Gary Jobson on the Evolution of the America's Cup
Adventure spoke to sailing guru Gary Jobson about what makes this year's America's Cup unique, and the delicate balance of athleticism and science that makes for a winning sailing team.
Text by Ryan Bradley Photograph courtesy Jobson Sailing
Sailing commentator Gary Jobson rounds Cape Horn aboard the Pelagic during an ESPN expedition in 1993.
June 7, 2007
Jobson, 56, is best described as sailing's de facto ambassador. He won the 1977 America's Cup with skipper Ted Turner and has written 15 books on the sport. He has also been ESPN's sailing commentator for the past 22 years and recently completed a television special chronicling the storied history of the America's Cup.
At 156 years, the America's Cup is the oldest international sporting event in the world. Each year, two countries are pitted against each other for the cup and the right to host the next race. Though the ocean race has traditionally been a source of national pride—especially for the U.S., as American teams have dominated all but four of the races since 1851—this year the America's Cup is less of a competition between countries, and regrettably so, according to Jobson.
Adventure spoke to Jobson from his home in Annapolis, Maryland, about what makes this year's America's Cup unique, and the delicate balance of athleticism and science that makes for a winning sailing team.
What's different about this year's America's Cup?
Jobson: The game has elevated itself dramatically over the last several years. In the past, the whole thing took six months of preparation, and the boats were smaller and much, much less expensive. Now, there are continuous operations for years prior to the competition. Crews are making gigantic salaries; and teams are using very advanced technology to build extremely expensive boats. For example, when Dennis Conner won [in 1988], the boat cost $15 million. This year [Larry] Ellison [backer of U.S. Team Oracle BMW] spent $150 million on his boat. Now, I'm not adjusting for inflation, but that's a huge difference.
What has caused this change?
Jobson: It's caused by people who have money—a lot of money—and the perception that you can make a lot more money by winning, which isn't necessarily true. Even so, since 1970, the team that's spent the most money has never won.
What makes a winning team?
Jobson: You've got to have a very good blend of personalities. There are two groups on every team: a designers group and an athletes group. It's hard to get an athlete and scientist working together, but the best teams understand each other's modus operandi. Some of the most successful teams are led by people who understand both. Olin Stephens [a navel architect who designed a record seven winning America's Cup boats from 1937 to 1974] is fundamentally a good sailor. He's also an MIT-trained engineer. You have got to have people that bridge the gap.
Besides money, is there anything else different about this year's competition?
Jobson: What's happened is all of these groups are staffed by international squads. Larry Ellison's crew is from 16 different countries. Historically it's been all Americans on the American team and so on
The American team was knocked out recently, was this what went wrong?
Jobson: On Ellison's team the irony is that it was his skipper [the person in charge of the boat] didn't perform. There's nobody really dominating sailing anymore. In the Olympics there are 11 classes of boats, with three medals per class. So out of 33 medals given at the 2004 Olympics, 21 different countries were represented.
Why is this?
Jobson: The boats are standardized, coaches are going everywhere, and other countries are investing heavily in athletes. Austria, for example, fully funds some of their sailing teams, paying for their junior teams to go to international competitions all over the world.
Is there a reason why Americans aren't dominating the sport like they used to?
Jobson: While they may not be racing for the U.S., American sailors still have a lot of influence. The New Zealand boat has an American tactician. The Spanish boat has an American coach; the Swiss have two Americans
. I think people would follow this more closely if it stuck to its original intent of being a "friendly competition between countries."
So should we still care?
We should care because this is an American treasure and we should protect it. But since this is the first time non-nationals are sailing on boats, I don't think it is as interesting as it once was.
Gary Jobson's History of the America's Cup Races 1851-2007airs on ESPN Classic this summer.
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