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who is the greatest?

The America’s Cup 36 recently over and the opinions varied with just who was the better skipper, talk of the faster boat always wins and what if Burling and Spithill swapped boats it got me to thinking, just who is the best or greatest America’s Cup skipper of all time, not just AC36. 

How would you measure “The Greatest”. Total race wins – and do you make that gross or nett? Then you have the problem that not all matches were the first to the same number of wins. 3, 3, 5,7 or 9 have all been the number of race victories required to lift the Auld Mug at the end of the day. SO it has to be the number of America’s Cup Match wins? Again gross or nett? 

History will always remember the ultimate victors and in the America’s Cup there is only a handful of skippers who have risen to the dizzy heights of 3 America’s Cup.

So who are the contenders?

First of all was Charlie Barr, and he certainly set the bar (sorry) high for those following him.

His first involvement in The Cup was sailing with his brother on Thistle, the Royal Clyde Challenger in 1887. Obviously unsuccessfully but Charlie Barr stayed on in the USA, became known as a skipper of note and importantly a naturalised American citizen.

He defended the Cup in 1899,1901 &1903, notably in 1901 for the second time on the same boat, one of the rare occasions a yacht has defended the cup twice.

Following on from Captain Barr was perhaps the last of the owner drivers in Harold Vanderbuilt, latest it that family’s line of AC defender’s owners. He spent a considerable amount of his or his families money in defending the Cup in 1930 )Enterprise); 1934 (Rainbow); and 1937 (Ranger). He also gave us the “Vanderbuilt Start” and the “Vanderbuilt Rules” which were not a  million miles from what we race with today.

Then along came the war and various challengers and defenders until in 1977 Ten Turner defended the Cup with a certain Dennis Conner beside him. Conner went on to win the Cup in 1980 only to lose it in 1983 to Australia 2. Not being one to give up easily we chased the Cup down to its new home in Perth, Western Australia and promptly won it back in 1987.

He won the Cup for the third time in the infamous Deed of Gift match against New Zealand’s Big boat, turning up in a catamaran with his rather ungracious comment at the end of the day “I bought a cat to the fight but you brought a dog.” Perhaps the clearest example of the faster boat winning but perhaps not the best example of sportsmanship the Cup has ever seen.

That leaves just one final 3 times winner as skipper – enter Russell Coutts, now Sir Russell.

Ask any Kiwi what they think of Russell and you will get one of two diametrically opposed views. Either he was the hero that brought the Cup to New Zealand or the guy who sold out to Alinghi a few cycles later. I am not a Kiwi so have no opinion one way or the other.

He first won as skipper under the leadership of Sir Peter Blake skippering Black Magic in the famous ‘Red Socks’ campaign of 1995. He defended for Team New Zealand in 2000 before moving to Swiss team Alinghi to win in 2003.

Some would count Oracle’s victories, where Coutts served as CEO, in 2010 & 2013 as part of his tally but he wasn’t on the boat so he joins the other three on three America’s Cup wins as skipper.

So, just who is the greatest? Well, I have to admit to a little bot of bias (perhaps). When I was getting not sailing, my dad who was born in Greenock on the Clyde took great delight to tell me about Captain Charlie Barr born in the neighbouring town of Gourock which partially ignited my interest in the America’s Cup at that early age.

However one can add to that judgement the fact that on practically everyone’s lips is the maxim “The Fastest Boat will Always Win the America’s Cup. Really?

In 1903, Barr was skipper of Columbia for the second time up against a newer faster boat in the defender trials yet his skill and ules knowledge meant the older slower boat prevailed providing one of the oldest disproves of that expression.

That for me tips the balance, the better skipper beat the better boat. Bedsides he was the one that set the benchmark and until Jimmy Spithill came along was the only non American born skipper to defend the Cup for America.

Undefeated and for good measure then took the schooner Atlantic across the Atlantic Ocean setting a record time for the crossing that (for monohulls) stood for over 90 years.

Others may disagree. Would love to hear your reckoning, so jump in the thread, brought to you by Southern Spars.

-SS