The greatest generation of sailing >> Scuttlebutt Sailing News
Tucker Thompson, widely known for his work as a television host, sailing commentator and lecturer, shares his observations on the current state of sailing and what is needed for American sailing to regain the upper hand.
“I used to run with Gary Jobson, Ken Legler, Moose McClintock and Skip White,” the man next to me said. His name was Jed, a burly sailor in his sixties. I had just finished a presentation, and he and I were at the yacht club bar reminiscing about boats, events, and people in the sport.
“Our Frostbite fleet still has a lot of big names racing there,” he said. “Steve Benjamin and Peter Isler were racing here with us last weekend.”
It made me think of all the “big names” I had known or heard of in our sport in the United States. Dennis Conner, Tom Whidden, Dave Perry, Tom Blackaller (RIP), Dave Dellenbaugh, Paul Cayard, Ken Read, Jerry Kirby, Jim Allsopp (RIP), Stu Argo, Dawn Riley, Mike Toppa, Buddy Melges, JJ Fetter, Butch Ulmer , John Kolius, Betsy Allison, Ed Baird… the list goes on.
My generation didn’t even have half the names of great sailors who had become recognizable figures in our sport – those whose generation below mine might one day speak at the yacht club bar. And as far as I know, their generation has even less. Why was that? Where had all the great sailors gone? Then I realized that Jed and I were talking about the greatest generation in sailing.
There are so many, legends, that all seemed to emerge from the same period in the 80s and 90s. It is perhaps no surprise that their rise has been directly proportional to the increase in popularity of our sport. at the time. Sailing was huge at that time.
It was a time when Maxi boats ruled, the IOR flourished and major regattas had hundreds of boats. There was always a direct connection with the America’s Cup. He had just left Newport and Dennis Conner had just won him back. When else has a sailor made the cover of Time Magazine and sailing been a big part of ESPN coverage?
I grew up reading about sailors from that era. I dreamed of being one of them. I wanted to meet and sail with these legends, and eventually I did with many of them. And I distinctly remember the moment when I felt that I had finally arrived. I had joined their ranks as a professional sailor, competed in many major sporting events and with high profile programs, and sailed on an America’s Cup team.
I was sitting at Marmaduke’s, Annapolis’ famous sailboat bar, telling one of those legends, a longtime crew member of the yacht Merry Thought, that I felt I had finally earned a place in the pinnacle of the sport only to realize that it was not the same sport I had read about.
The boats were smaller, the regattas too, and the next generation of sailing heroes to step into the shoes of the sailing greats were even fewer. The larger than life image of top-level, competitive sailing that I dreamed of didn’t seem to exist the way I thought it would when I finally got into it.
It was the late 90s, and what I didn’t realize then was that I was witnessing the beginning of sailing’s decline. It was a time when Mount Gay flowed freely and a Rolex was the ultimate status symbol of achievement in our sport. Dennis Conner was a household name and Gary Jobson told us about him on TV. Professional sailors have traveled all over the world living adventurous lives that Walter Mitty would be jealous of.
I wanted to be part of it all and I was for a while. But the Maxis and the big IOR thoroughbreds give way to smaller one-designs. Large regattas and long courses have been replaced by shorter, windward events.
Mount Gay now sits on the shelf with other brands, and many of the greatest regattas in our sport no longer begin with the name Rolex. SORC is a distant memory, and the Key West Race Week we knew, once the largest sailing regatta in North America, is no more!
Somehow, through it all, the names of the legends are still there. We still talk about it at the bar and consider ourselves lucky when one of them shows up to participate in a local event. Their sailing prowess still exists and while there will always be younger, smarter and faster competitors on the racecourse, none garner the same recognition and respect as these legends.
It may be a sign of what has happened to sailing, and to some extent the legends are partly to blame, through no fault of their own, but as a by-product of the success of sailing at the time. I call it Dennis Conner’s affect.
To his credit, Dennis single-handedly had more effect on the commercialization of sailing and the professionalization of sailors than any other sailor in history. Her victory in the Australian Cup revolutionized the sport of sailing, especially in America.
Suddenly racing started to get a lot more professional. Owners began hiring the best talent in the sport and began training for events. Coaches have even been hired. Sailboats and boat builders flourished and sponsors invested in sailing in hopes of piggybacking on what they saw in America’s Cup coverage.
The best sailors became rock stars and young sailors like me looked up to them with admiration. I realized that each of the legends listed above and others like them from that era all had exactly the same thing in common. They are all sailing professionals. They are the by-product of Dennis Conner’s affect.
The problem is that sailing as an industry could not continue to sustain this level of growth over the long term. Budgets exploded. The owners became frustrated. The professionals pushed harder and harder to win. Sport has become too serious, too complicated and less FUN!
As a result, the pendulum naturally swung in the opposite direction. Boats have gotten smaller, the number of regattas has dropped and there are fewer and fewer pros in the sport even at America’s Cup level.
As an interesting note, the original captions are still ongoing. Not so much in mainstream sailing, but in the very high profile events outside of the United States, on boats like the J-class and superyachts, which many of them have jokingly called the “Seniors Tour”.
Behind them hides a void in sailing, especially in the United States. The industry is no longer what it used to be and is struggling to find sponsors and wider media coverage. Events are increasingly rare and in some cases have disappeared completely. The average age is rising, and time-constrained millennials with shorter attention spans and smaller bank accounts aren’t interested in big boats or big budgets.
Young sailors looking to turn professional are finding fewer and fewer opportunities to do so in a declining industry. (A note to those who are: you have to offer more than just being a good sailor, like coaching, making sails, or selling boats.) It’s no surprise that weekday night races in across America have actually grown because it’s easy, inexpensive, takes less time, and best of all, it’s just FUN!
Our sport can come back. The sail will be reborn, but with a different look and feel. The next generation will find in sailing what they like and what they aspire to, and it will be different from what we were used to. It will probably be on smaller, faster boats, take less time, cost less, and the main focus will be on having fun.
But to regain the level of popularity and excitement that sailing once enjoyed, and to attract more people – especially young people – to the sport, sailing needs new heroes. It needs a new generation of legends to take up the torch. A new group of champions for kids to look up to and say like I once did, “I want to do what these guys do!” »
New Zealand’s Russel Coutts has been replaced by Peter Burling in the America’s Cup. Paul Elvstrom was overtaken by Ben Ainslie at the Olympics. Here in the United States we desperately need a Pete Burling or a Ben Ainslie.
We need the next generation of American sailing heroes to win a gold medal and bring back the America’s Cup. We need the next Dennis Conner to inspire not just a sport, but rekindle national interest in sailing. (The average American who doesn’t sail still thinks the America’s Cup is in Australia!) It will also take time, effort and a path to the top for young sailors to follow.
Hopefully we can see this path evolve and the next sailing heroes emerge from the New York Yacht Club’s American Magic America’s Cup program. The team, led by Terry Hutchinson and graciously supported by those who invest in it, is uniquely positioned to help save sailing in the United States.
During the 2021 America’s Cup, the team partnered with US Sailing and Oakcliff Sailing Center, among others, to create a conduit for the next generation of elite sailors and help them qualify for the next Olympic or America’s Cup team. This time around, there is a strong focus and strong investment in young and female sailors.
Winning the Cup would be a bonus on top of an already strong program. They failed last time but now have a very solid base to build on, and they have a legacy program in place to build the sail for the long term, and for that I congratulate them.
Who knows? Maybe one day our kids will eventually sit at the yacht club bar and talk about the legends they know of American Magic. Perhaps such programs will also help create a new industry from which professional sailors can pursue their dreams and hope to one day step into the shoes of their legends.
Time will tell us. In the meantime, to all the legends still out there who inspire us to keep sailing and to keep sharing a love for our sport, I want to say, “Thank you!” I hope the rest of us can follow your example and make shipping great again in America! Good luck Terry. We are counting on you!!!