I didn't get involved in last year's defense of the America's Cup out of some long-standing desire to be a Cup skipper or out of patriotism or anything like that. I did it because Dennis Conner was apparently going to sail unopposed straight into the 25th defense.
Gary Jobson and I began talking about a Cup effort toward the end of the 1980 trials, but the reason it actually happened was that a fairly large group of people, sailors I respect and admire, also thought there should be some competition. We felt sure we would be able to provide it, and we might have if....
I'm trying to figure out what went wrong for us and for the U.S. How was the longest winning streak in the history of sport broken? How in the world did it happen? And why?
The obvious answer is that the U.S. was outdesigned by Ben Lexcen. No doubt about it, Australia II was the better boat. It maneuvered better, which in match racing is critical. If you have a boat that maneuvers well and you can get ahead of your competitor, there's no way the guy can get around you. On some points of sail, Liberty's straight-line speed was probably pretty good, but she was hopelessly inadequate in the tacking duels.
But Lexcen wasn't the only reason the U.S. lost the America's Cup. And neither were Conner's tactics in the last two races. I think Conner and his guys sailed the wheels off Liberty. Accusing Dennis of losing the Cup because he didn't cover on the run in the seventh and final race or on the beat in the sixth race is total bunk. Conner's tactics were arguable, but he did what he thought he had to do, based on what he knew about that boat, and he was goddam lucky to get to the seventh race. Enormously lucky. Think about it. Race 1, Australia II is in the lead, and her steering gear breaks. She luffs up, her spinnaker collapses, and still she loses by only 1:10. Race 2, Australia II's main halyard comes unlocked, and the head of the mainsail rips off. The Australians shouldn't even have been able to sail, and still they lose by only 1:33. Race 3, the Australians win going away, but the time limit expires [a race must be finished in five hours and 15 minutes], and the win doesn't count. Race 3 is rerun, and Australia II wins. Race 4, Conner and company sail a perfect race. They win the start with a daring port-tack maneuver, every wind shift goes their way, they make not a single mistake in 24 miles and they win by 43 seconds. The score is 3-1 Liberty, but it could very easily have been 4-0 Australia II.
In my opinion, all three of the main players in the American effort are to blame for losing the Cup—the New York Yacht Club's America's Cup Committee, the Liberty syndicate and my own group, the Defender/Courageous syndicate, though not necessarily in that order.
Let's begin with the New York Yacht Club. The defender of the America's Cup has always been chosen by the America's Cup Committee. You don't have races to decide who wins the right to defend the Cup; instead, you perform for a committee that presumably rates your performance on the basis of some specific criteria, but no one tells you what the criteria are. For us it was like playing a game without knowing the rules. The committee would start and then abandon races between the U.S. boats, or they would shorten races, and you were left to guess what it meant. An America's Cup course is 24.3 miles long, yet Defender, our boat, which was conceived and designed to try to defend the America's Cup, never once in her 14-month existence raced a full America's Cup course. In fact, there was only one full-length race held between American boats all summer long. That was Liberty vs. Courageous on July 24, and it was also the best race of the trials. Liberty won by 15 seconds. Meanwhile, of course, the foreigners, who ran their own trials for the right to challenge and who were independent of the America's Cup Committee, were sailing full-length races. Out of 164 races among the challengers, 20 went the full 24.3 miles.
It was almost as if our committee members were trying to confuse everybody—the press, the owners of the boats, the sailors—to keep them all off balance and have it all be a total muddle so that when they did make their decision nobody could question it. That's the way it seemed to me. It was comparable to having some committee of NFL people decide who would play in the Super Bowl: "That bounce was really a random bounce so we'll give x amount of credit to this team and y to that one, and we'll balance it all out eventually, but you'll have to trust us to decide which way the ball would have bounced if it had bounced correctly," the committee might say. You can imagine what that might do to the competitiveness of all the teams playing the game all season long.
One time we really had Liberty at the start. We crossed the line and, 35 seconds later, she crossed the line. Then, one minute after that, the race was abandoned. O.K. But in another race, I think it was on the same day, Liberty did approximately the same thing to us. She crossed the starting line some 30 seconds ahead of us, but the committee let that race go on. We lost it, but it was a good, solid contest. We almost caught her. But the race that was abandoned might have been a good one, too. So what did it mean? How did they score it? You never knew. The newspapers printed scores, but they were only guesses, because nobody knew how, or even whether, the committee was scoring the races. It was all very confusing and very depressing. I don't know how the other people involved reacted to the arbitrary power of those men on that committee, but it weighed heavily on me.
As it turned out, there was a way to find out what the criteria were, but it took a while for me to figure it out: You talked to the various committee members, in private. That's how the old boys do it, I found out. You establish personal communication with individual committee members. The Liberty people did it every day, two or three times a day. It was one of their priorities, like getting a good boat, good sails or a good crew. They figured it was part of the game, and, by God, they were right. It is part of the game, but it's dead-ass wrong!