mike tyson

With two America’s Cup event cancelled this year and with the next challenge for teams being just when they will be allowed into New Zealand to start practicing for the main event next year – all things going to plan I started to think just who is the Greatest America’s Cup skipper of all time.

A quick Google search and I discovered that such an article had appeared in sailing scuttlebutt a couple of years ago but I was not really sure that I agreed with the writer.

It is generally accepted, as far as heavy weight boxing is concerned, that Mohammed Ali (Cassius Clay) is the Greatest of all time.

Other boxers along the way, the likes of Liston, Frazier and Holmes could also be called ‘great’ but it was Ali that stood head and shoulders above the rest. That is a statement that seldom raises a contrary opinion.

Most sports have their greats. Tennis (men) has Laver, Sampras or Federer, the ladies have Court, King and the Williams sisters. In that sport it is generally the winner of the most grand slams that is taken to be number 1 but then is that in the amateur era or Open era?

In soccer it gets all the cloudier with Pele the first genius or Beckham the greatest crosser of a ball (especially if you are English) who scored the goal Pele couldn’t quite manage, or right up to date, Ronaldo or Messi.

I suppose the first thing to decide is that just what is the equivalent of boxing’s heavyweight division?

With, for example Jim Ratcliffe’s GBP100Million support for INEOS being able to purchase an entire Volvo Ocean Race fleet, meet the costs of a top country’s Olympic sailing campaign over say, 5 or6 Olympics or fund SailGP for two whole seasons then I suppose the America’s Cup with a history significantly longer than the modern Olympic Games has to be considered up there ahead of the rest. In fact with a history approaching  170 years which makes it, as we all know, the oldest trophy in international sport it would be hard to argue against it.

Sure the Whitbread/Volvo has the names like Carlin, Connie and Blake to call on and the Olympics Elvstrom, Scheidt and of course Ainslie but nothing seems to have captured the non-sailors imagination down through the years like the Auld Mug.

I suppose that would be the first argument to settle but a hard choice to bet against. No other event in our sport has produced the national fervour or interest, the ticker tape parades for the winners, even a ‘Loving Cup’ for one of sport’s (and not just our sport’s) most gracious losers, Sir Thomas Lipton.

Down the years there have been many fine skippers, most recently perhaps Jimmy (Pitbull) Spithill.

His amazing two penalties against Chris Dickson & Oracle (yes he used to race AGAINST them) in AC32 then the return from the dead from 8-1 down to a 9-8 victory. Russell Coutts who, I think has won the most AC races and across three different teams. Big Bad Dennis – Dennis Conner, Mr America’s Cup who lost it in 1983 and then took it back in 1987.If there is anyone who epitomises getting back up when knocked down that surely is it. Before Dennis, and the first of the post war greats, there was Bus Mosbacher famous for chasing opponents away from the start line.

Then of course there was Charlie Barr, the first of the greats who defended the cup three times at the turn of the 20th Century. 

I am sure there are others who could also be called great with no doubt more than a modicum of national bias influencing the decision.

It could be a fascinating discussion responsible for the downing of many pints, G&Ts or drams along the way – or at the moment over some shared (virtually) cocktails. 

For my part I think Charles Barr, or Charlie as he was/is better known, although often missed, laid the foundation for the professional skipper who aggressively used the rules to his advantage.

In fact had the chain of challenges by the likes of Dunraven, Lipton and Sopwith not been maintained in the early years with thousands attending boat launches, then more thousands in spectator fleets that would rival a modern Sydney Hobart or Volvo start then “The Cup” would not have arrived after the end of the Second World War with it’s close to 100 year history and would lack much of its modern day mystique. 

Charlie Barr was brought up in Gourock within sight of where my own father was to later serve his marine engineer apprenticeship and he started life in the same profession of one who would become one of his great adversaries. He was actually an apprentice grocer in his early years, although unlike Sir Thomas Lipton he soon gave it up for other things.

His first involvement with the America’s Cup was as mate to his brother John on ‘Thistle’ the Royal Clyde Yacht Club’s challenger which was soundly beaten in their 1887. (One hundred years exactly before Connor’s hand was on the USA’s regaining of the cup from Australia)

Charlie returned to America when Thistle was sold to Kaiser Whilhelm11 and worked as a professional skipper. He eventually became a naturalised American in a time when all the crew were from the challenging or defending nation proved that America wasn’t quite so much against immigration then as it appears to be now.

In fact, that nationality requirement continued until the ‘guns for hire’ era of this century, a trend that Emirates Team New Zealand has attempted to reverse with the AC36 Protocol.

As a helmsman and skipper of note known particularly for his single minded and meticulous preparation and knowledge of the finer points of the racing rules, he would often drive his opponent away from the start line in much the same way modern match racers often attempt to do to this day.

Not just on the start line either as Heckstall Smith, a friend of Sir Thomas Lipton, remarked on how he maintained his concentration even when well in the lead, Bus Mosbacher did the same in the ‘50’s but as even Dennis Conner has been known to point out this was a technique originally perfected by Barr. The retired fishermen, primarily of Brightlingsea, Essex who made up most of various Shamrock’s crews also often talked about Charlie Barr.

He defended The Cup with Columbia in 1899 and unusually with the same boat in 1901 going on to keep The Cup securely in the New York Yacht Club’s 44th Street premises for a third time. 

Columbia therefore became the first boat to defend the America’s Cup twice. There was a wait of 69 years before the feat was replicated with Intrepid defending for the second time in 1970. Then in 1974 & 1977 Courageous also became a double defender. That came about because having defended once Columbia was selected as the trial horse next time round but under Barr’s leadership, still managed to beat the newer ‘next generation’ boat as was therefore selected to defend again.

And he wasn’t just a short course skipper. He went onto skipper the schooner Atlantic in the Kaiser Cup setting a west-east record that took 75 years and a trimaran to beat and just two years short of a century for a monohull (Nicorette) to surpass. 

Yes, perhaps I am a little biased being a Scot myself (don’t let the screen name fool you) and over the years read so many articles, books and so on about The Cup that I can’t remember when or their  titles, One I would mention though is “An Absorbing Interest”, the undisputed encyclopaedia of the America’s Cup written by Bob Fisher, himself a Brightlingsea man and a good friend.

So three, three times winners in Coutts, Conner and Barr.

But wait, there is a forth three time winner who is often overlooked, certainly by the author of the sailing scuttlebutt article, and the only one who wasn’t just a great skipper, he was the only owner driver on the list.

Harold Sterling Vanderbilt was born into money, old railroad tycoon money, but he was no dumb rich kid. Yachting was his passion and he also defended the Auld Mug for the USA three times with Enterprise in 1930, Rainbow in 1934 and finally with Ranger in 1937.

He was also an accomplished bridge player with a number of books on the game to his name. 

However apart from keeping the Auld Mug bolted down in the New York Yacht Club over three challenges his greatest contribution to modern yacht racing were “The Vanderbilt Rules”.

I wonder how many club racers realise that up until 1960 there were no universal “Racing Rules of Sailing” as we now know them. In 1935 along with three friends he was instrumental in developing a set of rules which after a number of re-writes was eventually adopted by the then International Yacht Racing Union (IYRU).

I have a copy of his 1944 version and it is remarkable how similar to what we race with today although the pamphlet runs to only 12 pages and 18 rules compared to the just over 90 rules we have today. 

So national bias aside I have to say that taking into account the fact he wasn’t a professional yachtsman (although he ran a professional campaign – times three) I think he shades it from the others who had the relative luxury of being able to just focus on the event itself. 

Disagree with what I think? Jump in the thread! Almost as many candidates as the Democrats this time round.

– Shanghai Sailor