Article

 March 18, 2016   Joe Cline

Tucker-Portrait

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of 48° North.

Tucker Thompson is one of the more recognizable people in the world of sailboat racing, having been in front of the camera covering sailing events, including the America’s Cup, for the better part of two decades. In his new capacity as the Official Public Host of the 35th America’s Cup, he’s traveling around to share his experience and his excitement. One of his stops is right here in the Pacific Northwest. He’ll be presenting at the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend this weekend, on March 19th at 6:15 pm.  Here at 48° North, we believe this is a fun and unique opportunity to get some insider info on the America’s Cup (AC) past and present from a former AC sailor.

48°N: You will be giving a presentation in Port Townsend, which is the traditional maritime epicenter on the West Coast.

Tucker Thompson: Yeah! I’m looking forward to it. Port Townsend sounds fantastic. One of my primary goals of these America’s Cup (AC) presentations is to reconnect people with the history and the heritage of the America’s Cup. After all, that is what the event is all about. And, as you know, it started with a wooden boat back in 1851. So, being able to celebrate my passion for that history in Port Townsend, an area that’s already well known for its maritime history – it’s a great combination.

Would you tell us about what you’re presenting and why?

I am the Official Public Host of the 35th America’s Cup. So, I represent the America’s Cup in many different forms of live distribution: whether that’s press conferences, major public ceremonies in and around the various America’s Cup World Series events, television coverage, and, in this case, what’s known as the America’s Cup Yacht Club Tour. I’ll be traveling to over 75 yacht clubs and sailing organizations around the country in the next year and a half doing presentations about the America’s Cup – everything from celebrating its history and heritage, through its evolution, to what we saw in San Francisco with the AC 72, the first time we had wing-sailed foiling catamarans and the dramatic comeback of Oracle Team USA, then a look forward to what the 35th America’s Cup is going to be like in Bermuda in 2017. All of this is made possible by the America’s Cup sponsors, which include Bermuda Tourism Authority, Bremont Watches, and BMW.

You’re still doing some other regatta coverage as well, right? Were you down in Key West for Race Week?

I wasn’t personally down in Key West, but my production company, T2P.tv, was. I still work with T2P on a per-event basis, hosting coverage of major sailing regattas.

I’d love to know more about your story. You’re best known as a commentator, but what is your sailing background?

Sailing has always been my primary focus and passion. I started sailing in the small town of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. I started sailing Sunfish and was bitten by the bug very early on. At an early age, I realized sailing was going to be my life. I chose my high school based on sailing, a boarding school in Newport, RI. I went to college at St. Mary’s College of Maryland because they had a top college sailing program. Afterwards, I got into the professional match racing circuit with Andy Green, who I’ve also done a lot of America’s Cup television coverage with. Andy and I sailed on the professional match racing circuit for three or four years, and I ended up getting involved with an America’s Cup team in New Zealand in 2000. The team was America True, which was based out of San Francisco.

You were involved as a crew? What were you doing on the boat?

Well, the joke was, and still is, that everybody on the America’s Cup boats outside of the driver is a grinder. But yes, I did a handful of different things, and midbow and forward floater were the two positions that I was slotted into. Interestingly, I didn’t sail every race in the America’s Cup Trials, and when I wasn’t on the boat, I would spend time on our VIP spectator boat commentating.

That’s right, and you started T2P.tv that the same year?

After I came back, actually. I essentially started my first America’s Cup commentary as one of the crew members with America True. But when I returned from New Zealand, Bruce Nairn and I started T2Ptv. He was also a professional sailor with North Sails. We both wanted to get involved in the media side of the sport, and sponsorship fulfillment. We decided video was the best way to do that. Nobody was providing coverage of major sailing regattas on the internet, so we were the first to broadcast sailing shows online, way before YouTube was invented. Since then, we’ve done over 1,500 sailing shows together.

You certainly have a prolific catalog. Did you already have your eyes on sailing media by the time you were acting as a crew member commentator, or did someone seem to see something in you at that point?

No, it wasn’t by accident. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to get involved in the media side of the sport. A dream of mine was to do America’s Cup television. I had no background in that, and people don’t exactly hire for that position. Honestly, my goal was to become a professional sailor and race on an America’s Cup team first to have enough credibility to shift into covering the America’s Cup on television. Once I had done that, I started focusing on video coverage. Since nobody was hiring sailing announcers, we basically taught ourselves how to cover sailing, how to produce shows, and how to broadcast them. After years of doing that, I got my first America’s Cup job with Versus (television channel), as the on-the-water announcer for the live coverage of the 2007 America’s Cup in Valencia, Spain – coincidentally with Andy Green.

Tucker-on-the-mic

Looking back on your experience as an AC sailor, other than validating your resume as a commentator, was there a particular sailing highlight?

The very first day I sailed on an America’s Cup boat was one of the greatest experiences. There has never been a clear path for young sailors to get involved in the America’s Cup, which is why I spent so much time focusing on match racing and big boats, but I never knew if I was good enough until one day I got a phone call from America True and they invited me to be a crew member. It was a spectacular moment as a competitive sailor when I stepped on a Cup boat. I’d never been on one before. We went out in the Hauraki Gulf in New Zealand, and it was one of those pinch yourself experiences. Having come from sailing small match racing boats, J/22s, and Farr 40s, by the time I got on an 80’ IACC America’s Cup boat, it was everything I loved about racing sailboats on steroids – the massive scale was awe-inspiring.

You were mentioning the former lack of a pathway for young sailors to get involved in the America’s Cup. Now, the Youth America’s Cup provides a pathway, and the newest Oracle Team sailor, Cooper Dressler, came from that America’s Youth Sailing Force, a team from that program. The Youth America’s Cup is coming back again for the 35th Cup series, what are your opinions about that?

Thanks to the efforts of the America’s Cup, there is now a clear pathway for young sailors to pursue a career in professional sailing and get involved with an America’s Cup team. It’s very important to the organizers of this America’s Cup to leave a legacy well past the racing, whether it’s through the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup, which allows sailors 18-24 a chance to race on the foiling 45’ catamarans and essentially train for and get noticed by future America’s Cup teams. There’s also the Endeavor Community Sailing Program, that the America’s Cup has started in Bermuda – it is introducing thousands of young people to sailing who have never had that experience before. Regardless of whether Oracle Team USA continues to defend the America’s Cup, they will have left a legacy for the sport that will endure for many years to come.

Do you still consider Oracle the favorite coming into the next Cup?

I do consider Oracle Team USA the favorite, but only just. Look at Emerites Team New Zealand with Peter Burling at the helm. Peter Burling and his crew, Blair Tuke, have not lost a 49er regatta in 23 straight regattas. They’re currently leading the America’s Cup World Series, and New Zealand has always been a powerhouse America’s Cup team. They’re formidable. Then you have Ben Ainslie of Land Rover BAR. Ben was brought on board for the comeback in 2013, and helped Oracle Team retain the Cup. He’s also the most successful Olympic Sailor of all time, with four consecutive gold medals and a silver in five Olympic Games. In my opinion, he’s doing just about everything right from an organization and management standpoint, budget, timing, crew. He’s got all the ingredients to win the Cup. If I was Oracle Team USA, I’d be happy to have a small advantage, but I’d also be very nervous.

Thinking about that 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco, I can run you, race by race, through the emotional gamut that I was experiencing as a viewer. As someone involved in the Cup broadcast, when did you start to believe that Oracle might actually come back?

To start with, I didn’t believe that Oracle had a chance of winning, like many people. However, I wish I had put money on Oracle early on, because the odds must have been incredible and I’d be a rich man. A Kiwi Cup was sort of a foregone conclusion. I used to joke with the Kiwis when we’d bring them up on stage at the dock out show. Dean Barker would stand right next to me and I literally would say, “Hey Dean, can you wrap this thing up? My wife is hoping I can be home next week.” Now, I feel bad for joking with him like that. Obviously, we all know what happened. I think the American team always had a faster boat, they just didn’t know how to harness it. Eventually, they figured it out – whether it was foiling upwind, roll tacking the boat, or getting better with upwind and downwind speed and foiling gybes – they improved everything all the way around. There was a moment two-thirds of the way through the regatta when Dean Barker was quoted as saying that he knew they were in trouble. From that point on, you could see their mood change. The Kiwis peaked well before the America’s Cup both in terms of their boat handling and their design package. They basically froze their design and believed that they had a faster boat all the way around the track. And to be fair, they did at that time. It wasn’t any magical thing that Oracle did, they just got better and better.

Did you get a chance to sail on one of the AC 72s?

No. Unfortunately, due to the tragic loss of Andrew “Bart” Simpson, guests were no longer allowed on the boats. When Andy Green and I first showed up in San Francisco and started covering the early races, we found it a little difficult because we were talking live about a boat that we’d never been on. We were sort of guessing what was going on onboard. We did get a chance to go on the platform and have the sailors show us how everything worked. The next best thing was that early on in the Cup, we got to go out on one of the training days with one of the race committee tenders. I’ll never forget it. The driver literally left the harbor at an idle speed and then he put the throttles all the way down. The boat was doing 40+ knots and I think I shrunk about an inch, cracked a few vertebrae, and lost a few teeth because he shook the hell out of the boat. I thought something was wrong with this guy, that he’d had too many Red Bulls or was an adrenaline junky. We were going so fast it was unbelievable, until Oracle came along side and just blew past us! And, they were as stable as an aircraft carrier. That’s when I realized the speed these things were capable of!

I was on the highway going to an AC World Tour presentation and was thinking about how these boats are doing speed in excess of 50 miles an hour, so I rolled down the window and I stuck my head out the window at 50 miles an hour. This is what sailing these new America’s Cup boats is like. It’s just crazy if you think about it.

The AC 72s will not be back for the 35th Cup in Bermuda, but there is a new AC 48 design in the works. Is anybody sailing these new boats yet?

Officially they’re calling them a 50 footer. It’s actually going to be just shy of 50’. The teams are still designing them. They’re sailing in surrogate training boats, which are scaled up versions of the AC 45s used in the last Cup, modified with wider beams and taller wings, cockpits and grinding pedestals to mimic what the 50’ catamarans will be like. They’re using these AC 45 “Turbos” to test systems, foils, and concepts that will apply to the design of the future boats. The future America’s Cup class catamarans won’t be launched until early next year.

Foiling

What’s your opinion about that platform, with its smaller scale? With a more limited budget it allows more teams to play. Are you getting the sense that the boat will perform nearly as well as the 72s?

The 45’ boats that they’re sailing now are already equaling the speeds of the AC 72s. The new 50’ America’s Cup class catamarans should be able to outperform the 72s.

You cover lots of non-America’s Cup events as well, many of which I’m sure you’ve been to year after year. Would you say you have a favorite?

I have two that stand out in my mind as favorites. One is Block Island Race Week, which is a fantastic event that takes place every two years in New England. The other one is the Bitter End Yacht Club Pro-Am, if you’re familiar with it.

I’m definitely familiar. I haven’t been, but it always looks like a blast. What do you like so much about it?

I’ve been a competitor in the Bitter End Pro-Am and I’ve also covered it on the media side. I think the most spectacular thing about it is that it encompasses everything that’s great about sailing. Number one, the guests of the resort at the Bitter End get a chance to sail with and crew for the very best sailors in the sport. It is short course small boat racing, which is a lot of fun. It takes place in the North Sound off of Bitter End, which is an ideal place for sailing – small waves, plenty of breeze, tropical water.

The racing really takes a back seat to everything that the resort offers. I don’t work for the Bitter End, I’m just honestly telling you how I feel. You come off the water and there’s steel drum music playing and palm trees swaying and everybody’s drinking rum punches. The parties at night are fantastic. So, what’s not to like? If you ever have a chance to experience it, I highly recommend it. The best part, of course, is that you get to race with all these legends of our sport and it doesn’t cost any extra – it’s free.

Wow, I didn’t know it it was free. Yeah, how much would people normally pay to be on a boat with Dave Ullman?

Staying at the resort isn’t free, but what an opportunity. The years I did it, you had Russell Coutts, Paul Cayard, Kenny Read, and Dawn Riley. At the Pro-Am, I once heard one of the guests struggle to decide whether he wanted to race with Russell Coutts in the morning and Paul Cayard in the afternoon.

So, other than an occasional event spot like that, are you still involved in sailing as a sailor?

I’ve always been a passionate racing sailor. So, perhaps starting a production company covering what I love to do was a bit of a mistake. Because, as we got more successful, it effectively canceled my sailing career. Now, I end up filming some of the same regattas I used to enjoy racing in. I certainly don’t miss days drifting out on the water, or getting thrashed around in 20-30 knots of breeze and big waves and rain. But there are moments when it’s 85° and 15 knots of wind and perfect sailing conditions at an exciting event that make me think, ‘I really do wish I was still out there doing it.’ In addition to working so much, I now have two young kids and a lot of other responsibilities that come with getting older. But, as my kids grow up, I’m very excited to get them involved in sailing. I think that’s actually going to get me back involved in it as well. I look forward to that.

As a family man, when you think about the ways that you’d like to get your kids involved in sailing, does that change your perspective about promoting sailing?

I think the greatest part about our sport is the lifestyle that it offers, whether it’s the America’s Cup or a dinghy regatta at your home yacht club. Whether it’s social or athletic or competitive or lifestyle, I think sailing is the perfect all around sport. That’s why I’m excited to see my kids get involved in it. I really don’t mind if they pursue competitive sailing the way I did. I just want to foster a love for the water and see them enjoy sailing. Then we’ll see where they can take it. Regardless, I look forward to doing it with them, be it hardcore racing or just cruising around the bay.

It’s interesting how many of the top racing sailors I’ve spoken with have kids that they’re excited to go sailing with, but aren’t concerned with whether the kids race. Like you, they want their kids to discover the sport of sailing in their own way.

I think the worst thing you could do is push a kid so far that they don’t enjoy it, because then your efforts become counterproductive. I really think fostering a love for the sport and for the water is the best thing you can do. Once that’s instilled, it’s up to them to pick up the ball and run with it. Everybody knows that sailing is one of those sports where if you’re into it, you’re passionately addicted to it. I don’t think that’s something you can push upon your kids.  So not pushing them is the way to get them to love it.

Back to the America’s Cup, I count myself among the group that is disappointed that there aren’t free YouTube broadcasts of the America’s Cup this time around. Do you have an opinion about that?

It’s good and bad. I think that what Larry Ellison and the America’s Cup Event Organizers did last time in terms of distributing the coverage of the America’s Cup free to air worldwide was a fantastic gift for the sport of sailing. But, it also spoiled us, and we expected it would be the same this time around. To be fair, the America’s Cup is an extremely expensive game. This time, they’re more focused on making it a more commercially viable event. Part of that is selling television distribution rights and creating a pay-per-view app for fans to experience it. In one sense, it’s unfortunate to not be able to see all that great coverage for free, but you have to look at other major sports and realize that they don’t offer free coverage of their biggest games either. The America’s Cup is the biggest event in our sport. It’s unfortunate that we all can’t see it for free, but it’s also fair. And that’s not to say you can’t experience it live on NBC Sportsnet or on the app, which is really great, by the way – you can tap into the onboard feeds on any of the boats. It’s still available, it’s just different.

So looking ahead to the next year and a half and the lead up to the Cup in Bermuda, what are you most looking forward to?

I’m a resident of San Francisco, which is the best natural sailing amphitheater in the world, and having experienced the San Francisco Cup, it’s a different kind of excitement. Having said that, Bermuda is going to be one of the best venues that has ever hosted the Cup. It’s the ideal tropical destination and is perfect for sailing. Additionally, I’ve been involved in four Cups, and in all four of them the build-up to the Cup is relatively slow. Here in San Francisco is a great example. In the early rounds, people were confused and didn’t really know what was going on. Then, once the Cup builds momentum, people start to actually pay attention and then it’s really big for the finals. But in Bermuda, I traveled there, shortly after they announced the venue, everyone was excited about it all over the island – whether it was the cab drivers, the shop owners on Front Street, or the people selling coffee in the coffee shops.  And that’s two years out! If that’s any indication of what the Cup is going to be like in 2016, I think we’re in for quite a show.

48°N

Joe Cline is the Editor of 48° North.