Sitting down with Tom Whidden
Published on July 1st, 2022
In this edition of Shirley Robertson’s Sailing Podcast, the double Olympic gold medalist Robertson sits down with America’s Cup Hall of Famer Tom Whidden who recounts one of the most important eras in competitive sailing.
After a childhood spent learning to sail on the East Coast of the United States, a teenage Tom Whidden made two bold declarations. He would become a sail maker, and he would compete in the America’s Cup.
Decades later he’s still a pivotal figure at sailing industry powerhouse North Sails, and he’s raced an incredible eight America’s Cup campaigns, having won the illusive trophy three times.
But in this fascinating chat with Robertson, it’s Whidden’s memories of the historic 1983 loss to Alan Bond’s Australia II that are the most revealing.
Whidden partnered up with Cup legend Dennis Connor for the 1980 Freedom Syndicate campaign, and was tactician for the 1983 Defense, but it was a Defense that would finally see the end to the New York Yacht Club’s one hundred and thirty two year winning streak. Unsurprisingly, Whidden’s memory of each and every race is near flawless, as he talks Robertson through the historic loss….:
“I’m looking back and I’m going, they’re about to tack, and the bow comes up, comes up, comes up and I go ‘they’re actually not tacking’ and they get this big humongous left shift and they go up, and slowly but surely they sail away. They beat us by two minutes in that race. So now it’s the race of the century.”
The ‘race of the century’ was of course that deciding match of the 1983 Cup, a match that Whidden and his team onboard Liberty famously lost. It was the end of an era, Alan Bond’s Australia II finally pried the Cup out of the one hundred and thirty two year grip of the New York Yacht Club. But despite the implications of the famous defeat, as Whidden reveals, somehow there was still room for humor…:
“We had a little dock house where the telephone was, and I walked down the dock and the phone was ringing and I pick up the phone.
“Dennis is still on the boat at that point…and the voice on the other end says, ‘It’s the President, they would like to talk to Dennis,’ and I say ‘Yeah yeah yeah,’ and they say, ‘No, it’s really the President, it’s President Reagan.’ So I get on the loudspeaker and I said, ‘Dennis Connor, Dennis Connor, you have a phone call, it’s the President and he wants to tell you you screwed up!’
Whidden’s lighthearted and amicable style is wonderful to listen to, as he discusses his sailing career with a transfixed Robertson. There are Dennis Connor stories aplenty, including his much talked about ‘plastic boat’ quote of the 1987 Challenger Series campaign, but of course there’s far more to Whidden than his America’s Cup campaigns.
For decades now he’s been at the forefront of one of the industry’s leading corporate entities as the driving force of new technologies at North Sails, where he currently sits as Executive Chairman.
Whidden discusses the growth of the company, the adoption of the revolutionary new production techniques 3DL and 3Di, and the future of the company as they continue to develop sailing technologies.
The pair round their discussion off back at the modern day America’s Cup, and Whidden’s position within the New York Yacht Club, as he discusses his thoughts on the new AC75s, and American Magic’s position representing the Club as the Cup heads to Barcelona.
Shirley Robertson OBE made history by becoming the first British woman to win Olympic Gold Medals at two consecutive Olympic Games. Shirley Robertson’s Sailing Podcast, produced and edited by Tim Butt of Vertigo Films, is available to listen on her website or via most popular podcast outlets, including iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcast, and aCast.