What is deader than yesterday's stock quotations? To most racing sailors the answer is: yesterday's America's Cup contender. Built at a cost of millions, to the specifications of a single set of round-the-buoys races sailed on a series of late-summer afternoons when the weather is right, these fast, fragile boats, in the opinion of most yachtsmen, can never be successfully adapted to any other purpose. They won't, in short, pay you a nickel for a cup boat, successful or not, the day after the races.
But Ted Turner, an irrepressible advertising man from Georgia still in his 20s, is not most yachtsmen. Why not, Ted Turner asked himself, buy an old cup boat and make an ocean racer out of her? In answer he bought American Eagle, unsuccessful candidate in two cup trials, for a fraction of what her sails and rigging alone cost when she was built, refitted her for ocean racing and entered her in the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit. Halfway through the series, the old day sailer was leading the fleet in points. Moreover, she seemed to have proved she could take whatever the sea could dish out when she won the St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale in the teeth of 25-knot winds.
The Cruising Club of America, governing body of ocean racing in the U.S., was taking a hard look at Eagle in the SORC, since Turner was bent on entering her in this summer's Transatlantic. One expert, Don Wakeman, a veteran of both blue-water and cup racing, felt there was little doubt that Eagle's hull could survive the pressures of a long offshore haul, but he was doubtful about her tall rig. "It was designed," Wakeman explained, "with definite limits in mind, and there are no limits out there offshore."
The day after Wakeman's prophetic expertise, at the start of the race from Miami to Nassau, the limitless nature of winds at sea began to make themselves felt. As the wind rose higher and higher, it seemed certain that whatever boat won this race would win it in record time. Characteristically, Turner was determined the boat would be Eagle. He made no concessions to the building gale as his vessel screeched along under full mainsail and huge genoa. His crew sailed her like a dinghy on a gusty day: one hand playing the sheet that controlled her thundering main, letting it in and out with the puffs; another keeping watch on the big jib as it scooped up gallons of water whenever the bow plunged. Another crewman was reading off the figures on the Kenyon speedometer. "Ten. Ten and a half. Eleven." Then, "Eleven and three-quarters."
Those of us on deck exchanged unbelieving looks as the vessel careered along. Then came that pop! It was no more than that, just a pop barely loud enough to hear above the noise of rushing wind and water, followed by a snap, like the cracking of dry spaghetti, but suddenly the night, the boat, the action of wind and water all seemed to stand still. Startled by the change, the off-watch scrambled on deck to squint into the darkness and gaze uncomprehending for a moment at the blankness where the big sloop's mast, mainsail and jib had been. How the orderly tracery of halyards, sails, spars and stays could be so suddenly transformed into such hideous confusion as reigned on American Eagle's deck transcended everyone's immediate understanding.
Then the reality took over. The wildly swinging section of mast had to be captured and quickly, and as much gear salvaged as possible. But knowing what had to be done and knowing how to do it are very different. At first everyone seemed intent on undoing a job that someone else had just done. All was chaos, and everything one touched seemed to be booby-trapped, like the once-firm lifelines that sagged under a light grasp. But, somehow, in the midst of the nightmare order was reestablished, the maverick spar was secured on board, the huge sails were gathered in, trailing lines were hauled aboard and the battered remains of American Eagle began the depressing trip to port under auxiliary power.
"I can hear them now," moaned Turner as the derelict limped shoreward. "They're all getting ready to say, 'ha ha, he he, we told you so.' " But even as he spoke this indefatigable iconoclast of yachting was making plans for Eagle's next race—perhaps with slightly sturdier gear.