Steering the America’s Cup Legend, Intrepid

It’s not every day you take the wheel to race a classic 12-Meter sailboat and support the New York Harbor School at the same time.

24th November 2013.
By John Burnham

I surveyed Intrepid’s stocky build, her snub-nose bow and flat, green non-skid deck, the coffee grinders, the array of winches. No question, she was a purpose-built sailing machine, circa 1967. And today, during a fundraising regatta for the maritime-focused New York Harbor School, I would have my chance to steer this legendary two-time America’s Cup defender. I looked at the big double-wheel that controlled both trim tab and rudder and wondered if I would be up to the task.

John Burnham steers Intrepid

Boats.com editorial director John Burnham, at the helm of Intrepid, prefers this view of the competition to those at the end of the race. Photo by Mary Burnham

Intrepid, 12 Meter design by Sparkman & Stephens

More than 40 years after defending the America’s Cup twice, Intrepid has a business-like look.

The truth is I couldn’t do much worse than the previous year. I’d only acquired the helmsman’s job because I was fired as navigator after last year’s race when our boat missed a mark of the course and our Fishers Island Yacht Club team, led by my cousin, Brad, had to give up a place on the podium after crossing the finish line first. Obviously blood runs thicker than water in New York Harbor or Brad just believes in second chances, so he moved Charlie, his brother-in-law, to navigator and put me on the helm where I could do less harm. Charlie arrived this year with a navigation app that had every mark in the harbor plugged in. What could go wrong?

The answer on New York Harbor, on the best of days, is plenty. Maneuvering a sailboat through the harbor’s fickle, swirling winds and 3 knot currents is an exercise 360-degree vision and continually calculating and recalculating equations of time, speed, and distance. Then there are the ferries and barges coming at you from all directions. And did I mention that a 12-Meter doesn’t spin on a dime?

Intrepid-and-One-World-Trade-Center

The crew of Intrepid departs from North Cove, its beacon the new One World Trade Center. Photo by Mary Burnham

With a heavy ebb current sweeping us south across the starting line, we focused on pre-start positioning and made a good timed run at the mid-river end of the line, forcing Weatherly to take our stern and tack slowly for the line on our quarter.

“The other tack is favored,” said Charlie. “Want to tack?”

“Yes,” I said. “Ready about!”

“You sure we can cross Weatherly?”

“Definitely,” I said, although not 100 percent certain. We’d been sailing less than 15 minutes and hadn’t accomplished a single racing tack in practice.

I turned the wheel fairly hard and Intrepid smoothly luffed through the wind and filled away on port tack. She regained speed as our team on the coffee grinders trimmed in the jib, and we crossed Weatherly easily. I decided that Intrepid was comfortable being in front of Weatherly, but I also noticed my heart rate was slightly elevated.

Sailboats and New York skyline

Sailing south from lower Manhattan, the city skyline is  an impressive backdrop, with Intrepid‘s rival 12-Meters, Weatherly (left) and American Eagle. Photo by Mary Burnham

I settled in to find the upwind steering groove for best speed while still sailing as close to the wind as possible. Steering on the leeward side seemed to be the best way to see the sails and feel the hull going through the water.

“Boat speed is 7.8,” said Mike Patterson, Intrepid‘s watchful captain. “You might be able to point a little higher.” I eased up on the wheel and let the front of the jib lighten up slightly, a move I would repeat frequently and which Intrepid seemed to enjoy once up to speed.

I looked to windward and behind and saw that the third 12, American Eagle, was gaining. “They might have more current there,” said Charlie. We were getting closer to the Jersey shore now, and we agreed to tack to get into the deeper, faster-running water.

12-Meter Intrepid leading 12-Meter American Eagle

American Eagle sails close behind Intrepid on the opposite tack. Photo by Mary Burnham

Time for a second adrenalin moment… We held the right of way and Eagle couldn’t cross in front of us. I watched that big red bow turn down and take aim at me. In this situation, inquiring minds always want to know if the opposing helmsman will judge the distance correctly and his bow will slide past our stern without contact…or if the bow will slam into our cockpit, crush the steering wheel and probably me, and collapse our mast into a pile of aluminum, Dacron, and rod rigging in the process. Fortunately, with former Cup sailor Dawn Riley at the helm, Eagle missed our stern by a comfortable 15 or 20 feet. Unfortunately, when we crossed tacks next, the encounter wasn’t so close and Eagle passed a boat length in front.

Back in the ’67, Intrepid had spanked the likes of Eagle and Weatherly, which were early ’60s designs, so I have to admit that a shadow of a doubt crossed my mind. Was I steering that badly? Were we picking the wrong places to tack? Could we overhaul them again? Only time would tell.

Statue-of-Liberty sailing

Sailing past the Statue of Liberty, Weatherly leads Intrepid on the last leg to the finish. Grinding the mainsheet is the  author’s cousin, Brad Burnham, chair of the New York Harbor School Foundation. Photo by Mary Burnham

We followed them to the first mark, just past the Statue of Liberty, and looked for an opportunity. Miraculously, they opened the door for us by tacking a little late for the mark.

“Ready about!” I said, adrenalin flowing again. We tacked inside them and, aided by the strong current, rounded a length ahead and jibed towards New Jersey to find current relief.

Too bad the race didn’t end at Ellis Island, where our two boats plowed through the Harbor Regatta’s J/24 fleet. We not only exercised our starboard tack right of way, but we had the most important rule of New York Harbor on our side – the “gross tonnage rule” (aka “stay out of our way or we’ll sink you.”) With that, we won plenty of respect from the J/24 sailors.

J24-12-meter

J/24 sailors in the Harbor School Regatta get a close-up view of the 12-Meter American Eagle when their racecourses overlap. Photo by Mary Burnham

In point of fact, they loved seeing our 65-foot classics up close, or so they said later at the party, and we carried on by their racecourse toward the start mark, which we were to round before beginning a second lap. Gradually we earned a comfortable lead over American Eagle, but then we noticed Weatherly sneaking along closer to the New Jersey piers to stay out of the current. Should we jibe over to stay in front of them and risk losing Eagle, or carry on with our shorter course against the stronger current? Charlie and I agreed to carry on…and next year Brad may decide to fire both of us.

For now, I’ll revel in the fact that I had a chance to steer the boat that Cup defenders Bus Mosbacher and Bill Ficker sailed to glory in 1967 and 1970. Yes, we finished second, and in the short time aboard, I know I only experienced some of Intrepid‘s good manners. But to drive the last wooden hull to win the America’s Cup is not an experience I’ll forget.

Intrepid-crew

What a ride! The silver-medal crew of Intrepid.

Wood-12-Meter-Intrepid

There’s nothing fancy about the interior of Intrepid, except the beauty of her wood construction.

I also had the privilege later that afternoon of touring part of the institution that was the beneficiary of the day’s fun and fundraising on the water; the New York Harbor School on Governor’s Island, just off the Battery at the south end of Manhattan. We took a short boat ride over and visited the New York City high school’s newest building, which is on the waterfront and has recently begun hosting, among others, a project to seed the harbor with a billion oysters. Although harvesting oysters as food in a relatively polluted harbor such as New York’s is not likely to happen any time soon, oysters are filter feeders, and a concentration of them could significantly improve water quality. Putting nature to work, with energy supplied by a diverse group of the city high school students, seems like an excellent plan.

Students at New York Harbor School

Cousins Brad and John Burnham (right) learn about scuba diving in New York Harbor from a senior at the public high school on Governors Island. Photo courtesy Sam Levitan.

During the tour, I met a senior who had learned to Scuba dive in the murky harbor to assist with the creation of artificial oyster reefs, and a couple of sophomores who are still in training. And I had a tour of the Vessel Ops center, where another senior described how her love for the water led her to this school, and her excitement at the new simulator that was about to be installed. Candace showed me vessel safety videos and described her college aspirations, which include Kings Point and SUNY Maritime as possibilities; but then she admitted that she had so many other interests, she had yet to make up her mind where to apply.

I like Candace’s kind of problem, which describes to me someone ready to fully engage with her future, whether on the water or off. Have you noticed how gaining mastery on the water has that kind of effect on people?

New York Harbor School Training Vessels

Students delivered a few sailors to Governors Island for post-race festivities in one of the New York Harbor School’s training vessels. Photo by Mary Burrnham

One thing being on and around the water has taught me is that second place aboard Intrepid on the racecourse isn’t so terribly different from first. Our entire crew of 12 enjoyed the challenges of learning to work the boat together. But that doesn’t mean we have to be satisfied with second; next year, whatever my role, I’ll pay more attention to the phase of the moon and if it’s nearly full again, I’ll remember that the current will be a dominant factor in the final result.

NY Harbor Regatta Awards and Party

Under the lights on the Governors Island beach and some imported, lighted palm trees, the regatta awards were dispensed between reggae sets.


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About the author:

John Burnham

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John Burnham, Editorial Director, lives in Middletown, Rhode Island, on the East Coast of the United States and would rather be sailing, or afloat on any boat, whenever possible.
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