Koch, He's The Real Thing

Kansas's Bill Koch defied yacht racing's naysayers and successfully defended the America's Cup
May 24, 1992

Say this for the Guy: he did it his way. Bill Koch, the nerdy, 52-year-old multimillionaire from Wichita, Kans., with only eight years of racing experience, silenced his numerous detractors by leading his America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• syndicate to victory in the America's Cup last week in San Diego. He employed a style that was heretical, unconventional and definitely all his own.

"I don't care what other people did," a jubilant, champagne-soaked Koch said last Saturday after his sleek, 75-foot rocket ship, America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•, had closed out Italy's Il Moro di Venezia four races to one. "All that matters is crossing the finish line first. You'll never start something like this if you don't have that sort of resolve. What is it that they say? Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

Eccentric tycoons have long been part of the America's Cup scene, but few of them have captured sailing's most cherished prize. Koch did it in his first attempt. That's what most galls the smug, insular members of the yacht-racing community, many of whom, regardless of their countries of origin, longed to witness Koch's comeuppance. Quick with his opinions, awkward in his manner, contrarian in his views, the bespectacled Koch was at various times during the competition referred to as clownish, arrogant and zany, and as the Gerald Ford of sailing. The 6'5" Koch was so prone to on-board pratfalls that after twice being bonked on the head by a swinging boom he was presented with a San Diego Charger helmet by a local disc jockey.

But if Koch was a little of all those things, he was also the mastermind, bank-roller and, to the disdain of professional sailors, part-time helmsman of the America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• effort. He shuffled crewmen around like interchangeable parts and generally thumbed his nose at the skipper-as-superstar mentality that permeates America's Cup racing. Koch believed that the only star should be the boat.

Said Dave Dellenbaugh, who did a masterly job of handling the starts as a member of A¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•'s three-man helmsman rotation, "In the end Bill always did the right thing. You have to judge his approach by the results. He was willing to try different things—sails, designs, helmsmen, crew members, everything—but he was always smart enough to go back to the things that worked."

If Koch's victory was financially Pyrrhic—he shelled out some $55 million of his own money to finance America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•'s $64 million campaign—he accomplished precisely what he set out to do: keep the America's Cup in America. A¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•'s win represents the 27th time in 28 challenges in the 141-year history of the Auld Mug that a U.S. yacht has prevailed, and afterward Koch was quick to wrap himself in red-white-and-blue. "This is a triumph for America, for American technology and American teamwork," he said.

He might have added that it was also a triumph for American stick-to-itiveness, for his own willingness to finish what he had started, regardless of the cost. As Raul Gardini, the head of the Italian syndicate, noted with a measure of admiration, "Bill Koch is a very persistent man."

Going into the series, little was known about the relative speeds of the two carbon-fiber-hulled International America's Cup Class yachts. America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• was narrower in the hull, so it cut through the choppy seas off San Diego's Point Loma like a cormorant, barely leaving a wake. But Il Moro had a better record in light air. What's more, the Italian crew, which had performed so impressively in defeating New Zealand in the challenger finals, was thought to be better than the so-called Cubens. As for the helmsmen, that was supposed to be no contest. American¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•'s cumbersome three-man rotation—Koch, Dellenbaugh and 62-year-old Buddy Melges—was thought to be no match for Il Moro's Paul Cayard, who was described by the pundits in glowing terms.

In the much-anticipated first race, on May 7, however, the 33-year-old Cayard proved to be decidedly human. Antsy to get a good start, he misjudged the strength of the current and jumped the gun. By the time Il Moro had circled back behind the starting line, America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• had a 30-second lead in a 13-knot wind, conditions the U.S. boat loved. Arrivederci, Paulino. The most exciting moment of the next 2 hours and 21 minutes came when Koch was hammered on the noggin by a runner-block. It knocked him to his knees and left him with a splitting headache, after which he babbled things like "This boat handles like a gorgeous woman!"—further evidence that this America's Cup campaign had gone on too long.

America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•'s margin of victory was...30 seconds, precisely the lead Cayard had given the defender by blowing the start. "I was just paying my San Diego Yacht Club dues for the month of May," Cayard jokingly said later. "It's hard to imagine a worse day than we had from all respects."

The race answered little about the speed of the two boats. America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• had been faster on four of the eight legs, Il Moro on the other four. It was Race 2, on May 10—ironically, the only race Il Moro would win—that clearly showed that America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• had superior speed at almost every point of sail. Cayard pulled out all the stops on that historic day, which marked the first win in an America's Cup final by an Italian boat and the first by a European entry since 1934.

Heading up the first leg, Il Moro took a boat-length lead, which she stretched to 33 seconds at the mark. At that point Cayard summarily slam-dunked A¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• when Melges ill-advisedly tried to power through Il Moro's dirty air. On the downwind run the U.S. boat gained back nearly all the time she had lost, only to be stopped dead in the water when Cayard suddenly turned Il Moro into A¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•'s path while Il Moro had the right-of-way. Score another one for Cayard.

Finally, on the eighth leg, which was also downwind, a fast-closing A¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•, having made up half a minute, butchered her last jibe a few yards from the finish, just as she was about to overtake the Italian boat. Il Moro's spinnaker broke the line only three seconds ahead of America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•. It was, by 23 seconds, the closest race in America's Cup history.

The psychological maneuvering after that race came swiftly and without restraint. It was now certain that A¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• was faster than Il Moro both upwind and downwind, and every bit as maneuverable. But the series was tied 1-1. "In this America's Cup, when A¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• loses, the crew has screwed up," said Jerry Milgram, an MIT professor in ocean engineering and head of the America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• syndicate's design team. "We have speed on them in every range from six to 14 knots."

"Dennis Conner and his team would be very, very dangerous with that boat," said Cayard, implying none too subtly that Koch & Co. were babes in the Pacific by comparison. "I'd like to be faster, but we can win the way things are. They made a lot of mistakes."

Koch concurred, vowing that he and his team would practice jibing the next day until they got it right. He also stroked Cayard, calling him "perhaps the second-best sailor in the world." The best? Conner. When asked where that left his veteran skipper, Melges, a three-time Yachtsman of the Year and 1972 Olympic gold medalist, Koch said, "He's good enough to steer this boat and good enough to win the America's Cup."

The Cuben crew was in an unenviable position. As Milgram pointed out, whenever America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• won a race, the victory belonged to the boat and the designers. A loss was the fault of the crew and the afterguard. On the other hand, as Dellenbaugh pointed out, "the speed of the boats wasn't so radically different that you could afford to be behind at the first crossing."

Not that we'll ever really know, because thanks to Dellenbaugh, the Cubens were never behind at the first crossing after the second race. Dubbed Ralph Malph by the Italian press because of his resemblance to a character in the television show Happy Days, the softspoken Dellenbaugh out-dueled the mighty Cayard in every start in Races 3, 4 and 5. Each time, the 38-year-old Dellenbaugh put America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• on the favored side of the course, enabling her to take the early lead. Each time, she kept it, winning by margins of 1:58, 1:04 and, in last Saturday's clincher, 44 seconds. The fact is, in the five races of this America's Cup final, the lead never changed hands. The winner of the start was the winner of the race. Game over.

But there were moments of high drama and comedy out there on the Pacific, like during the prestart of Race 3, on May 12, when Koch was again brained by the boom. "Good luck, guys," he said. "I got hit."

The Cubens finally won a race without Koch's getting bonked, on Thursday, when they went ahead 3-1. But even then a potentially disastrous situation was narrowly averted. A¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• was holding a 34-second advantage as she rounded the sixth mark when—in what is every crewman's nightmare—grinder Pete Fennelly got his right ankle tangled in the jib sheet. As the jib filled with wind and his fellow grinders began trimming the sail, the sheet tightened like a noose around Fennelly's ankle and dragged him across the deck. Three scenarios flashed through Fennelly's mind: 1) He would be dragged overboard and drowned; 2) he would be dragged overboard and saved, but A¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• would lose the race and he would wish that he had drowned; and 3) the grinders would grind his foot back into the winch. "I was bumming out," said the 28-year-old Fennelly, a former University of Rhode Island football player.

Fortunately, pitman Wally Henry saw Fennelly's predicament and kept him from going overboard by grabbing the only appendage he could get a grip on—Fennelly's head. Bowman Jerry Kirby, while holding on to the rail with one hand, jumped into the water with his knife, preparing to cut the sheet. "If you scream, I'll cut it," he told Fennelly. Both of them knew that if the sheet was cut, it would almost certainly cost A¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• the race. So Fennelly gritted his teeth, and the trimmers at last eased the sail enough for Kirby to unwrap the sheet from Fennelly's ankle.

By comparison, Saturday's clinching race was a Kochwalk. Dellenbaugh again got the favored left side of the course at the start. Melges took over the helm and steered America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• to an 18-second lead at the first mark; Koch maintained it through the reaches; and then Melges fended off a late Cayard charge. As their boat crossed the finish line for the last time, Koch and Melges pretended to fight for the wheel like a couple of kids.

"Was it worth it? Would I do it again?" Koch later wondered aloud. "I don't know. Not if it cost $64 million."

However, Koch's face showed a satisfaction that hinted that he had, in fact, gotten a helluva bang for his buck. And, yes, there was some relief in his face too. For if he had been a fool to rush in where corporate angels feared to tread, at least he had been a successful fool. "Everybody in the world thought we couldn't do it," said Koch. "But we did it, dammit."

Did that make the victory sweeter? Koch smiled. He had done it his way, start to finish. "You bet your ass," he said.

PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEAfter her triumph over II Moro, America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• enjoyed a star-spangled trip back to port. PHOTODANIEL FORSTER/STOCK NEWPORTOn the last windward leg in Race 5, II Moro (foreground) tried in vain to catch America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•. PHOTODANIEL FORSTER/STOCK NEWPORTA spectator's boat-station wagon drove out for a day at the races. PHOTODANIEL FORSTER/STOCK NEWPORTKoch was so eager to collect the Auld Mug, he jumped ship and swam ashore.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)