"Almost as soon as I lost the Cup in '83, I began figuring ways to get it back. Piece by piece the picture fell into place. I saw it all very sharply."
When sports illustrated asked me to write about how I won the America's Cup, my first response was to say that while Dennis Conner was a factor in that victory the real story lay in the triumph all Americans shared. It was a triumph for American technology, American ingenuity and American skills. In 1851 when the schooner America crossed the Atlantic from New York and thrashed a fleet of the finest British yachts, she represented the highest aspirations of our young nation. She represented a dedication to excellence that has become the America's Cup tradition. Stars & Stripes was simply following in America's wake.
While the Cup is yachting's Holy Grail, it has also come to represent the ultimate test in "the game of life." Just as in life, success demands commitment and commitment demands a positive winning attitude. I told all the guys who came into our Cup campaign that if they were going to make the grade they needed three essential ingredients: attitude, attitude and attitude. I wanted commitment to the commitment. When they finally made the crew, some of them joked that they ought to be committed for their commitment to the commitment.
From the moment they joined us, their lives were focused entirely on winning the Cup back. As hard as it may sound to outsiders, I made sure they all understood that that meant everything—families, social lives, sex, religion, whatever they were into—had to be sacrificed for our goal. When we crossed the line in that fourth and final race, when we knew at last that we had won the Cup, I said to the crew, "You guys are the greatest. I'd sail with you anytime!" It was the proudest moment of my life. When Old Glory was hoisted up our backstay, I felt very emotional. In that tiny moment, a long, long way from home, it was nice to think that our victory had added just a touch more honor to the Red, White and Blue.
The America's Cup races themselves were the climax of three solid years of preparation and planning. In many ways it was like waging war behind enemy lines. We had to have forward scouts sending back intelligence reports. There were long supply lines from home. There was a kind of hand-to-hand combat out there on the water, and we took casualties now and again in our skirmishes with the bad guys. And just like men in combat, our guys required courage, drive, motivation, leadership, dedication, a sense of humor and, above all, the will to win.
But those ingredients would have been wasted if we had not had a precisely detailed plan. Almost as soon as I lost the Cup in '83, I began figuring ways to get it back. Piece by piece the big picture fell into place. I was able to see it all very sharply in my mind's eye. I never doubted my own ability to win the Cup back and I think it was this, coupled with the fact that I was obviously prepared to put in so much of my own time, that helped attract the very best sailors, designers and scientific brains to the Stars & Stripes team.
But it's one thing to have a plan and quite another to get people with the necessary financial clout to listen to it. My plan called for a budget of $16 million. To raise that much money I had to convince corporate America that my particular dream really would come true. It wasn't easy. It began in a shoe box in a room at my drapery business in San Diego. I kept all my receipts in there, and in the early days there were more outgoings than incomings.
It was clear from the outset, in my mind at least, that the 1987 America's Cup series was going to be a boat-speed contest and not a contest of in-tight, close sailing. I knew it would be possible for us to lose by not getting the most out of the boat, but I also knew that it would be very difficult to win without a fast boat. There were so many disparities involved with a concept as new as the winged keel, and with almost all the competitors (19 of them from seven nations) trying variations on the same theme, it was obvious that there were going to be wide variations in speed. My experience in steering Liberty against Australia II in '83 emphasized how difficult it was to win against a faster boat. So I based my whole plan of attack on having a fast boat.
With design under way, the next step was to consider where we ought to practice and who would sail the boats [the Sail America syndicate would eventually build three of them, Stars & Stripes '85, Stars & Stripes '86, and the Cup winner, Stars & Stripes '87]. I felt strongly that we needed standards by which we could judge our progress. Liberty and Spirit of America were the boats we knew best, so our first step was to purchase both boats from The New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler, N.Y. The next step was to modify Spirit by fitting a winged keel so that we could measure that improvement against Liberty. That would then establish a standard by which we could judge the performance of our newest boat, Stars & Stripes '85. Since we knew how Liberty went against the Cup winner, Australia II, we would then be able to get a handle on how well Stars & Stripes '85 might do against the new Australian boats that were starting to go in the water Down Under.
Then the big question: Where could we do all the necessary testing in secret? Hawaii was the obvious choice for three reasons. First, Hawaii is renowned for its consistently strong winds, similar to those that predominate on the Fremantle Cup course during the critical months of December and January. Hawaii has these winds 80% of the year, starting at 10 in the morning and blowing until dark. Being in Hawaii would allow us to have tremendously productive practice sessions.