Ever since he was a gangling 12-year-old, Robert Edward (Ted) Turner, the famous landlocked sailor of Atlanta, has been working and playing hard, picking up a few scars and winning a bundle of honors both in the business world and at sea. Although he is only 32, in his gloomier moments Turner swears that senility is sneaking up on him. There is a touch of premature gray in his hair and mustache, but despite this hint of decay Turner is still utterly gung-ho. When he wins a close one—in business or in a racing boat—he savors the moment jubilantly. When he loses a tough one, he is equally exuberant and vocal, damning the fates that opposed him and praising the opponents who walloped him.
Although winning is surely his goal, it is not what keeps Turner alive. Competition is. When business is going well, or when he crosses the line in an ocean race with time to spare on his rivals, he sometimes seems bored. On land or sea Turner revels in adversity. He loves to battle with his back against a wall. If there is no wall close by, he will go miles out of his way to find one.
When he is ashore, serving as president of Turner Communications Corporation, an amalgam of billboard companies and radio and TV stations, Turner tries to act as a flannelized executive should, but the salt-soaked honesty of the sailor keeps oozing out. Whereas most corporate executives take great pains to maintain their images, Turner delights in destroying his. Within minutes after closing a successful deal, Turner the empire builder begins tearing himself down. "As a conquering hero I am a failure," he declares. "Every time I cut the head off a dragon, it grows three more." When an insurance agent tries to sell him on the phone, Turner replies, "I gotcha, but you don't understand, this is a risky business I'm in. When the elephants start fighting, the ants get stomped. Do you realize, at this very moment you are trying to sell insurance to one of the ants that may be trampled to death tomorrow?"
The real gambling skippers of the ocean-racing circuit love to beat and be beaten by Turner, for he always plays hard inside the rules. Although he has been ocean racing for only six years—still an apprentice in length of service—he already rates as an accomplished man who drives self, crew and boat to the limit. The result is rewarding: he was voted the Martini & Rossi Trophy as the outstanding yachtsman of 1970—a year in which a pretty good sailor named Bill Ficker successfully defended the America's Cup—and he has not let any barnacles grow in 1971. A fortnight ago he put American Eagle second overall in the Annapolis-to-Newport race, then sent her on to England to be ready for the Fastnet classic while he participated in a few Stateside adventures, e.g., last week's Tempest nationals. But blue-water rivals who are impressed with Turner's devotion to sailing should spend a few workdays with him for a taste of real dedication. Compared to the intensity with which he attacks his work, Turner is downright frivolous at sea.
Turner the communications executive uses his paneled office in Atlanta the way a circus tiger uses its cage. One moment he sits at his desk embroiled in a problem; the next he is on his feet, pacing back and forth and letting out an occasional roar. Turner's office phone is in sorry shape. The once-springy, coiled wire of the receiver has been stretched to the breaking point and is now as limp as linguine. Any slick TV or radio operator who hopes to sell Turner a bill of goods has no chance unless he comes well armed. Deep in Turner's business brain there is a hard core of common sense and humor. Around this core there are compartments of active gray matter that can sort and digest statistics and minutiae at a rate that would choke a computer. If you want to know how I Love Lucy, Superman, Batman, Ultraman and Dragnet rate as television fare in Atlanta, ask Turner. He will fire back the latest figures right from the hip. When he is at a loss for facts, which is seldom, he falls back on common sense. Recently over cocktails a TV agent suggested that Turner was trying to do too much at one time. Turner replied, "When you are up to your rear end in alligators, it is hard to remember that your original idea was simply to cross a swamp." Another TV agent pointed out that some of the stock-car racing footage on Turner's Atlanta outlet, WTCG, was not new. "So it's old," Turner roared. " Jesus Christ is 2,000 years old, and He still gets good ratings on Sunday."
At sea aboard Eagle, the 67-foot America's Cup sloop that he bought for a hock-shop price and turned into a winner, Turner serves not only as skipper and taskmaster but also as head cheerleader, court jester and prophet of impending doom. In the words of Dick Grossmiller, a seasoned hand, "When you sail with Turner, he has you working, weeping and laughing all the way."
For example, on an 811-mile race to Jamaica this spring, as Turner drove his Eagle through 25 knots of wind, he gambled on keeping the spinnaker flying. As the wind kept heading, the spinnaker was hauled around so hard it looked like a jib—it was stress against stress, rigging versus sail. In 2� years of spectacular racing. Turner's ripsnorting Eagle had busted her mast twice. What would bust this time, the rigging or the sail? The crew was apprehensive. Shouting above the wind and sea, Skipper Turner reassured all hands. "Never fear," he bellowed, "American Eagle is the only boat in the fleet with a permanent damage control officer. If the mast goes this time, I will pull the plug and we will go down with her."
Later, running before the wind in a mishmash of crisscrossing swells, Eagle was hard to hold on course; the end of her boom was catching water. Turner cried out, "I read Arthur Knapp's book on sailing. What did Arthur Knapp tell me to do in a case like this? I forget. Maybe we should jibe. Tomorrow may never come. The sky may fall. So I say let's jibe her now."
Toward the end of the race, in a falling wind, the crew raised a light spinnaker that had not been properly stopped. The sail wrapped around the headstay—a hopeless mess. In the heat of the moment Skipper Turner cussed like a muleteer. Then, when the damage was finally undone, he admonished the deck apes in the manner of an Episcopalian cleric. "We have done those things that we ought not to have done," he intoned. "And we have left undone those things that we ought to have done. And it has cost us plenty. Next time let us stop the spinnaker before we put it up."
At the finish in Jamaica, two boats had beaten Eagle across the line. But no matter. After shouting into the sea wind for three days, Skipper Turner stepped ashore croaking like a raven but still jubilant.