California Pioneers Sailed Into Picture : Dougan and Ficker Helped Open America's Cup to the West Coast

Times Staff Writer

At first, it was simply dockside conversation, a matter of debate.

The America's Cup, the Holy Grail of the yachting world, had been in the hands of the New York Yacht Club since 1857.

More than a century later, West Coast sailors began to ask, "When do we get a turn? "

"We talked about it a lot, but finally we just decided we should prove that West Coast sailors were just as good as East Coast sailors," said Pat Dougan, former commodore of the Bahia-Corinthian Yacht Club in Newport Beach.

"And so, in 1963, I bought Columbia."

It was the move that gave West Coast sailors their birth in America's Cup history.

Seven years later, Bill Ficker, a Newport Beach architect and a former world champion in the Star Class, would become the first West Coast skipper to defend the America's Cup.

Before Dougan, no one from the West Coast had entered a boat for an America's Cup race. The New York YC had many fine yachts and many fine sailors. It wasn't looking for outside help.

But when Dougan presented a bid to enter Columbia--the 1958 Cup defender--in the 1964 trials, the New York YC sent a gracious invitation.

With that, Dougan, a furniture salesman turned plastics magnate, became known to many as the father of West Coast sailing in the America's Cup.

"Pat provided a huge breakthrough for us," said Ficker, who, after serving as tactician and co-helmsman on Columbia in the 1967 America's Cup trials, went on to skipper Intrepid to victory in 1970.

"I have a very warm regard for Pat because of that. It was a very gutsy thing to do," Ficker said.

Although Dougan's Columbia never won a chance to defend the Cup, it did finish as runner-up to Intrepid in the 1967 trials. There, Ficker, who shared the helm on Columbia with skipper Briggs Cunningham, earned a sterling reputation.

"Before 1970, I never even dreamed of sailing in an America's Cup defense," Ficker said. "But when we finished second to Intrepid in '67, I guess we surprised many, many people. That's when the New York Yacht Club realized we were for real, I suppose."

So, in 1970--10 years before Dennis Conner made his splash in the America's Cup--the New York Yacht Club chose Ficker to skipper Intrepid for its 1970 campaign.

It was party time back in Newport Harbor.

"Bill Ficker's a super-organized, super-dedicated person. Every boat he sailed was immaculately kept. Like folding sails. That's a typical Ficker deal; he invented it. Laying the sails out on the lawn, folding them up perfectly, corner to corner . . . Before that, most of us just stuffed them in a bag."

--Tom Blackaller, who skippered USA in the 1987 America's Cup trials

If Dougan was the man to give the West Coast its start, Ficker was the man who first gave West Coast sailing a name among the traditional America's Cup fraternity.

The reasons were plenty.

Said Steve Van Dyck, tactician on Intrepid: "Bill's greatest asset was that he had a very clear view of where he wanted to go and a very clear view of what he needed to get there.

"He knew exactly what kind of people he needed to support him, and he knew how to bring it all together. . . . He made a lasting impression that way."

Ficker, now 60, is a most congenial man, described by friends, business associates and employees as warm, witty and fair.

Ficker, president of a Newport Beach architectural firm, sits in his eighth-story office in front of an uncluttered desk. His goal, he said, "is to always make the job as pleasant as possible for everybody involved."

His philosophy carried over to his job as skipper. Throughout the 1970 campaign, Ficker was praised for his abilities to lead, direct and discipline, but always with a cool mind and a compliment, whenever possible.

Ficker contributed several advancements to the 12-meter class, including twin steering wheels (so that the helmsman could see more easily from both sides of the mainsail) and the first on-board computer.

But Ficker was probably best known for his organizational abilities, a much-needed skill in an America's Cup campaign.

"It's a huge managerial task," Ficker said. "The coordination of people and jobs is endless. But organization is something I've always prided myself on. It's like a hobby for me."

On Sept. 28, 1970, that hobby paid off.

"She wore brown ankle-high boots with gold buckles. Her waist was defined by a wide brown belt . . . . She sported a 'Ficker Is Quicker' button on her lapel."

--Sept. 16, 1970, news item on what Jacqueline Onassis wore dockside while watching the final series of the America's Cup.

The 'Ficker Is Quicker' buttons, Ficker said, were the idea of Ted Turner, who, in 1974, went on to defend the Cup at the helm of Courageous.

They were green and white, and around Newport, R.I., worn by most everyone--except Ficker.

"I was embarrassed about them at first," Ficker said. "In those days, none of the sailors wanted to do anything to flaunt himself."

They didn't need to. All eyes were upon the crews of Intrepid and Gretel II, the Australian challengers, as the final series began.

"It was a real heady environment for us," said Intrepid crewman Jim Titus. "When your every move is being watched by reporters, syndicate leaders and celebrities, it can get pretty (nerve-racking)."

Despite that, the Intrepid managed success.

The final race of the best-of-seven series occurred on a day with very light air--conditions that favored Gretel II.

Said Van Dyck: "By most views, Gretel II should have beaten us. But we simply outsmarted them by protecting a very small lead for a very long way. That race illustrated Bill at his best.

"After five hours, we went around the last mark with Gretel right behind us. With the light wind conditions, we couldn't make one tiny mistake. It was Bill's disciplined, calm approach that really paid off for us in the end."

And so the Cup, America's since 1851, was America's still.

But, for the first time in its 115-year history, a West Coast skipper did the defending.

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