tuning into NBC to watch Oracle Team USA and skipper Jimmy Spithill begin their title defense against the challenge from Emirates Team New Zealand and 26-year-old helmsman Peter Burling. (Even casual sailing fans must remember Oracle’s stupefying San Francisco defense against the Kiwis in 2013; after trailing in the regatta 8-1, Oracle came back to win, 9-8. New Zealand sacked skipper Dean Barker afterward as punishment for what was then the biggest choke ever in the Bay Area; the 2015-16 Warriors would go on to blow a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.)

SI Vault: Staging a Battle on the Briny (July 4, 1977)

But I recommend staying on NBC after the race for the airing of the documentary Courageous, which chronicles an entirely distinct and long-gone moment in America’s Cup racing: the Ted Turner era.

Turner was well-known back then, in the ’70s, as a regional media magnate and the renegade owner of the Atlanta Braves and Hawks. He hadn’t yet founded CNN or TNT, but he had turned his father’s billboard business into the dominant media player in the Southeast and he’d put his Superstation on cablesystems around the country.

He was not, though, in anything like Ellison’s position—which furnishes the great drama in his story. The Oracle CEO’s present net worth is estimated by Forbes to be north of $55 billion, while a contemporary news report replayed in the documentary notes with awe that Turner’s business then brought in $4 million a year. Ellison came to international yacht racing with f--- you money; Turner was a rich guy who was stuck playing the game.

Eric Schweikardt/Sports Illustrated

And in 1977, when a 38-year-old Turner mounted his second Cup campaign in Newport, the game entailed not only racing 12-Metres against sailing’s leading lights, the sailmakers Ted Hood and Lowell North, but pleasing the muckety-mucks of the New York Yacht Club—Vanderbilts, Morgans, Rockefellers and their genteel ilk. They alone would choose who would defend the Cup against Australia in September.

The racing part Turner could conceivably handle. He had been a great sailor as an undergraduate at Brown and he had competed in world championships on small boats throughout the ’60s and ’70s. The boat he had purchased, Courageous, had been the winning ship for Hood in ’74. And he had assembled a tip-top crew, led by tactician Gary Jobson.

The cultural obstacles, on the other hand, were considerable. Months before he arrived in Newport, Turner had been suspended from baseball for the ’77 season, the penalty for tampering with the Giants’ Gary “Sarge” Matthews. Turner nonetheless all summer towed a giant satellite dish around town to watch his team’s games. He was inclined, too, to run his mouth. At a party one night at Bailey’s Beach—a private strip that was the preferred hangout of the aforementioned patricians—Turner got liquored up, as the story goes, and crudely propositioned an older man’s female companion. Lee Loomis, the New York Yacht Club’s chairman, made Turner write a letter of apology.

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When Lowell North, in a rather ungentlemanly move, declined to make Turner new sails in the midst of the race, Turner promptly excoriated North to CBS’s Walter Cronkite (a great sailor himself). And then Robbie Doyle, an upstart protégé of Hood’s, made the new sails himself.

All summer, Turner and his crew embraced their scrappy status, playing the Rocky soundtrack every morning as they were transported to their boat. Courageous first defeated Hood and North, and in September, Australia, sweeping them 4-0.

These days it’s hard to imagine international yacht-racing—emblematic, more than any other sport, of the concentration of immense wealth in the hands of a few—playing host to the little guy’s triumph. But, really, back then, it did, against the wishes of all the sport’s dignitaries. After the sailmaking dust-up, Loomis told Turner, “Ted, sometimes I wish you were a dog, so I could beat you.” That summer? No one did.

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