Sport: One Small Tack for Womankind

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Outside magazine, June 1994

Sport: One Small Tack for Womankind

At last, a women-only America’s Cup team. But can it survive Bill Koch?
By Dan Dickison

Don’t like to be a pawn in anybody’s game,” says Betsy Alison, an American sailor who’s vying for a spot on the recently announced all-women America’s Cup crew. “If I thought it wasn’t an honest-to-goodness, fullon program to win the America’s Cup, then I wouldn’t be involved.”

If the four-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year sounds touchy, it’s because the project–the brainchild of billionaire oilman and defending America’s Cup champion Bill Koch–is drawing some not-so-friendly fire from rivals in the tightly knit inner circle of competitive yachting. The first all-women team in the 143-year history of the America’s Cup is a good idea, most say. But
as long as Koch is behind it, isn’t it just a circus waiting to happen?

“The key is to avoid another Bobby-Riggs-versus-Billy-Jean-King sort of spectacle,” says Gary Jobson, ESPN’s chief sailing commentator, who was slated to co-skipper Koch’s America3 in 1992 but resigned before that year’s contest began, citing personal differences with Koch. “I hope his intent is for this to be a serious

Koch–who earned a reputation as a spendthrift by spending $68 million on the 1992 contest, more than three times the amount laid out by the other American syndicate–admits he has some business-related reasons for promoting an all-women team instead of sailing himself: “I’d rather someone else put up the money.” So last year, he performed extensive market research. One of the
things he learned was that a women’s team would have little problem finding corporate sponsors to pay for a $20 million defense bid. At press time, a spokesman said the syndicate had raised 75 percent of the budget.

Whatever Koch’s motivations, the women’s team represents a historic achievement. Adding to the prestige, the project has drawn some of America’s finest sailors, including JJ Isler and Allison Jolly, both Olympic yachting medalists, and Dawn Riley, skipper of Heineken, an all-women entry in this year’s Whitbread ‘Round the World Race. Certainly the
22 women who make the cut won’t be coveting a rival’s boat: Koch’s 75-foot America3, built for the 1992 race, is considered the fastest America’s Cup Class boat in the world.

Tryouts, which began in April in San Diego, will finish up this month. And already the media hype has begun: A handful of team hopefuls recently filmed a spot for MTV Sports in which the women lend sailing advice to Dan Cortese, the show’s hip emcee. One vexing problem, though, has been finding world-class “grinders,” the traditionally beefy sailors who raise, lower, and trim
the 150-pound sails. (In 1992 Koch hired Big Ten college football players to do the job.) Last March Koch set up a toll-free phone number to take applications from potential grinders. Among the 600 inquirers were rowers, a shot putter, a discus thrower, and Siren, a cast member of the television game show American Gladiators.

Strength, of course, is a card that will be played often in discussions about next year’s Cup. Will the women have enough to win? “My guess,” says Jobson, “is that they’ll be very competitive in steering and tactics. But without the strength, they stand to lose a few seconds on every tack.”

Koch disagrees. His technicians, he says, have run through hundreds of calculations to determine how much muscle is needed on board. Big Ten hunks, he says, aren’t required.

“If I can win the America’s Cup as a middle-aged guy who’d only been sailing eight years,” said Koch, “then these women certainly can. I’ve got the fastest boat in the world.”

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