In newspaper accounts of his sailing, Turner has been variously described around the world as irrepressible, ubiquitous, fabulous, passionate, priestlike, devilish, forgiving, relentless, tall, lean and dark-eyed, blue-eyed and gaunt, bold, cautious, wild, canny, brainy and audacious. There are those who say Turner is a riverboat gambler at heart, and there are those who think he is Rhett Butler reincarnate. Turner was born in Cincinnati, an old riverboat town that is now so fancy-pants and industrialized that many of its people are barely aware they reside on the stenchy Ohio. From the age of nine to maturity Turner lived in Savannah, Ga., a seaport that, despite the headlong pace of the world, has managed to retain some of its original flavor.
Two years after taking over a billboard company in Savannah, Turner's father bought his son a Penguin, a racing dinghy that in gusty weather has no more stability than a soap dish. When the dinghy was presented to him, young Turner made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with it. He was finally suckered into using it by one of his father's employees, Jimmy Brown, who had sailed a bateau with a makeshift rig on the Savannah River and the estuaries thereabouts. Brown pointed out to Turner that the Penguin was a handy means of getting to nearby islands where he could pop away with his pellet gun at birds and other critters.
After two years of larking around in the Penguin and playing Frank Buck on the golden isles of the north Georgia coast, Turner tried racing in the teenage program of the Savannah Yacht Club. "I was famous almost overnight," he remembers. "They called me Turnover Turner, the Capsize Kid. I had as much aptitude for sailing as an eight-minute miler has for winning the Olympics." In his first year of racing he capsized 11 times and did only slightly better the next. In his third and fourth campaigns he finished second in the club championships.
In his fifth year of racing, Turner left his Penguin and moved into a Lightning. The next three years brought a fair share of victories but never the club championship. He probably would have done better but he was strictly a weekend sailor. During summer vacations from his 12th year on he worked for his father's company, digging postholes, creosoting poles, erecting billboards and pasting messages on them. The five-day workweek did not pain Turner until the fall of his sophomore year at Brown University when he got a tempting offer from two of the world's finest skippers, Bill Cox and Bob Bavier. Impressed by Turner personally and by his unbeaten record as a collegiate dinghy racer, Cox and Bavier offered him a summertime job as instructor at the Noroton Yacht Club in Connecticut—$50 a week, room and board and a chance to race a little in a hot Lightning fleet. Turner's father refused him permission, insisting that he return home the following summer and work for the billboard company for $40 a week.
In remorse, 19-year-old Ted Turner went out and had a drink, his first. Earlier on his father had promised him $5,000 if he did not smoke or drink until he was 21. Since the first drink had cost him five grand, Turner reasoned that if he had a second drink it would cut the cost in half. So he had another. And another. Shortly thereafter, in the company of several other flaming youths, he headed for Wheaton College, a girls' school. A ruckus followed, and Turner and his cronies were suspended from Brown.
"Until I had to turn down the sailing job," Turner says ruefully, "I was known as Mr. Straight Arrow, the kid on the white horse. I was the guy who won cadet honors in military school. I was the local boy who went to an Ivy League college but didn't drink while everyone else was getting bombed out of their minds."
After a tour in the Coast Guard, Turner went back to Brown University and was elected captain of the sailing team. In the classroom he was well on his way to a diploma when his father discovered that he was majoring in classics rather than in a field that would serve him better as a businessman. "I am appalled, even horrified," his father wrote, "that you have adopted classics as a major. I suppose everybody has to be a snob of some sort, and I suppose you are distinguishing yourself from the herd by being a classical snob. If I leave you enough money, you can retire to an ivory tower and contemplate for the rest of your days the influence that the hieroglyphics of prehistoric man had upon the writings of William Faulkner." Turner's father concluded his letter, "You are in the hands of the Philistines, and dammit, I sent you there. I am sorry." The elder Turner did not send his son the funds to complete his senior year. Disillusioned, Turner quit college.
Over the years Turner's father had acquired billboard companies in several Southern cities. In the process he extended his credit in a way that was not unrealistic, but weighed on him nonetheless. Emotionally wracked, the elder Turner committed suicide in 1963. So at the age of 24, Ted Turner inherited a corporation that was stylishly in hock. Today Turner Communications Corporation is in good shape, although to get Turner, the worrying boss, to admit it, is something else again.
As a round-the-buoys sailor, Ted Turner has won national titles in three classes of boat: Y-Flyer, Flying Dutchman and 5.5-meter. He reckons that he might have been content with closed-circuit racing and never ventured onto the open ocean except for his innate restlessness and literary appetite. "When I am happy doing one thing," he says, "I lift my eyes to the next plateau, and that's what gets me in more trouble. I am like Miniver Cheevy. I long for what is not—knights and ladies fair and horses prancing." As a schoolboy Turner read the sea fiction of Conrad, the history fiction of Nordhoff and Hall, the naval annals of Mahan and assorted other tales of wine-dark seas. He also fed upon the contents of Yachting magazine, which told of the victories won by latter-day hulls like Caribbee and Finisterre. He was, in brief, so well marinated by salty writers that when another round-the-buoys sailor. Ding Schoonmaker of Miami, suggested in 1964 that they try ocean racing together. Turner was for it.
It was Schoonmaker's idea to charter a boat and campaign it on the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit, the world's best such competition. After they had contracted for a 40-foot sloop, Scylla, Schoonmaker became involved in small-boat racing in South America, so Turner went it alone in the SORC. "I knew red-right-returning and all that," Turner recalls, "but I didn't know a compass deviation from a variation."