Class of 2017: Tom Whidden
Published on September 21st, 2017
The U.S. National Sailing Hall of Fame selected eight people in 2017 to join the 57 previously-recognized individuals who have been enshrined since the first class in 2011.
Among this group to be officially inducted on September 24 is noted America’s Cup sailor Tom Whidden (Essex, Conn.), the industry giant who recently celebrated 30 years with global brand North Sails. This tribute is provided by 2011 inductee Gary Jobson:
Describing Tom’s career as “remarkable” is really an understatement. He has raced in eight America’s Cup campaigns (winning three), built North Sails into the largest sailmaking company in the world, has received countless awards, is constantly on the water serving as tactician on the most competitive yachts in the world, and is the past Commodore of the Essex Yacht Club.
Thomas A. Whidden grew up sailing out of the Cedar Point Yacht Club in southern Connecticut. His father helped him buy a Blue Jay at the age of 10. Tom reflects on his early time on the water, “I loved the ability to go out and make decisions on your own. I loved the forces around you: the water, the air, the wind and the currents.”
During the summers, while attending Colby College, he worked at the Alcort Company promoting the sale of their boats, which included the Sunfish. “I ran their regatta programs and sort of slowly eased into a selling role. After graduating (1970), I went to work for Alcort.” In 1972 he and partner Peter Conrad pinpointed Sobstad Sails as a good candidate to acquire and built Sobstad into a thriving business.
In 1979 Dennis Conner said to Whidden, “Hi I’m Dennis Conner. You are kicking my butt.” Whidden thanked him for the compliment and told Conner that he was heading to the airport to return home. Conner then said, “Good, I’ll go with you.” Said Tom, “He tells me his whole plan for the 1980 America’s Cup and invites me to be the tune-up boat skipper.”
After a year, Dennis Conner moved Tom over to the varsity crew as a trimmer. Conner and crew, aboard the latest Olin Stephens design, Freedom, easily defended the Cup in 1980. But three years later their fortunes changed when Alan Bond’s 12 Meter, Australia II, featuring a secret wing keel, looked to be a formidable threat.
It was a very controversial summer. Australia II won 4-3 in the most exciting Cup in history. The defeat was devastating for Conner, and by extension Whidden and the rest of the crew. But Conner, Whidden and a new Stars & Stripes team went to Australia and beat the Aussies to bring the Cup back to the USA.
Conner, Whidden and the rest of the crew became national heroes. They were feted at the White House by President Reagan and even received a parade down Broadway in New York City. After the Cup victory in 1987, Whidden was hired to run North Sails, and he built the company into the largest sailmaker in the world.