Women working to cement a place in sailing's sun AMERICA'S CUP 1995

January 15, 1995|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,Sun Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- Women sailing in the America's Cup? One might think the mere thought of it would have caused Harry S. Vanderbilt, a tireless millionaire yacht racer of the 1930s, to choke on his luncheon of roast duck.

Yet even in the '30s, when T.O.M. Sopwith raced Endeavour and Endeavour II against Vanderbilt in Rainbow and Ranger, women shared the cockpit with the moguls.

Now, nearly 60 years after Phyllis Brodie Gordon Sopwith and Gertie Vanderbilt kept tactical time aboard ponderous 130-foot yachts, a full team of women is competing in the America's Cup trials -- sailing hard and fast out past Point Loma on the Pacific Ocean and into boating history.

It is a team made up of female athletes, some of whom have extensive sailing experience and some of whom did not until just over a year ago.

The 29 members of the America3 sailing team include Olympic rowers, television gladiators, weightlifters and body builders, journalists, endurance athletes and a core of world-class sailors.

Together they work to the equation that teamwork times technology times talent equals America3 (cubed), and when the formula is applied correctly, the result is a successful defense of the America's Cup.

In the women's first race of the Citizen Cup defender eliminations on Friday, they were tested by one of the best skippers in the world, Dennis Conner, the man whose boats and crews have won four America's Cups.

The women won easily, including consistently outsailing Conner's Stars & Stripes upwind.

"We were all really thrilled that we won," co-skipper Leslie Egnot said afterward. "But we all realize we have a long way to go, and we can't reflect too much on that race."

But in those upwind legs, talent, teamwork and training paid off, as Egnot and co-skipper J. J. Isler stayed cool and their crew did its job in winds under 10 knots.

"We have improved since the world [championships last fall], especially in light-air sailing, which was one of our major problem areas," said Isler, who is a world class match-racing skipper. "Judging by today, I think we may have improved 100 percent."

'We all are the best'

Diana Klybert grew up in Chicago, moved to Annapolis five years ago and has been around the buoys in dozens of international sailing races.

Aboard America3, she works the mast, one among many who alternate in the syndicate's team scheme.

"A lot of people question why we haven't picked an A-team," Klybert says. "In most sports, you pick the best and go with them.

"Our philosophy is that we all are the best and that we can be interchangeable at many positions on the boat."

America3, Nippon and Team New Zealand all are heavily emphasizing teamwork, and each of the syndicates is part of the new wave in the America's Cup.

"If you look around, we are not the only ones trying something a little different," Klybert said.

"People are noticing us because we're the first all-women's team, but there is something of a changing of the guard here."

Koch took a chance

The guard has been changing for more than a decade, but Bill Koch, the Kansas oilman who successfully defended the America's Cup in 1992 using the same cubed formula with a men's team, has been instrumental in the most significant change -- the addition to the field of an all-women's crew.

Under Koch's guidance, America3 has budgeted $20 million for its defense fund, and sponsors, particularly manufacturers of merchandise aimed at women, have been climbing aboard regularly.

Last time around, Koch spent the larger portion of $65 million of his own money to defend the Cup. This time around, the funds are coming in from eager sponsors.

"You know he was taking a chance by forming this team," said Dawn Riley, an America3 co-skipper from Detroit. "But he also took a chance last time, with none of the ballyhooed Cup experience, and won."

In the International America's Cup Class world championships held here last fall, America3's crew finished second to oneAustralia overall and captured the final race of the series.

"The overall performance of the women is proof that our philosophy and training program do work," Koch said afterward. "We never had any doubts, and I don't think anyone now doubts their abilities."

7+ But, of course, there are those who do.

Cynics persist

"It's no secret that some of the people here feel strongly we don't really belong," said Riley, who twice has raced around the world with all-women crews and sailed in the 1992 Cup trials with Koch's group.

"And there is quite a bit of give and take among the teams.

"In other sports, pro football for example, they call those exchanges camaraderie. But in our case it usually is unprintable."

Many of the names that America3 has been called -- anonymously -- are not fit for a family newspaper. Some refer to the team publicly simply as "the girls."

"But to call these athletes 'the girls' is wrong, dead wrong," said Sandra Bateman of the America3 group. "These are women, purposeful women -- whether they all know it yet or not."

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