Can Sailing Be the Next F1?

The short answer is yes, but racing legend Terry Hutchinson says that sailors are risking their lives.

Terry Hutchinson is a sailing legend. The 46-year-old America’s Cup vet has been at the tiller since he was a kid and on the circuit since he was 13. But the former helmsman turned Executive Vice President at Quantum Sail Design Group is currently landlocked. He will not compete for Oracle Team USA in 2017 or for his previous team, Artemis Racing, which represents Sweden. The reason is simple: Hutchinson doesn’t think the boats are safe. He said as much during the last Cup campaign and lost his job over it.

The next-generation boats Larry Ellison introduced to last year’s competition, which use rigid wing mainsails and foil keel that allows the boat to stay above the water, are – to dispense with the nautical terminology – fast as hell. USA 17, which won the America’s Cup, can sail at two and a half times wind speed and easily hit 40 mph. That’s good news for anyone who likes to watch boats, but worrisome to the men who make a living racing them. These sailboats don’t sink; they crash. Though racing is more exciting for the technological changes (America’s come-from-behind win in San Francisco was nothing if not engaging) but Hutchinson isn’t sure the sport is better off for appealing to a broader crowd. He’s not tech-averse by any means, but he’s a captain: He worries about sailors. He worries about sailors not coming home.

Hutchinson talked to MAXIM about the future of sailing and the America’s Cup.

Just for context, how long have you been sailing?

I am 46 years old. I started sailing when I was three.

Kind of a while.

I’m the youngest of three kids and my parents would cruise during the summer on the Chesapeake Bay. Because I was the youngest – and probably the most annoying – they would stick me in the back of our little family dingy with the sail up and when would sit at anchor I would just sail back and forth with a long line tied to the bow of the boat. When the line got tight the boat turned and I would go the other way. I was a water baby.

When did you start taking it seriously?

Probably three and a half…. [Laughs] It just came naturally. By the time I was 13, I knew that I enjoyed the competition side. By the time I was 16, I was being recruited by colleges to come join their sailing teams.

So you had that going on.

Yeah. From there, I went off to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where I was a four-time collegiate all-American and I was twice college sailor of the year, which is basically the college sailing equivalent of the Heisman trophy.

How did you get involved in America’s Cup?

My mentor was Gary Jobson, who won the Americas Cup in 1977 for Ted Turner. He’s always helped me along. During my youth, the America’s Cup had a much bigger presence in the United States than, say, the Olympic Games for sailing. So it was always the goal. In 1998, I had the opportunity to meet the powers that be at America One, which was a syndicate out of San Francisco. I joined the team before the 2000 America’s Cup, where I was the mainsail trimmer and from there it just sort of rolled. In 2003, I was with Dennis Conner in Stars and Stripes and then, in 2007, I was one of two Americans that worked for team New Zealand. In 2011, I became the Helmsman and skipper of Artemis racing.

You were supposed to compete on that, which was representing Sweden at the America’s Cup. Then you were terminated. What happened?

I had a massive falling out with the owner of the team and the CEO about the safety of our yacht so they decided to terminate me. Ten weeks after my argument with the owner about the safety of the Artemis boat, the boat capsized in the San Francisco bay and one of the sailors was killed. It was a known thing that the boat was not safe. It was a tragedy. The guy that was killed was a good person and a father.

So you’re not exactly an advocate for the new style of foil-assisted sailing that was showcased during this last Cup and will, according to rules released earlier this summer, be the centerpiece of the 2017 competition. Do you think it’s getting safer?

Basically what they’ve done is reduce the size of the wings and the size of the boats, but they’ve allowed some more foiling control options for a higher performance. They’re going to be on-edge for sure because they’re smaller; there’s less drag to the wind. Think about a car when you’re driving down the road at 60 mph and you stick your hand out the window, in essence, that will slow the car down. If you have a smaller car that’s capable of the same type of speed, but doesn’t have the arm sticking out the window, that car is inherently going to go faster. The boats will go faster, and they’ll be more dangerous and on-edge.

My personal opinion is that people leading the event aren’t applying any logic or reason. They’re just trying to make something that is perceived to be cool and have zero forethought into the actual consequences of what they’re proposing.

When you were taking part in the races, were people trying to discourage you from participating because of the possible danger?

Yeah, but it’sa fascinating game. The 2007 America’s Cup was about as equal of a sailing competition as you can possibly have. And you know, we on team New Zealand lost 5-2 to Alinghi and they had a better boat. The 2013 America’s Cup was a lopsided event until Oracle got their act together and it wasn’t the sailors who got their act together, it was the designers and the people behind the scenes that figured out a couple things to do. They changed the element of drag to their boat and all of a sudden the boat was faster. They changed the balance of the wing and they were able to get more performance out of their boat sailing into the wind. In essence, there was nothing team New Zealand could do to stop them.

Australia has already announced it won’t participate in 2017. Why do you think they’re bowing out?

There’s a protocol – the deed of gift. It was written 165 years ago that’s governed by the New York Supreme Court, but it’s all based around this notion of a friendly competition among nations. So you go forward 160 some odd years to the current day and what you have are a couple people with unlimited money that don’t really care about the rules; they just want to try to win the thing to say that they’ve won it. Leading that is Larry Ellison. He can throw as much money at it and tilt the [game] as hard in his favor as he possibly can to win. And that’s basically what he’s done.

The fool’s side of it is you then have a team that is commercially funded – like team New Zealand – and they have to go out and sell the event; they have to sell it to sponsors and they’re government funded so they have to answer to the tax-payers of New Zealand. It’s monumentally slanted towards the defender.

You mentioned America’s Cup held a much larger significance a few years back. Do you think that sailing has the potential to reach wider recognition, similar to that of Formula 1 or NASCAR?

There’s a part of me that says it already has, then there’s a part of me that says… no. But then there’s a part of me that says the last America’s Cup was very short and succinct. It had a compelling story; it had tragedy associated with it; it had some momentum. But when the powers who control the entire event get involved and unwind all that momentum, that’s sailing’s biggest limitation. Dennis Conner stated a couple years ago: “The beauty of the America’s Cup is that you know self-interest is always in the game.” That’s it in a nutshell. 

It’s always going to be exactly that, a game among extremely wealthy people. And in saying that – I’ve been absolutely blessed to participate in it for the last 15 years because it’s just been awesome. It’s just a game. And the thing that you realize is to a couple billionaires around the world that want to play puppet-master, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

When it’s all said and done – danger factors included – do you think it’s worth it to take the boats and the competition as far as it can go?

No. But my bias is towards growing the sport of sailing. Some would say the America’s Cup in 2013 grew the sport of sailing because of the compelling story of team New Zealand being up 8-1 and then losing 9-8. It was cool – people could follow it and go, holy cow, that’s impressive. And they’re right. They’re absolutely right. But the trickle down of that event into the mainstream sport is pretty small.

The sport doesn’t grow from the top down, it grows from the bottom up. I would argue that the previous 32 versions of the America’s Cup – from 2007 before – were a much better representation of our sport. It had an athletic component; it had a team dynamic to it; it had nationalism. Those were more compelling stories. Why was the soccer World Cup so exciting? Because it was nation versus nation.

It’s interesting how people are drawn towards the crash and burn element in car racing…. It’s not showing the finer things. It’s not worth dying over.

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