There was a time when getting your hands on the wheel of a U.S. America’s Cup boat was almost the same as saying, yes, I’ve won a Star Class world championship. Think Bill “Ficker Is Quicker” Ficker, Dennis Conner, Tom Blackaller, Buddy Melges.
So where is today’s talent coming from? You have your veterans—like Oracle Team USA’s Jimmy Spithill, who has been in the game since his 19-year-old debut in 1999—and you have your newcomers, like Spithill’s sparring partner, Ben Ainslie, who earned his spot by winning five Olympic medals in Lasers and Finns for the UK.
Emirates Team New Zealand is a band of brothers bound together by years of licking wounds and sucking rattlesnake poison out of the other guy’s ankle. Dean Barker launched with the heady experience of guest skippering for Russell Coutts and Team New Zealand in 2000. Next door, where design partner Luna Rossa is keeping shop until both teams ship from New Zealand to San Francisco, there is skipper Max Sirena with two sailors listed as “helmsman.” Did they come up through the ranks of catamaran sailing? No, skiffs would be more like it. In fact, Luna Rossa’s two British drivers, Paul Campbell-James and two-time
class world champion Chris Draper, are both 49er skiff veterans.
Indeed, if you want to break into this game today, skiffs apparently give you the odds. It was another 49er sailor, silver medalist Peter Burling, who took over at Team Korea (which may or may not have a future) when yet another 49er sailor, gold medalist Nathan Outteridge, moved up to work for a team that does have at least an immediate future, challenger of record Artemis Racing.
Artemis, which in December “released” 42-year-old 2008 US Rolex Sailor of the Year Terry Hutchinson from his job as skipper, now has the hottest skiff sailor of the moment, 26-year-old Outteridge, and the most accomplished big-multihull sailor in the world, Loick Peyron, the acknowledged master at age 53. The goal, Outteridge declared, was to train to a point where “it doesn’t matter which of us is driving.”
“Hutch” would have seen the hit coming, but his unremarkable public comments were perfectly in keeping with the new order of corporately unemployed athletes hungry for the next gig. These people often sound woefully bland compared to Conner-Blackaller-Melges in their prime. It was Buddy, after all, who once announced, expansively, to one and all, “I’m the only guy here who can sleep with the commodore and talk about it . . .” Mrs. Buddy (Gloria) Melges was, at the time, commodore of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club in Zenda, Wisconsin. Knowing Buddy, no doubt the shack was rockin’.
Photo courtesy of Gilles Martin-Raget/34th America's Cup