For Dawn Riley the dedication of her yacht, America True, in San Francisco on May 26 was supposed to be just another stop on the way to next year's America's Cup in New Zealand. On an appropriately blustery afternoon her syndicate became the first U.S. team to have its yacht ready for the challenger trial in Auckland in October. But as Riley watched the 75-foot boat being trailered slowly up the Embarcadero Freeway, past crowds and halted traffic, to her team's headquarters on Pier 17, the normal progress of her campaign became something entirely different. Never in her four-year drive to build America True had she let herself become emotional. Now, making history as the first woman to lead a team in 149 years of the America's Cup, Riley almost succumbed to the moment. "I'd never pictured it coming up the Embarcadero," she says. "That's when I got all the butterflies. It was real."
Characteristically, she refused to lose her focus. She collected herself, delivered her speech to the assembled crowd of 100 or so and watched Buddy Melges, America True's coach, splash a bucket of water from San Francisco Bay across the boat's shiny topside, which is deep yellow with an abstract rendition of the Golden Gate Bridge in red, white, blue and black. The hull was covered in a tarp to protect the secrecy of its design.
As Riley left the podium, she got another surprise. Two representatives of Louis Vuitton, sponsor of the challenger series, asked her how it felt to be the favorite to win the series. "Two weeks ago we were the guys with this little T-shirt shop on the Embarcadero," Riley says. "Now it's like this huge swoosh of 'Congratulations! You're going to make it!' And we're like, 'Yeah, we knew we were going to make it all along.' "
Nothing would have seemed more improbable three years ago, when Riley, fresh from a stint as the team captain of the first all-female crew in America's Cup history, put up most of America True's $100,000 entry fee herself. She was running her fledgling operation out of a 10-by-10-foot office in San Francisco, and just about everybody who had heard her idea of running a coed syndicate had simply rolled his eyes in response. Since then, she has had to do a lot of convincing, raise a lot of money and develop a thick skin to bring to fruition an idea whose time, she believes, has come: Her crew of 32 or 33 sailors, at least a quarter of them women, will be the first truly coed team in the America's Cup.
Riley has been preparing for this moment her whole life. "Having my own Cup boat was a logical progression," she says. "If you put on a piece of paper what I'd done in sailing, what else was there left for me to do?"
What she had done was put together one of the most impressive resumes in her sport. Riley, who grew up near Detroit, was baptized on a boat a month after she was born, and she's been under one sail or another since she was 13. After graduating from Michigan State (where she was captain of the sailing team) in 1987, she flirted with responsibility, taking a job in advertising, before she opted for a life filled with jibs, spinnakers and apparent winds. In addition to her experience in '95 with the all-woman crew of America3 sponsored by billionaire yachtsman Bill Koch, she was the lone woman on the Cup-winning crew of America3 in '92.
Where she really earned her stripes, however, was as a crew member in two Whitbread Round the World races. In 1993 she took over as skipper of the all-woman team aboard Heineken after half of the boat's sailors quit following the first leg of the race. Her performance in that Whitbread made a lasting impression on many of her fellow sailors. "She's very professional, and she's extremely quick to react," says '95 Cup teammate and America True crew member Katie Pettibone. "In the Whitbread she took a team that was falling apart and got it around the world."
Historically, yachting—especially America's Cup yachting—hasn't been particularly open to women. When Riley sailed with Koch in 1992, she was the latest of only a handful of women to have taken an active sailing role in Cup racing. The boys' club is still hanging on. The women who crewed America3 in 1995 heard all sorts of comments and were given nicknames, both flattering and unflattering, by their male competitors. "If you listened to it," says Lisa Charles, a member of that boat, "you'd get really disgruntled."
By 1995, before she had finished sailing in her second Cup, Riley had developed her own ideas about how to run a team. For one thing, she wanted the sailors to be more involved in the design of the boat. More important, she felt the need for a mix of men and women. Last October, America True held open tryouts. "I started looking for the best person for the job, man or woman," Riley says. "I wanted to open it up and see what would happen. You can do all the all-woman campaigns you want, but to do it again and again doesn't open up the sport."
Of course, Riley needed money to do all this while building a boat or two at the same time. Putting up the entry fee had tapped her out, so she turned to Koch to provide start-up capital and several million dollars' worth of data he'd generated through computer tests in 1992 and '95. Riley also found a loyal benefactor in Chris Coffin, a Chicago-based technology consultant and now the COO of America True. He underwrote most of the syndicate's $20 million budget, which was enough for only one boat.