The 25th America's Cup season is upon us. Ordinarily that would portend another long, leisurely summer filled with elegant boats and even more elegant parties that would build slowly in its own anachronistic way to an early September climax when the defender of and the challenger to the longest winning streak in the history of sports are chosen.
However, this America's Cup summer, only one month old, has already taken on the character of a genuine battle, especially on the domestic front. Courageous, the grande dame of postwar America's Cup competition, successful defender of the Cup in 1977 in the hands of Captain Outrageous, Ted Turner, has reemerged, with new underpinnings, as the star of the early trials, stealing the spotlight from Defender, her teammate, and Liberty, the debutante from the rival American camp. Furthermore, a decidedly unyachtsman-like war of words has erupted between two contending American skippers that promises to provide entertainment if the proceedings on the water should pall.
And in the meantime a record number of foreign challengers are engaged in a struggle of their own on Rhode Island Sound. But that's another story. For the moment let's look at the home team.
Newport Offshore, Ltd. is just one of several boatyards on the crowded waterfront, but this summer it is the busiest. Because it is newer than the rest, it is less picturesque, if your preference is for old salts and barnacle-covered pilings, but it is big and well-equipped enough to handle six of the nine foreign and domestic Cup syndicates with plenty of room to spare.
July 10, 1983
At the heart of the action at Newport Offshore is the Defender/Courageous Group, the "other" American syndicate. Its compound, alongside those of the French, the Italians and the Australians, is surrounded by a six-foot-high chain link fence that would look forbidding if it were not for the fact that the gate stands open and unguarded. People wander in and out of the compound, some of them tourists who stand, quiet and respectful, just looking around and being careful not to get in the way.
At the water's edge four boats are parked—two tenders and two 12-meters with masts eight stories high. Defender, the blue one with narrow racing stripes around her hull, is a new boat and the one that Tom Blackaller, 43, will steer. The other, with the white hull and a deck painted "seafoam" green, is Courageous, the winner in 1974 as well as '77. Her skipper this time around is John Kolius, 32, a pleasant sailmaker from Houston who looks no older than his crew.
Next door at the Williams & Manchester boatyard, established 1858, are berthed Dennis Conner's two boats. Liberty, the newest of the three Twelves he has had built since 1981—his syndicate's two-year budget is $4 million—and Freedom, the 1980 defender. No other Twelves are berthed at Williams & Manchester. And that suits Conner's style, just as lots of people and boats suit the Defender/Courageous Group. The gate of Conner's compound stands open, too, but it is harder to find, and any tourist who happened upon it would know he was off limits without being told.
And if the same tourist were out on the water during June's preliminary trials, he would have known without being told that something exciting was going on. In all but four races the margin was less than a minute. Indeed, after Victor Romagna, a member of the New York Yacht Club committee that will choose the defender in late August, watched Defender beat Courageous by a mere six seconds on a shortened, two-leg course one afternoon, he said, "It was just the greatest race I ever saw, the greatest."
The biggest surprise of the preliminary trials was that Conner's Liberty lost its first three races, one to Courageous and Kolius, and two to Defender and Blackaller. In the 1980 trials the Conner-Freedom juggernaut rolled to 43 wins against only four losses, and since then he has worked so hard and spent so much money building boats he hoped would be better than Freedom that people, understandably, had come to think he was unbeatable. But then Liberty charged back and won five of her next seven races, defeating Courageous three times and Defender twice, and the ball was back in the Defender-Courageous court.
The selection process for the defender is whatever the New York Yacht Club's selection committee wants it to be. The club has held the America's Cup ever since one of its members brought it home from England in 1851, and what the club would like to do is keep the Cup for another 100 years, at least. So it chooses the boat to defend it very carefully. The selection committee will keep track of the results of the trials for the rest of the summer, but it will also be making note of the way each boat behaves in a variety of wind conditions, the way its crew behaves under pressure and even, it appears, the way the crew dresses. One hot day during the June trials, a committee member admonished the crew of Courageous, most of whom are new to the game, about racing with their shirts off.
Sometimes the committee's choice is difficult, as in 1974 when it chose Courageous over the older wooden boat Intrepid when the score of the Final Trials was 5 to 4 in Courageous' favor though Intrepid had a summer-long advantage of 11-10. But 1980 was easy. Conner's crew behaved itself and kept its shirts on at all times, though it hardly mattered, because with a score like 43-4 Conner could have had naked dancing girls on deck and still been picked. The New York Yacht Club prefers decorum, but if it came to a choice between decorous behavior and losing the Cup....
Tom Blackaller is far from decorous. He is loud, boisterous and, more often than not, outrageously candid. Blackaller and Gary Jobson, the tactician on Defender, formed the Defender/Courageous syndicate in their minds while still in the cockpit of Russell Long's luckless Clipper during those 1980 trials; watching as Conner and Freedom sailed past Clipper for the 26th and last time. They had two objectives—to beat Conner and to prove thereby that sailing is still an art, not one more computer-infested science.
Aside from the fact that they are both Californians and world-class sailors, Blackaller and Conner are about as different as two people can be. Conner is a San Diego businessman with a wife and two young children. Blackaller is a San Francisco sailmaker who has two almost-grown daughters, but who has been divorced and leading a bachelor's life for many years. Conner is cautious, Blackaller is a plunger. Conner is reserved, Blackaller is an extrovert. Conner smiles, Blackaller laughs. Conner's words are few and measured, Blackaller's tumble out in a torrent, usually a loud torrent.
"There are similarities between Dennis and me, though," says Blackaller. "We're both very dedicated to the competitive aspect of sailing. That's all he thinks about, and that's all I think about. But we're very different in our approach to it. His is militaristic. As I see it, he approaches competition as the Pentagon would approach designing a weapons system. You know, no stone unturned, billions of dollars thrown at it, years of testing and everybody going around saying 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir.' That's abhorrent to me."
While Blackaller was the inspiration for the Defender/Courageous two-boat effort, its principal fund raiser in the beginning and, through the force of his rambunctious personality, its most visible and audible member, he speaks for himself, not for the Defender/Courageous syndicate as a whole. In fact, some in the campaign say frankly that they wish he would shut up once in a while. But Tom is Tom, they say, and respect for his talents as a helmsman and a competitor is universal. Two Star class world championships, four hemisphere titles and a career that covers 30 years and, according to his count, 4,000 races on big boats and small, always at the helm, give a man a certain cachet in boating circles, especially when he also looks like some sort of seagoing Marlboro man. Wherever Blackaller goes, people stare, whether they know who he is or not.
In spite of Blackaller's powerful presence, diversity is the keynote in the Defender/Courageous camp. Jobson, who is Blackaller's right-hand man on both land and water, is a tall, thoughtful fellow who lectures and writes about sailing for a living and has been the sailing coach for both the Merchant Marine and Naval academies. Kolius is a low-key Texan who owns a sailmaking business in Houston and avoids the waterfront feuds that swirl around him. He is a rare skipper in that he works side by side on a daily basis with his crew. When Courageous' hull needed fairing in April and a Mamaroneck, N.Y. boatyard said the job would take weeks, Kolius and his young, devoted crew worked 12 hours a day and got the job done in 10 days.
Kolius joined the campaign to work on the tuning of both boats and eventually took over the helm of Courageous. In December, when the crews, which had been intermingling up to then, were finally assigned to one boat or the other, Kolius ended up with the older boat and the younger, less experienced crew. It was generally understood, though never stated, that in spite of the group's two-boat concept, Defender would probably wind up superior. They would continue to compete, and Courageous would enter the trials, as planned, but if anyone were going to beat Conner, it would probably be Blackaller and Defender.
If Defender/Courageous was the underdog syndicate at that point. Courageous was the underdog's underdog. Ten-year-old 12-meters make sentimental favorites, not betting favorites. The position suited Kolius' style perfectly and in June Courageous up and won four of six races from Defender. "John has done a lot of things people have not expected him to do," says Kolius' tactician, John Bertrand. "For instance, winning the silver medal in Solings at the '76 Olympics. He's sort of always been the underdog, and he's really thriving on it."
Quietly, and far from the limelight. Kolius began to knit his young crew together. "At the top levels of all professional sports and all highly competitive amateur sports, it gets down to who has the most cohesive unit," says Kolius. "That's what I strive for. The Steelers didn't win all those Super Bowls just because of Bradshaw."
"It occurs to me," says Blackaller, "that the guys on Courageous may be a little more enthusiastic. They're more rah-rah than we are. They're getting up every morning, and as a group they're running around, you know, doing all that crap. But that's good for them. It's pumping them up."
Bertrand says, "On Defender they have all the really good sailors who are known to be good, who feel that they're good. That's their image of themselves. On Courageous we're maybe not such superstars and we have to work that much harder. Every morning we meet at 6:30 and either run or do aerobics. The Defender crowd kind of gets up whenever they feel like it."
Blackaller and Jobson were able to attract good sailors because they had two boats to offer, and both would actually enter the trials, instead of the more common arrangement—one starter and one trial horse. "Gary and I designed the system that way because we felt that having the boats competing against each other would raise the competitive level of both boats and make it more enjoyable for everybody involved," says Blackaller. "I wouldn't like to be around a situation in which there's one boat and the other guys can't ever race. That B team over there," he said, gesturing toward Conner's dock, where Freedom and her crew were doing nothing at all. "They couldn't be enjoying themselves. Geez, I mean, for two years they've been practicing and now they can't even go out and race the few races we have. I couldn't put somebody through that."
Courageous, besides being good competition, has also been an effective fund raiser. Blackaller estimates that hundreds of thousands of dollars have flowed into the program because of the glamour that surrounds her. "We could have used Clipper or Enterprise; they were both available to us," Blackaller says. "But neither of those boats has the charisma of Courageous. People love her. They love that we're bringing her back. In our own camp some of the Defender guys get ticked off because everybody loves Courageous."
Even Conner admires Courageous. "Courageous has always been a good boat," he said one day, standing near the Airstream trailer that is his office within the compound. "Kolius is a good sailor with a wonderful bunch of guys. If there is a surprise, it's that Blackaller is having such a hard time with them. He's struggling. I think there's probably a little anxiety over there on the black boat."
By "black boat," Conner meant Defender, which is a dark blue. Conner doesn't like Blackaller any better than Blackaller likes Conner. He's just quieter about it. The mutual animosity is said to date back to their years in the Star class, in which Conner, too, is two-time world champion. Blackaller baits Conner mercilessly. If he tells reporters, as he did midway through the June trials, that he thinks Conner is sandbagging and thereby sabotaging the entire American effort, he knows that reporters, in the interests of evenhandedness and lively copy, will trot over to Williams & Manchester, which they did, and say to Conner, "Blackaller says you're sandbagging."
"That's my business, not Tom's business," Conner snaps. But then he smiles a sly little smile and says, "We do what we have to do to win."
Blackaller's baiting of Conner is a two-way psych, partly an attempt to ruffle Conner's feathers, partly meant to keep his own juices flowing. Blackaller admitted as much one day when Defender had lost two races to Courageous on bad starts. "I do better on the starting line against Conner than I do aginst Kolius. I guess I don't hate Kolius enough. I need to get stirred up."
But Blackaller is also a naturally candid fellow, and Conner's tendency to play his game close to the vest drives Blackaller nuts. "This winter in California we tried like hell to get a race week going with Freedom, but they wouldn't touch it. That's typical of Conner, not getting together when we were 80 miles apart. The whole defense effort would have had to get better if we had. His chance of winning might have been minutely diminished because maybe we would have learned something, but his attitude was that he had nothing to learn from us. It shows you how he thinks. If we learned from him, then we'd get a little better, then he'd have to get a little better to beat us, and the whole competition would get better. But he wouldn't do it, and he's a goddamned drip for not doing it." This time Blackaller's exasperation is genuine, and with his huge fist he smacks the back of the couch on which he's sitting.
Another thing that galls Jobson and Blackaller is Conner's insistence on racing only one of his two Twelves, when he has Freedom, possibly just as good as Liberty, sitting at the dock. "Because we have only three boats, we're only racing two out of three days," says Jobson. "With four we could all race every day and we'd learn a lot more."
Conner, of course, doesn't agree. He points out that Courageous and Clipper were a cooperative effort in 1980. "Ted Turner? Win one, lose 17. Clipper? Win three, lose 26. I'll let the record book speak for itself."
Conner has not ruled out the possibility he might switch from Liberty back to Freedom for this month's trials. "We'll continue to try to optimize both boats until we feel it's too late to change," he said after his last June race. And sure enough, the day after he said that. Freedom was out of the water, her keel hidden from view by sailcloth on which the words NO PEEKING—VERRRY SECRET were printed in black letters. Even though Liberty was making a comeback, it was probably not lost on Conner (it surely was not lost on anyone else) that he had already dropped more races than he did in all of the '80 trials and that just possibly this year's Defender and Courageous are in a different league from Courageous and Clipper.
If their effort is major league this time, Conner himself can take part of the credit. He taught the 12-meter class a powerful lesson in 1980—that nothing less than total preparation would suffice—and every major syndicate has taken the lesson to heart. The two best Australian boats, Australia 11 and Challenge 12, raced each other for almost a year before they were brought to Newport. Peter de Sa-vary budgeted $8 million and two years for the British effort. Defender and Courageous have been practicing for more than a year on two coasts. The cost of a campaign has doubled, but the syndicates go along because Conner had made it impossible for them to do otherwise.
"In the Star boats," says Blackaller, "Dennis tended not to be competitive unless he took three or four months before the regatta and did just sailing. Now, nobody does that in Stars. Nobody. Not even the pros like myself. To me, that doesn't have anything to do with sport. That's as unsporting a thing as I can think of. But now maybe we have him caught, because we've done the same thing he's done. We should be as well prepared as he is. And when that happens, I kick his ass. That's what this thing is all about."
Liberty, 5 and 5. Defender, 5 and 6. Courageous, 6 and 5. Sit back, America's Cup fans, and enjoy the fun. It may be a long summer, but not a dull one.