Back Page: Competition on the Cutting Edge

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

When australia II beat Liberty in 1983 and wrested the America’s Cup from the trophy’s homeland for the first time in the yacht race’s then-132-year history, Tom Whidden was more upset than most Americans. The now-58-year-old veteran sailor, who has three America’s Cup victories to his credit, crewed on Liberty during the race that ended the sports world’s longest winning streak. However, Whidden now sees the benefits of the defeat: In addition to motivating him to improve as a sailor, it set the stage for the 1987 race, which he considers the finest ever. In that contest, he and his Stars & Stripes ’87 crewmates reclaimed the Cup for the United States. “The floodgates opened, and countries that would not have participated in the America’s Cup before began to compete,” he says. “That opened a new era of possibilities, and I think it made a dynamic event even greater.”

The shocking results of 1983 prompted a technological arms race that would transform the regatta and produce innovations such as those noted in “Fast Track to the Cup” (page 114), a feature about the BMW Oracle team, the sole American entry vying to compete in the 2007 event. In addition to being a member of the 1983 American team, Whidden also was the president of the sailmaking company Sobstad Sails. He appeared in the June 1984 Robb Report article “New Sails on the Horizon,” which discussed how various new technologies were affecting the America’s Cup at that time. Focused primarily on sailmakers, the story described how Dacron sailcloth was being eclipsed by materials such as Kevlar and Mylar. “Ours is a faddish, one-on-one business,” Whidden said. “We’re selling speed. If you slide, it’s hard to come back.” His comments would be validated over the ensuing two decades.

In 1986, Whidden left Sobstad with the intention of concentrating on the 1987 America’s Cup, but he was persuaded to accept the twin posts of president and COO at rival North Sails, which is headquartered in Milford, Conn. (He is now the company’s president and CEO.) In 1992, North Sails unveiled the 3DL process, a thermo-molding technique that yields a lighter, stronger sail. The 3DL sail now dominates the market nearly as completely as America once dominated the America’s Cup; all but one of the 2007 candidates rely on 3DL sails, and all the 2003 contestants used them. “Sails from those days [1984] are completely antique now,” says Eric Goetz, founder of Goetz Custom Boats, a Bristol, R.I., company that has built America’s Cup yachts for Dennis Connor and Bill Koch.

 The sail innovations have been significant, say Goetz and Whidden, but they agree that the race’s greatest change came in 1992, when the new rules required that competing vessels conform to the standardized International America’s Cup Class (IACC). Those rules were created to prevent a repeat of the bizarre saga that was the 1988 contest, which pitted the New Zealand sloop KZ1 against the American catamaran Stars & Stripes ’88 on the waves and then later in the courtroom, after the New Zealand syndicate filed suit against the Americans, claiming that the double-hull design violated the competition’s rules. The Americans won in both arenas, but historian Halsey Herreshoff deemed the entire affair “a disgrace to the noble tradition of the Cup.”

Most sailors would agree with that assessment, but Goetz points out that more benign forms of gamesmanship always have been part of the race. “The America’s Cup has always had nothing to do with sailing, and everything to do with technological battles between countries,” Goetz says. “They just happen to play out on sailboats.” 

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