AMERICA’S CUP 1987 : Conner’s Crew on Stars and Stripes ’87 Is American Pie
America’s Cup crews come in all sizes and shapes. With all the jobs on a 12-meter sailboat, one size does not fit all.
Scott Vogel, the bowman and boat captain on Stars & Stripes ’87, is 5-8 and 165.
Kyle Smith, a grinder, is 6-5 and 240.
Dennis Conner is . . . expansive.
But there are more subtle differences among the sailors, too. The challenging boat officially represents the San Diego Yacht Club but, in spirit, spans a cross-section of America. There are Southern drawls, New Yawkese, and the Rs misplaced in New England are recovered in California.
Every soul at sea has his own story, and as the Stars & Stripes crew prepared to meet Kookaburra III in the best-of-seven finals, they shared some of their thoughts.
JON WRIGHT, 39, crew manager and mainsail trimmer, Rosemont, Pa.
Wright has sailed with Conner in four America’s Cup campaigns, starting in 1974 aboard Courageous when Conner was tactician and starting helmsman.
“Going into ’83 I said, ‘This is the last time,’ because I expected to win,” Wright said. “I couldn’t sit here and watch this on TV now. I’d be eating my heart out.”
Wright tries to help the rest of the crew absorb the experience.
“Every time we went out by that sea wall (in the challenge finals), there were 500 more people there than the day before. I told the guys, ‘In the next series they’ll be on the roofs.’
“You can describe it to ‘em and try to tell ‘em how exciting it is, but it really hit ‘em when they came in after winning that last race and the whole dock was full of cameras. I don’t think they realized what a big media event it was.
“You can see how it affects professional football players when they go to the Super Bowl and they have that week of just constant interviews and press. That’s the way it is here right now . . . like you’re trying to get everybody’s feelings. It’s pretty exciting.”
Wright started his America’s Cup experience as a headsail trimmer.
“The older you are, the further back in the boat you have to get. It took me 13 years to move six inches. I don’t think I’ll get past the wheels. I tailed in ’84, ’77, ’80 and ’83, and I took a look at the sea conditions out here and didn’t want to be standing down there to leeward in this stuff.”
When John Marshall moved off the boat to coordinate the design program this time, Wright took over the main.
“Trimming the main or jib is really a good job because you actually make the boat go. You have to keep the sails set up where Dennis is pointing the boat. The main is interesting because it has so many controls, and it affects the helm so much. You can bend the mast in six different places.
“You’ve got an outhaul, inhaul, boom vang, lower runner, permanent backstay, Cunningham, headstay rake, traveler.
“As you tack, to help Dennis get the boat around, you trim the mainsheet in, which tightens the leach and kicks the bow around, and at the same time I pull the traveler up. Then when we come out of the tack I ease the traveler down to relieve helm. Then as the boat comes up to speed you trim the main in and the traveler up at the same time.”
Sounds routine, as it would be with any professional.
“I think it was more pressure getting here than it will be in the cup,” Wright says. “One thing you don’t want to do is to come this far and not get into the cup (finals). To get so close and have it snatched away, like we did to the Kiwis, has to be tough.”
SCOTT VOGEL, 26, bowman, Shoreham, N.Y.
His wife Dory is the backup navigator. After the victory over New Zealand, Conner introduced Vogel as “the first man to lose the America’s Cup,” since he was on the front of the boat when it crossed the line.
“We knew (Australia) had a faster boat,” Vogel says. “We thought they might be able to pass us, but we didn’t think they’d be able to beat us. You can’t go into a race thinking you might lose.”
During a brief interview, Vogel’s crewmates are heckling him and the reporter.
“Has he (the reporter) asked you how it is sailing with Dennis Conner?”
“No, we did the first question,” Vogel says, “ ‘What was it like to lose in 1983?’ ”
Although from New York, Vogel never had any doubts about whom he would sail with this time.
“People say New York Yacht Club and San Diego Yacht Club, but it’s John Kolius or Dennis Conner,” Vogel says. “Kolius has all his boys. For me, it still would have been Dennis.”
JAY BROWN, 28, pitman, Annapolis, Md.
There were some hairy moments during the early days of testing and training in Hawaii.
“We had a couple of days when we very nearly sank Liberty,” Brown says.
Herb Holland, a crewman since departed, was down below getting a sail to pass up to mastman John Barnitt.
Brown: “Herb said, ‘No problem. Look, I’ve got it right here under the hatch.’ He’d floated the sail under the hatch.
“We regularly would go upwind and then bear off and pump for 15 minutes. It got so bad on Liberty, and particularly one instance on Spirit, that the boat was nearly at the point where a boat bears off and just keeps going down, like a submarine.”
The deck was redesigned to weld the pit hatch shut.
“That meant I didn’t have to go below and pack sails anymore,” Brown says, gleefully. “The pitman now does the halyards. The spinnaker pole controls are mine. It’s easy with practice.
“The mastman still jumps the halyards. I do a lot of grinding while John’s below packing the sails. All the tacking duels, John and I are both in on the handles helping Jim (Kavle) and Henry (Childers).”
Brown is a man with a sense of purpose and awareness about him.
“It’s an amazing emotional roller coaster here,” he says. “You’re so far from home for so long that successes and failures are emotionally magnified. You’re way hooked into the program.”
He has no idea what he’ll be doing when it’s over.
“I don’t have a job,” Brown said. “I don’t have a car, a place to stay. When this program’s over I’ve got to make a decision between being a full-on sailor or a real profession.”
He has a degree in English.
“I did three job hunts and each time the job turned out to be something in sailing,” he says. “But now my parents see me on ESPN and think, ‘Maybe he hasn’t wasted his life, after all.’ ”
ADAM OSTENFELD, 35, starboard tailer,
Ostenfeld has sailed on every kind of big boat around and has built a lot of them, including America II’s first two 12-meters. He has never experienced winning the America’s Cup, but he did experience losing it with Conner in ’83.
“After we lost the America’s Cup, I thought I knew enough to help somebody that needed help,” he says.
America II asked him to do its deck layout and get the boat’s construction organized, but he left last year.
“I didn’t feel their organization was successful enough to beat Dennis,” Ostenfeld says. “Their learning curve was kind of flattened out. They weren’t doing anything that I thought was creative enough to merit sticking around, and their crew was really young. They made a lot of mistakes as a result. You can’t go into a competition like this with an amateur crew.
“So Dennis asked me if I wanted to come back. I said, ‘I’ll earn the job.’ So I went to Hawaii and made a commitment.
“I broke my wrist sailing around in a lot of wind in the Molokai Channel (when) a genoa car smashed into it. No big deal. Two weeks later, I was out there sailing with a plastic bag on my arm.”
Tom Blackaller is harshly critical of what he calls Conner’s “bludgeon” approach to the cup.
“I don’t understand why people are critical of somebody else’s method,” Ostenfeld says. “You could be critical of Michelangelo because he stayed up late and painted pictures, a famous ballet dancer because he danced too much.
“If you want to be the best in your field, you’ve got to make a commitment to that field and stick to it. When you’re with Dennis, you either make that commitment and stick with it or you’re not there anymore. I’m kind of proud of that.”
Part of that was learning to sail in wild conditions.
“We’re not intimidated by wind,” Ostenfeld says. “Every place we go sailing after this is gonna be boring.”
Ostenfeld, originally from New York, also has an artistic side, specializing in metallic sculptures. He would like to design a new America’s Cup.
JIM KAVLE, 26, port grinder, Rosemont, Pa.
Kavle has an economics and finance degree from Ohio Wesleyan. He campaigned a Star boat up to the ’84 Olympics.
“Our choice of going to Hawaii to train served us pretty well,” he said. “We were used to sailing in 30, 35 knots. In 10 to 15 knots it’s real easy to tack one of these boats, even with a big sail up. But once it gets 20 to 35, it really starts to become a grind.”
That’s a grinder’s joke. They operate six-speed winches and operate the gear boxes with foot pedals. In heavy winds, pitman Jay Brown lends his two hands, sometimes mastman John Barnitt, “when he’s not repacking sails,” Kavle says.
For a grinder, tacking duels “are like an aerobic workout,” Kavle says.
The pulse rates hit 180 or 190.
“There’s not a lot of recovery time in between,” Kavle says, “but you don’t notice it. The adrenaline keeps you going. When you climb off the boat, your forearms hurt, your elbows hurt. You know you’ve been working.
“It’s like we’re the linemen on a football team. The tailers are always telling us, ‘Good job.’
“We watch the clew coming around the shrouds. You can feel the boat slow down when it’s coming through the tack, head to wind, and it takes about 15 seconds go back up to normal speed (of) 8.4, 8.5 knots. When you tack it might go down to 7.8, then you watch it build back up. Everybody on the boat can tell when you’ve had a good tack.”
After this is over, Kavle says, he’ll “probably go home and get a normal job.”
BILL TRENKLE, 29, port tailer, Garden City, N.Y.
Trenkle has a degree in marine engineering from the New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler. As project manager, he worked with bowman Scott Vogel in designing the mast and deck layout on Stars & Stripes.
“We have not had one debilitating breakdown,” Trenkle says, “just a couple little things but nothing’s that’s slowed us down in a race.
“We practiced breaking stuff in Hawaii. The boats we started sailing in Hawaii were set up (for) Newport (R.I.). We learned the headboard systems had to be changed and the vangs had to be beefed up.
“We learned we’d better have pretty good waterproofing or we were gonna sink. We turned Spirit into a 13-meter . . . had a big lead shoe at the bottom of her to try to make her competitive for crew training. The weight increased the stability but sank her deeper, as well.
“That boat had the old-style hatches that slid aft, and when the waves hit they’d get pushed back and the water would come in. The tailers’ pits weren’t enclosed, and the pit behind the mast wasn’t enclosed. We started filling up the boat.”
On this day, Trenkle’s mates are teasing him about a picture in the paper of New Zealand skipper Chris Dickson with Sarah Fulcher, the San Diego blonde who ran across Australia.
“I was dating her for a while,” Trenkle says, ignoring them.
“This is the Super Bowl for us. I was on Freedom, the trial horse, last time (in ’83). When I talk to people back in the States, it’s surprising to hear how much information they’re getting. It’s good, because this is what I do full time. I make my living doing this.
“When I’m not doing America’s Cup I work for private owners on ocean racing boats. It doesn’t pay great, but the more it gets to be publicized the more chance it will turn professional eventually, and there’ll be more money in it for me.
“I get a little tired of traveling. I don’t have any roots right now. My parents live on Long Island. As I became more involved, my engineering became more practical for me to use. They knew I was making a living and doing what I wanted to do.”
Suddenly, with increased TV coverage of the cup, a lot of people know what he does.
“It didn’t really hit me until I was speaking to my parents,” Trenkle says. “They were saying, ‘We saw you.’ They used to try to pick me out of these small pictures. ‘Oh, there’s Billy.’ So it’s kind of neat. People are more aware that there are 11 people on the boat. Otherwise, all they know is Dennis. It seems like more of a team, and not just Dennis and 10 other guys. I think people can appreciate what goes into sailing the boats.”
JOHN BARNITT, 24, mastman, Minneapolis
Barnitt was aboard Liberty in ’83.
“The nice thing about this time is that we’re the challenger,” he says. “It was really fun to sail against the Italians, the French, the Kiwis and the English.”
But sailing was only part of the preparation. For Barnitt, a former defensive end, the Stars & Stripes’ program started out like a pro football training camp.
“We were removed from everything in Hawaii for a year and a half,” Barnitt says. “We lived in a very tall condominium out in the middle of nowhere. That was good. We had a lot of work to do. It was definitely a testing time for men and boats.
“I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with four other guys, and we were all big guys. You couldn’t live in our place unless you were over 6-4 and 220 pounds. We got on quite well.
“I shared a room with the other mastman for a while. We thought that whoever could do the job better would be better for the boat, as long as we knew the best person in our country was doing it.
“The big thing is to work together as a team all the time, and in these windy conditions you need two big, strong grinders who are smart and agile, but they have to have help.
“Our moves are choreographed. The timing is very important. You don’t realize it unless we switch the crews around and you have to talk about things more.
“A good jibe is when I can trip the pole and then get back to the handles and help square back the pole. Having Scotty (Vogel) pulling the tacking line helps a great deal. He gets that sail to clear the shrouds, and the four of us can bang it in that much easier. When the five of us work together and get through 131 tacks in a day, we get a passing grade from Dennis for that.”
After the Cup, Barnitt says, “I’ll have to get a job. Try to get an ocean racing boat to run.
“These programs are fantastic, but it’s a donation of time. I’ll have to get back on my feet financially. I should probably worry about my future more than I do. I don’t want to be pulling up jibs for D.C. when I’m 40.”
KYLE SMITH, 31, starboard grinder, New Orleans
This is Smith’s third America’s Cup campaign with Conner. His wife Karen is the team’s exercise physiologist.
“I had my doubts about coming back,” he says. “It’s a long road to get here, but we lost it and I wanted to win it back, and I figured Dennis would be the guy to do it.
“Since ’83 I’d gotten married and figured I’d stay home. The work and demands involved in a cup campaign are enormous. Can you imagine training for more than a year and a half just for the trials? It’s like having football practice for a year and a half and never playing a game.
“Then Dennis talked to Karen and told her she could teach the crew aerobics. She was all excited. She loves it. And now that we’re on top, I like it, too.”
Smith recalls the final beat home in the last race against Australia II, pushing himself at the winches through 47 desperate, futile tacks.
“It was very depressing, knowing we were going to be the only boat to lose the cup. But they had a much better boat. This time they don’t.”
TOM WHIDDEN, 39, tactician, Essex, Conn.
Whidden may be the most relaxed person on the boat and does most of the talking: an order, an observation, a suggestion, a quip or a word of encouragement, even to Conner when it’s needed. He is the skipper’s alter ego. They have won the cup and lost the cup together, and probably will continue to campaign for it in the future.
A former president of Sobstad Sailmakers, he will become president of North Sails after the cup, but he’s not moving into the board room.
The crew’s confidence level, compared to entering the finals in ’83, Whidden says, is “a hundred times better.
“In ’83 I felt like we had one bullet in a chamber of six. Now we feel like we’ve got a full gun. A loaded gun.
“Even if we’re even--and we tend to think we’re gonna be a little faster--we’d feel good about it, because we were so much slower in ’83 it just feels great to be equal. So our psychology is very good.
“The low point was when we lost those four races in November and we really didn’t set our boat up very well for that. The high point was beating (Tom) Blackaller, four-zip. That was quite an accomplishment because he was extremely fast.”
Whidden feels the crew is ready.
“I think they’re peaking now. They’re the best crew I’ve ever sailed with. Mentally and physically, they’re at the top of their curve right now. Everybody feels very good about himself, and that’s important in yacht racing, to have good self-confidence.
“I think Dennis and I are doing a good job keeping the crew calm and exuding confidence. That’s gotta help.”
PETER ISLER, 31, navigator, New Haven, Conn.
An expert skipper in his own right, Isler won major match racing championships in New Zealand and Britain last year and was helmsman for Courageous in that ill-fated campaign.
When he saw that Courageous, defender of the cup in ’74 and ’77, would never be competitive again and syndicate chairman Leonard Greene wasn’t going to build a new boat, Isler resigned and joined Stars & Stripes.
“Two summers ago, right after I got married, I had some pretty serious discussions with Tom (Whidden) and Dennis (Conner) and was within about a day of signing on,” Isler said. “But I’d been trying to line up a skippering position and, at the last minute, Leonard Greene came through, so I signed on with Courageous.
“I’d heard the warnings, but I thought it’d be good experience, and it was. I’m really glad I did it.
“When we left Australia, Leonard was promising a new boat, then as the spring wore on it became apparent that a new boat was less and less likely. I realized I was hanging on a little too long, and Tom and Dennis had left an opening in the back of the boat. There wasn’t an official navigator, (so) they called me.”
Isler sailed with Conner in ’82 when they won the Southern Ocean Racing Conference series on Retaliation.
“I was in awe of his abilities. He’s as good a sailor as you could hope to sail with . . . incredible intuition, good judgment and a good gambling mind, from, in an ocean race, saying, ‘We should set the chute and just reach down there and get in the Gulf Stream,’ to looking under the jib, and saying, ‘Sure, we can cross that 12-meter.’ He makes good split-second decisions.”
But what sets this campaign apart from Conner’s previous efforts is that he isn’t trying to do everything himself.
“He’s not involved with the day-to-day design teams, or what the next sail is going to be,” Isler says. “He’ll stick his nose in, but that delegation goes on the boat, too.”
Isler has a degree in meteorology from Yale.
“I’ve always been science/math-oriented,” he says. “I’ve definitely applied it to my sailing.”
As skipper of Courageous in the 12-meter worlds a year ago, he is Stars & Stripes’ only hand who sailed in Fremantle before the cup trials.
“From being down here and racing before, I had more local knowledge than anybody else on the boat . . . (knowing) when the Doctor fills in, when you’re on the right side, the sort of oscillations you get in certain wind conditions.”
After the cup, Isler will turn some of his attention to helping his wife, J.J., prepare her Olympic women’s 470 campaign. She is the current world and European champion in the class.
But Isler’s appetite has been whetted for the America’s Cup.
“I would have my eyes on a skippering position next time,” he says.
HENRY CHILDERS, 26, starboard grinder, Cranston, R.I.
This is Childers’ first--and probably last--America’s Cup. Afterward, he is on to more important matters, such as pursuing a cure for cancer.
Very few brain surgeons, nuclear physicists or, in Childers’ case, microbiologists are found at the winches of a 12-meter, but Childers grew up in America’s Cup territory with sailing in his blood. He also grew up big and strong.
When tactician Tom Whidden called “and asked me if I was interested,” Childers says, “I was doing research at New England Medical Center in molecular biology. Tufts med school. I was also doing research and taking post-graduate courses at Harvard.”
At the time he was trying to decide to follow medical practice or research.
“With the time I had applied to med school and doubting whether I wanted to go or not, it was a good time to get away without thinking about it. I think what I want to do is get a Ph.D in molecular biology, (which is) another two years.”
The field is categorized, Childers says, as “sub-cellular science.”
“There’s a lot of things you can do with it, but it’s microscopic. You never see what you’re doing. Most everything that they’re doing now is something dealing with cancer.
“What I was doing was something called self-retranscription of RNA. We make our own RNA and DNA and take fragments and insert it into bacteria and have them grow it up. We make strands ourselves and can in turn go through something called in-situ hybridization.”
Pause. Are you putting us on, Henry? You’re really a grinder?
“It’s a pretty bad rap we have,” Childers says. “ ‘You guys aren’t supposed to think.’ ‘I’m sorry, my mistake.’ ”
Actually, Childers says, grinders need brains, too.
“Grinding on a 12-meter is different than grinding on any other boat because you do so many things. You’re responsible for sails going up, sails coming down. If you run into problems . . . we blew the spinnaker on the third race and the jib blew out. We were among the first guys up there.
“On another boat you just hold onto the handles and let go when the race is over. That takes everything good out of it. You have to think. You have to react. You have to know a lot about sailing. The stronger and taller you are is gravy. For this job, you’ve gotta be strong, but you can’t just be strong.”
But after this, can sailing ever seem as important?
“I think my time’s probably gonna be occupied doing the real-life things,” Childers says. “This is the best one. This is the one we take back. Everything after would be good, but maybe a little secondary.”