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The Paradox of Yacht Racing

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There are two types of blow-boaters—cruising sailors who savor the experience of being at sea and yacht racers who rush to get it over with. Most top international racers wouldn’t be caught dead delivering their racing boat. I’ve crewed on maxi yachts that have a ‘guy on starter switch’ to crank the diesel the instant the horn is heard at the finish line—as if the thought of sailing a few extra seconds is so abhorrent that they dare not chance it. 

These are two different worlds. The cruisers have dedicated their lives to escaping the rat race. But the racers believe they can win it—that the other rats are really dumb and totally suck at finding cheese. And, thus, these highly-motivated, goal-oriented, brimming-with-confidence racers usually do win!

Ah, the power of a positive mental attitude! America’s Cup sailor Ted Turner—affectionally dubbed the Mouth from the South—didn’t give up when the Congress of the United States passed a law discouraging the use of satellite dishes in the news business. In fact, Ted pretended that he didn’t know about the prohibition—then built three or four of these giant satellite dishes at great expense, burst into tears, and frantically petitioned the Fat Cats in Congress to allow him to commission his ‘mistakenly constructed devices’ if they wanted to get even fatter. 

Thus, CNN was born—and Ted handily won the America’s Cup at the same time. 

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Racers are often rich. Cruising sailors are often so poor that they scour marina dumpsters for discarded cans of WD-40 in hopes of ‘getting lucky’ by finding a can with a few more squirts left. 

Racers, of course, have a whole ‘nother idea of what ‘getting lucky’ means. 

Just look at the spouses if you want visual clues. Cruising spouses tend to be pear-shaped and carry their weight low-in-the-thigh while racing spouses tend to be narrow waisted, small-butted, and carry extra floatation built-right-in. (There’s a reason in WWII why sailors named their PFDs after the buxom Mae West.) 

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Racers measure the longevity of their delicate, hi-tech, hybrid sails in the number of tacks. Penny-pinching cruisers wonder how many circs they can squeeze from their low-tech vanilla Dacron rags… haphazardly made by Lee of Hong Kong. Ditto, Dyneme versus polyester. Racers measure their stretch with a micrometer; cruisers use a yardstick as they mutter to their Euro buddies, “What’s a meter or two of stretch amongst friends?”

Now I have a confession to make, dear reader—the marine community has a few brain-addled, bipolar members and I’m one. That’s right, I’ve got a foot in both camps. One minute aboard my cruising sailboat I can sail to Antigua Sailing Week with mis-trimmed rags, while practicing mindfulness on my serene foredeck. But then, after the starting gun goes off, I can begin acting like a speed-crazed IMS Nazi with the best of ‘em!

Yes, what happens on the race course, stays on the race course—otherwise no new racer would return. That’s right—in the ‘80s I was cursed out and called stupid, very stupid, and f’n stupid by half the hot racers in the Caribbean during a race, all of whom would later hug me and scream, “…may our blessed friendship endure forever, Fatty!” while ashore. 

Talk ‘bout Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!

Competition, of course, is at the very core of yacht racing. It’s no wonder that Dennis Conner was a backgammon champion—and would bet on the flip of coin hastily plucked from a dead man’s eye. (Do you think, dear reader, that it’s possible, from a journalistic viewpoint, to be too tough on Dennis the Menace—who was, at the end, just another world-class sportsman who couldn’t see his toes? Maybe? Maybe not? Me, I dunno.)

So why do otherwise sane individuals buy racing boats and begin to terrify their rapidly-diminishing circle of friends each weekend?

Wait—you want me to be serious for a moment? 

Here’s the truth as my pea-brain perceives it: different people relax in different ways. Some folks relax from their competitive jobs by searching out peaceful, non-competitive, individual tasks that encourage self-reflection. But others want to experience an entirely different way to be competitive while using the exact same skills they’ve honed in the boardrooms of the most powerful corporations in the world. 

Winning the America’s Cup or a Wednesday Nite Beer Can race at your local yacht club involve many of the identical skills as conquering Wall Street does—honing a highly competitive, highly motivated team with divergent skills that can work towards a common goal. Teams have to understand the racing rules—and the unwritten social rules as well. Getting in sync with the race committee and the judges are equally important. 

JFK and Jackie watching the America’s Cup in Newport, early 1960s.
JFK and Jackie watching the America’s Cup in Newport, early 1960s.

The boat is all-important—even the best sailors can’t win with a poorly-designed boat. The boat must be designed to be fast, and then built to be fast. 

Ditto, it’s rig. 

Ditto, it’s sails. 

All these components must not only be massaged with hundreds and thousands of dollar bills—but they must have been built by teams of players that were all functioning at a high level. 

Does money play a part? Of course, you can’t win at the top level with empty pockets. But money is just one factor. Yes, the America’s Cup was traditionally won by the NYYC because it had both deeper pockets and, ahem, a more flexible approach to the rules of its competitors—but not always. 

When high-school drop-out Ben Lexcen drew the first winged keel in 1982, he didn’t glue it onto the best-funded boat—far from it. Nonetheless, Australia II won the Cup in 1983.

Ditto, when Peter Blake raised money for Kiwi Magic by hustling red socks door-to-door in 1995, he trashed Stars and Stripes 5-0 with a boat that was built and campaigned on only a fraction of the American team’s spare-no-expense budget. 

It isn’t mere excellence in any one area that wins yacht races—it is excellence in nearly all areas—and shoddiness in none—that wins. 

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And there’s timing. It isn’t enough to win more races, you have to win more of the races when they count!

The Kiwis are famous for peaking at the right moment. While Dennis Conner’s “No Excuse to Lose” might have once been the motto of a winning team, we now know that hard work, determination, and mega bucks can only go so far. 

Timing, in life and on the race course, counts too. 

And there’s tactics as well. At some point, two vessels and their crews face each other and both have to pick the side of the course they want—pick wrong and you won’t be first to the windward mark and, thus, statistically, you lose. 

Does luck ever enter in? Of course! But luck isn’t the predominate  factor—it is how a crew respond to that luck that ultimately carries the day. 

And that’s why the AC is a series of races staged over a number of days—not a single race. 

Thus, yacht racing and corporate success go hand-in-glove. In fact, even in the Caribbean, it is hard to parse the difference between the two. 

And in a way, yacht racing is crazy. Peter Holmberg, the USVI Olympic medalist, might be the winningest sailor the Caribbean has ever produced. But at the time same time (and, in a sense, for the same reason) he’s lost more races that anyone in the Caribbean as well. 

Yacht racing is notoriously ego-bruising—most participants lose the vast majority of the time. I’ve raced all my life and could fit all the silver I’ve won in a thimble. (When other racers ask me during regattas what my handicap is—I tell ‘em the truth. “My IQ!” I lament.)

Match racing in particular is a mental game. I’ve watched (from a few feet away on the press boat) match races at the highest level during which both skippers started out the same size—and then the winner appeared to double in stature while the loser shrank. (Watching this race was the most astounding moment of my 40 years of servitude to professional yacht racing.)

One way to view yacht racing and the America’s Cup is that the team that is still learning/evolving late the game is the team that wins. Ditto, in life. 

So now another America’s Cup is getting underway in Spain. Booms are disappearing beneath the deck—and other odd, unexpected things are happening. For example; After the Kiwi team dramatically reduced its operating costs and increased its team’s chances of winning by instituting the crew nationality rules… as any patriotic Kiwi would… they then coldly turned around and divorced their motherland and sold themselves to the highest bidder, in this case Spain.

Yachting 101

Will it work? Can Team New Zealand (which I’ve strongly supported for 30+ years) have its-cake-and-eat-it too? Will Apple Products, realizing that it is bigger and more powerful than most countries, begin to flex it corporate muscles in different ways?

Am I mixing Apples and oranges? Being sensational? Spreading lies? Attempting to enflame national sympathies? Cheating? Spying? And taking advantage thereof? 

Of course I am! Isn’t that what the America’s Cup had evolved (or devolved) to? Isn’t it a race for column inches and seconds of media exposure as well an ‘around the buoys’ bash? 

Winning once upon a time was one thing—today it is quite another. Especially as regatta organizers realize that the big question isn’t what caused a competing boat to dismast—but rather how many Internet clicks did that dismasting generate?

This will be the 37th running the 172-year-old America’s Cup. I’m 70 years old and have avidly followed 20 of those series. And last week I steered an Olsen 34 to a podium finish during a Wednesday night beer can race. And the one thing I know is that regardless of whether I’m standing on the deck of slow cruising vessel or a speeding racer, I can look at the opposite vessel and sneer to my crew, “…what a bunch of idiots!”

Ah, yachting! (End)

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Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap'n Fatty Goodlanderhttp://fattygoodlander.com/
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

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