SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
July 12, 1971
His zest for a lively scrap has made Ted Turner, onetime dinghy dunker, an ocean-racing champion
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July 12, 1971

In The Wake Of The Capsize Kid

His zest for a lively scrap has made Ted Turner, onetime dinghy dunker, an ocean-racing champion

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In the early winter before the 1965 SORC competition, the chartered Scylla was delivered to Turner on Pamlico Sound near Morehead City, N.C., 1,200 miles from where the first SORC race started in Tampa Bay on the Florida west coast. In the first 50 miles to the starting line Turner missed a channel marker at night and ran Scylla aground, fortunately on a flat where she could be kedged off. Jimmy Brown, the Savannah salt who had sold Turner on sailing a dinghy, was aboard. As Brown remembers, the voyage to Tampa Bay "was not all bad, just a little bit of horror now and then." When Scylla put into port for stores or repairs along the way, one or another of her Corinthian crew would remember a pressing business engagement and jump ship. On reaching shore, two of the crew knelt, kissed the earth and swore they would never go back to sea.

Turner raced Scylla in the 1965 SORC without distinction. In the longest of the six races in the series—a 400-miler from St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale—he lost a couple of valuable hours hunting for the crucial rounding mark at Rebecca Shoals in the Florida Keys. In a 100-mile race from Miami across the Gulf Stream to West End, Grand Bahama, for want of better guidance Turner followed a rival boat most of the way.

During his first, undistinguished year as an ocean racer, the computer sections of his brain must have digested a lot. On his second try in 1966, at the helm of a sloop called Vamp X, he won the SORC by a country mile. His victory in 1966 resembles one scored 104 years earlier when Confederate General Jeb Stuart led 1,200 hell-for-leather troopers on a wild ride that panicked a Yankee army of 100,000. The SORC fleet that Turner took by surprise included a number of custom hulls costing $70,000 or more and manned by experienced blue-water sailors. Turner's winning Vamp X was a stock Cal-40 hull—a somewhat unconventional one at the time—that cost a mere $50,000 fully equipped. Turner's crew was composed primarily of small-boat sailors who had never stood a night watch at sea. In the Civil War, when Jeb Stuart and his troopers came rip-roaring out of nowhere to harass a whole army, smart generals on both sides realized a new style of war was aborning. The dumber brass dismissed Stuart's Panzerlike raid as optimistic bravado. Similarly, when Turner's Vamp X won the SORC, there were traditionalists who discounted it as a surprising streak of luck.

The smarter rivals beaten by him recognized that Turner had merely made the most of a neglected truth: men who have been seriously racing small boats on closed courses make fine ocean sailors. In a short, daytime race in a small boat every foot of distance made good and every second of time saved count for a lot. All of Turner's ocean crews since the first have been dedicated to the small-boat principle. On a long sea race with Turner there is a constant sense of awareness in the crew and almost endless action. Sheets are eased an inch one moment, then trimmed an inch, then eased again. The boom vang is set and reset. The winch grinders—the muscled apes—pump all day and through the night to keep the bright spinnaker fat and happy. From one long sea mile to the next, a Turner crew is always with it, trying to get another ounce of sail power out of the God-given wind.

If Turner never enters another race, because of what he has done since 1969 with American Eagle, now seven years old, at the very least he deserves mention in the annals of yachting as a salvage man without peer. For the first five years of her life American Eagle was a hapless Cinderella. She was originally designed and built as a conventional 12-meter hull for the explicit purpose of racing around buoys in defense of the America's Cup. Although she competed in the cup trials of 1964 and 1967, she never won the honor of defending it (curiously, when the Eagle raced against Constellation in the 1964 trials, the respective helmsmen were Bill Cox and Bob Bavier, the same Connecticut sailors who years before had offered Ted Turner a summer job).

After the Eagle's second unsuccessful cup campaign, a wealthy Torontonian named Herbert Wahl bought her for $60,000—roughly one-fifth of her original cost. He spent $100,000 converting Eagle into an ocean racer, then took her through the New York canals to Lake Ontario. Racing against "dirt track" competition, the Eagle proved to be a dog. At this low point in her life, Turner, the rambunctious crown prince of sailing, bought her for $70,000.

Over the years, in the U.S. and Europe, about a dozen 12-meter hulls have been converted for ocean racing, but none has been truly campaigned or won honors like Turner's Eagle. Since 1969, over classic courses on both sides of the Atlantic—from St. Pete to Lauderdale, from Port Huron to Mackinac, from Newport to Cork, from Kristiansand to Sandhamn, from Plymouth to La Rochelle, from Execution Light to Stratford Shoal, from Cowes to Fastnet Rock, and from Here to Hell-and-Gone—Turner's Eagle has raced more than 12,000 miles, collecting a good deal of silverware in the process.

A year ago Turner won his second SORC title with Eagle, setting a record that is apt to last. Against fleets ranging in size from 40 boats to 127 he won four of the five races counting in his final score and finished eighth in the other. Nor was that all he was doing. Forty hours after the end of the second race in that series, Turner landed in Sydney, Australia. Three hours after clearing customs he was abroad a 5.5-meter boat competing for the Scandinavian Gold Cup, an international prize that is not so famous as the America's Cup but is nonetheless a very sacred bit of yachting grail. In the Gold Cup, one boat of each nation competes in three races. The winners of these races then carry on, with the title going to the first boat to take three firsts. When Turner reached Australia, two races had already been run. So for him it was win or out. He won and went on to take the title. And after that, he came second in the world 5.5-meter championships. Forty hours later he was back aboard the Eagle off the east Florida coast competing in his third race of the SORC.

Ashore, when less than a dozen business problems are weighing on him, Turner tries to live at a normal pace, and sometimes he almost succeeds. He loves his wife Jane, enjoys his home, and is most concerned about the welfare of his five children: Laura Lee, Ted IV, Rhett, Beauregard and Jeanie. While driving a New York TV associate to his home recently, Turner declared, "I am worried about my 3-year-old son Beau. I can't seem to communicate with him the way I used to. I think there is a generation gap." He warned his dinner guest, "We have a houseful of kids and antiques. You know, there is a fine line between antiques and junk. Ours are supposed to be real antiques. In any case, a lot of the chairs are uncomfortable."

Every now and then, when the homebody spirit is really welling up in him, Turner leads his five kids out the front door, and together they attack the weeds rampant on the lawn. At dinner Turner quotes St. Paul, "I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content." An hour later the self-styled man of content is pacing back and forth in his living room declaiming on things that he ought not to have done or has left undone or should be doing. At home as in the office, he can carry on a conversation while roving about performing a variety of minor acts. With barely a break in a sentence, he fiddles with a stereo set, dusts bric-a-brac, crosses the living room to let a cat in, wanders down a hallway to pat a child, wanders back, shoots one of the children's cap pistols, lets the cat back in, steps onto the sun deck to swat a few bees that have been harassing his loved ones, and so forth and so on.

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