Tom Whidden loves sailing. He’s been around the sport most of his life. He’s fascinated by the changes his sports has undergone over the last few decades.
On Monday night at Colby College, Whidden presented photos and video from the America’s Cup racing held last summer in San Francisco. The photos featured boats taking flight and sailors wearing helmets, life jackets and body armor. Sailing has become an extreme sport.
“People are going to expect speed and chills and spills,” Whidden said.
Every sport has evolved with technology, but Whidden is not a spectator admiring the advances in sailing from afar. He’s right there in the middle of the changes. A 1970 graduate of Colby College, Whidden was at his alma mater on Monday night, talking about the changes in his sport since his first America’s Cup race more than 30 years ago.
When he first fell in love with sailing, he had three goals, Whidden said. He wanted to compete in the Olympics. He wanted to make sails. And he wanted to win the America’s Cup. He reached two of those goals.
Whidden served as Dennis Conner’s tactician and helped Conner win the America’s Cup three times, in 1980, 1987 and 1988. Whidden was also quick to point out he was on an America’s Cup losing team twice, including in 1983, when an American team lost the Cup for the first time in its then 132-year history.
“We’d won for 150 straight years,” Whidden said with a laugh. “How could I screw it up?”
In 2004, Whidden was elected to the America’s Cup Hall of Fame. Whidden is also president, CEO and co-owner of North Marine Group, the company that has designed the sails of every America’s Cup winner since 1992. He knows his sport inside-out, and when he describes the changes in sailing, it’s as if he’s describing two sports that have nothing in common but the water.
Whidden showed a photo taken during the 1977 America’s Cup in Newport, R.I. The boats were 12 meters long and made of aluminum.
He showed a photo taken during the America’s Cup race in San Francisco Bay last summer. The boats were giant catamarans, almost as long as a basketball court, and they flew.
Really, they flew. One hull would be 20 feet in the air, while the other’s grasp of the water came via a thin, adjustable foil. Rules state that the boats can run on no electrical power, so that’s why you get crews dressed for a day of bobsledding, not a leisurely day on the water. There’s nothing leisurely about working on an America’s Cup boat. It takes muscle to move sails that look like airplane wings standing straight up, and the sails that move these boats are larger than the wing of a 747 jet, Whidden said.
The twin hulls of the racing catamarans are connected by netting, which crews must race across while sailing more than 40 knots (boats reach speeds of more than 45 miles per hour). Going overboard is part of racing.
“Waves are coming up (through) the netting, and they’re basically trying to knock you off,” Whidden said. “At that speed, it’s dangerous… These guys are grinding, literally, for the entire race. It’s very aerobic.”
It’s not cheap, either. Whidden said the first America’s Cup team he was on spent $2 million. The team that won back the Cup in Australia in 1987 spent $17 million, he said.
The American team that won last year in San Francisco is owned by Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle and one of the richest men on the planet. Whidden said Ellison spent $300 million.
“And he thought it was a good deal,” Whidden said.
Most of that money is spent on research and development. They spend time in wind tunnel. They have computer models of everything. Designs are tried, tested and designed again.
The sport seems to be growing in popularity, too, Whidden said. Last year’s American win was a comeback victory we all love. New Zealand led 8-1, and needed just one more victory to claim the Cup. Oracle rallied, winning eight consecutive races to take a 9-8 win.
“It’s a fairly vibrant sport right now, and I think that (win) helped a lot,” Whidden said.
When Whidden was a member of the team that won the Cup in 1987, the race was held in Fremantle, Australia, in late January and early February, late summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Back in the United States, it was the slow time of the year, sports-wise. The Super Bowl was over, and March Madness was still weeks away. The race filled the void. Many people who otherwise wouldn’t have cared about the America’s Cup were enthralled by Stars and Stripes’ win over Kookaburra III, the Australian team.
“When we came home, we realized a lot of people had been watching,” Whidden said.
The boats have changed, but Whidden’s enthusiasm for his sport is the same and as strong as ever.