Nine for IX: The story of America 3’s all-female America’s Cup team
Published on August 1st, 2014
by Gary Jobson
In 1995, the concept of an all-women’s team competing for the America’s Cup certainly raised eyebrows. Especially since the idea was sponsored by Bill Koch, who was coming off an America’s Cup title just three years earlier.
At the time, Koch’s decision was risky, groundbreaking and inspiring. Only a handful of women had ever sailed on any of the Cup yachts dating back to the first race in 1851. Koch clearly was on a mission to show that women could be competitive in a sport long dominated by men.
The tradition of all-male crews on sailing vessels goes back centuries. In fact, many yacht clubs began to admit women in the 1970s. In fact, the first women’s sailing medals in the Olympic Games were established in 1988.
But, as you can see in the accompanying Nine for IX film, “Uncharted Waters,” despite his good intentions, Koch made a few fatal flaws that ultimately doomed the all-female America 3. The team was good, and had the potential to win the 1995 America’s Cup. Koch deserves applause for such a bold decision.
These four costly things ultimately kept the A3 from making history.
1. Koch should have stayed with an all-female crew. Tactician J.J. Isler led the A3 through most of the America’s Cup trial races. But at a pivotal late stage in qualifying, Koch replaced Isler with David Dellenbaugh. His idea was to win crucial races with Dellenbaugh, the tactician for his own 1992 victory. But by turning the A3 from an all-women’s team into a mostly-women’s team at such a crucial point, Koch’s decision was the equivalent of changing starting quarterbacks during the final two weeks of an NFL playoff push. The switch was devastating for morale and was a PR disaster. Isler went on to have a fine career in sailing, winning a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and becoming the first woman elected to the Sailing World Hall of Fame. But all these years later, her wounds have not healed. Emotions are still raw, as evidenced by the interviews in the film.
2. There should have been women on the coaching staff. The all-male coaching staff struggled to communicate with the team, which consisted of mostly athletic women who were new to the sport. That set up an immediate gender division. The women had their locker room and the coaches had theirs, and the only time their paths crossed was when everybody met at the boat. On top of that, too often, the male coaches would come aboard the boat before the race to set up the rig and sails, then the women would board and take off. The team would have benefited from working together to set up the boat, building camaraderie and also a sense of ownership and an intimate knowledge of every part of the boat. That’s the kind of little thing that a female coach may have picked up on from a team member (or members) who may have felt more comfortable speaking with her. It certainly couldn’t have hurt to have a woman on the staff.
3. The backroom deal was a terrible idea. As seen in the film, the A3 managers negotiated a deal before the final qualifying race that allowed three teams to advance to the final. No other sport allows three teams into a championship. Imagine what that did to the team’s confidence. The A3 won the race, but, as conveyed in the film, it sure didn’t feel like a win afterward.
4. A3 team members should have spoken up. The entire A3 experiment was an incredible story and moment for female athletes. The film shows the process of recruiting and training women, and it was an inspiring thing to witness. But ultimately, many of the team members were so grateful to be included that they avoided voicing their opinions at team meetings. A female coach would have helped, for sure. But the team would have been better off if the crew had raised their voices when they had opinions. Instead, they simply took orders.
Tina Cerbone, the director of the Nine for IX short “Uncharted Waters,” talks about what inspired her to retell the story of the first all-female America’s Cup syndicate. Click here.