Ted Turner honored by the rarefied founders of the America’s Cup

By David Pendered

Ted Turner is now formally honored by the blue-blazer crowd of the yachting world. The New York Yacht Club marked the 40th anniversary of Turner’s victory in the America’s Cup, in 1977, by awarding Turner the highest individual honor the club bestows.

Ted Turner, America's Cup, at helm

Ted Turner skippered the ‘Courageous’ to a 4-0 victory in 1977 over an Australian challenger some observers said was a faster boat with a better crew. Credit: nbcsports.com

This is a significant bow from a club with an autocratic reputation, one that took its time in even extending a membership offer to Turner. Evidently, back in the day, the club’s leadership had determined that Turner wasn’t a good fit in a private club founded in 1844 by a scion of one of the nation’s founders and led since by a host of mostly Northern bluebloods.

At the time, Turner was in his salad days of building a media empire in a remote Southern outpost named Atlanta.

  • “The first time I was put up for membership here I was turned down, but I came back,” Turner said in accepting the award, according a report on newsday.com. “I wanted to defend the America’s Cup and I couldn’t do that if I wasn’t a member of the Yacht Club, so I had to join, and I’m glad I did.”

Turner is just the 18th person to receive the New York Yacht Club Medal since the NYYC began awarding the medal in 1964. Turner received the award June 6, according to a statement released by the club. The statement didn’t include a comment from Turner, but did have one from his tactician, Gary Jobson, who was awarded the medal in 2009. Jobson wasn’t quoted in the club’s statement about his award.

Ted Turner, America's Cup, Sports Illustrated

Collectors now trade an edition of Sports Illustrated that features an interview with Ted Turner as he defends the America’s Cup in 1977. Credit: 501auctions.com

“In the 1970s, Ted Turner took his one-design racing skills to ocean racing and dramatically changed the sport,” Jobson said. “During his remarkable sailing career, Turner served on many committees to advance the sport and he has been a generous donor to many sailing causes. The New York Yacht Club Medal recognizes Ted Turner’s lifetime achievement and service to sailing.”

The accolades poured forth.

“Since 1985, the NYYC Medal has been awarded from time to time at the sole discretion of the Flag Officers in recognition of achievements of particular merit or outstanding contribution to the club or yachting in general,” Philip A. Lotz, commodore of the New York Yacht Club, said in the June 7 statement. “Last night, it was my honor and extreme pleasure to present the NYYC Medal to Ted Turner.”

This is a dramatic turn-around from the era when Turner’s behavior was earning him nicknames including, “Mouth of the South,” and “Capt. Outrageous.”

There’s no doubt Turner was an exceptionally fast sailboat racer.

Turner began racing at age 12 years in tiny dinghies in Savannah, then attended Brown University, a college with a premier sailing tradition, and sailed his way into two of its halls of fame, in sailing and overall athletics. In Atlanta he prevailed in the Flying Dutchman class, on Lake Allatoona, and went on to win the FD Worlds in 1965 and the 5.5 meter Gold Cup in 1970, according to his profiles on websites of Brown and National Sailing Hall of Fame. That was before he showed his chops in blue-water racing in the 1970s.

But that mouth, that boastful, irreverent mouth.

Here’s how a 1973 report in nytimes.com captured and characterized Turner’s view of the America’s Cup. Remember, this is at a time others would be trying to butter up the sponsors of the America’s Cup, often referred to, in hushed tones, as the oldest trophy in international sports:

Ted Turner

Ted Turner

  • “’There’s more competition in, let’s say, a Flying Dutchman world’s championship than in an America’s Cup race.’ Horrified at the sound of his own words, Turner began to qualify them. ‘But there’s so much more to an America’s Cup. You just could not send anybody out to defend it.’ And he named a couple of One‐Design Class skippers of some renown.
  • “What Turner said is absolutely true. … But this Is one of the world’s oldest and most famous sporting events to which all of yachting responds if not genuflects.”

Turner was admitted to the club and defeated two skippers who ranked among the “in crowd,” Lowell North and Ted Hood, for the right to defend the cup in 1977 against challengers from Australia. Turner and his crew aboard the Courageous blanked the Aussies, 4-0. His performance right after the race showed he hadn’t curbed his demeanor, based on a report in nytimes.com:

  • “Turner [had] transformed the America’s Cup from a staid, blue-blazer yacht race into a media event. When Courageous returned to the dock after defending the cup, the waterfront was packed with people.
  • “In the news conference that followed, Turner sat down at a table and quickly slid underneath it, emerging with a bump on his head and swigging a bottle of Aquavit. He then blew cigar smoke in the face of the moderator, Bill Ficker, and occasionally patted Ficker’s bald head, all on national television. It was a scene that still makes the proper cup officials cringe.”
Ted Turner, America's Cup, gut feelings

Ted Turner became an American icon after winning the America’s Cup race in 1977. Turner appeared in this 1981 ad for Cutty Sark. Credit: pophistorydig.com

Turner and others have discounted the report. As they have some other comments that appeared in a 1983 interview with Playboy magazine.

An upcoming documentary may show the effect of time in smoothing out some of Turner’s rough spots. NBC is slated to air the 45-minute show, Courageous, on Saturday at 2:30 p.m., following NBC’s coverage of Race 1 of the America’s Cup Finals.

This year’s America’s Cup race is being held in Bermuda on high-performance sailboats capable of speeds exceeding 50 mph. Crews are not traditional sailors, reports edition.cnn.com, but athletes trained by NFL stars and Navy SEALs.

All of which may be enough to make some spectators long for days when the thrills of the race stemmed less from technology and more from sailors like Turner. As Turner described his fighting spirit in a 2002 profile on sailingworld.com that drew from Turner’s 1983 interview by Playboy:

  • “Turner: ‘Watch me. I’m like a bulldog that won’t let go. Why do you think my own racing yacht is named Tenacious, dummy?’
  • “We give up. Why?”
  • Turner: “Because I never quit. I’ve got a bunch of flags on my boat, but there ain’t no white flags. I don’t surrender. That’s the story of my life.”
Ted Turner, America's Cup, aboard courageous

Ted Turner pioneered the use of racing techniques used in races were all the boats were of the same design in ocean races where each boat is unique. Credit: sailinfestival.com via thesportsdigest.com

 

ted turner, america's cup, cigar

Ted Turners holds a celebratory cigar during an America’s Cup news conference. Credit: edition.cnn.com

 

Ted Turner, America's Cup, cup

Ted Turner’s celebrates victory after he and his team aboard the ‘Courageous’ win the America’s Cup in 1977 by blanking a team of challenges from Australia, 4-0. Credit: tedturner.com

 

The boats racing in the 2017 America’s Cup, in Bermuda, are capable of speeds exceeding 50 mph and are crewed by athletes trained by NFL stars and Navy SEALs. Credit: cnn.com

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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