Why 1995 Was the Year That Changed Sailing - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Why 1995 Was the Year That Changed Sailing

Why 1995 Was the Year That Changed Sailing

By Diane Selkirk

"Mighty Mary" pulls slightly ahead of "Young America" during the first race of the Citizen Cup final.
SourceMarilynn Young / Getty


Because 1995 saw one helluva race to get ahead.

By Diane Selkirk

With a lead of 4 minutes, 8 seconds, the yacht Mighty Mary and her female crew helmed by Dawn Riley had beaten the odds. Not only were they the first majority-women’s crew in the history of the America’s Cup, but if they could hold their lead in the final race of the qualifier, they would represent the U.S. as the cup’s defender. 

Long before this feat, Riley had dreamed of competing in sailing’s ultimate race. The now-52-year-old saw her first America’s Cup at age 13, and recalls how the “the boats were so far out I didn’t know there weren’t girls aboard.” By the time she led the race’s first all-female crew, in May 1995, aboard the Mighty Mary for Team America3, the tide had turned. “We had heard ‘girls can’t sail’ all the time. But here we were, competing against the best sailors in the world,” Riley says. 

Spectators lined the San Diego shoreline, or sat glued to their TVs, as the three U.S. defenders battled it out.

Then, less than a quarter of a mile from the finish, Dennis Conner steered rival yacht Stars & Stripes to the left, caught more wind and literally blew past the female crew to advance to the America’s Cup finals. Mighty Mary may have been out of the running, but in a race series punctuated by firsts, the pioneering women had already left their mark. 

By the mid-’90s, the oldest international sporting trophy in the world seemed to have lost its way. Rather than “a friendly competition between foreign countries,” as outlined in the 1887 Deed of Gift, yachting journalist Dana Johanssen said the race was “in danger of being sunk by controversy.” But then the race’s 29th edition restored some of the romance: There were inspirational leaders like Riley and New Zealand’s Sir Peter Blake (and dastardly villains like Conner), rock-star racing crews and bold engineering teams who created lightning-fast boats.

Spectators lined the San Diego shoreline, or sat glued to their TVs, as the three U.S. defenders battled it out. Meanwhile, seven international challenger teams, from Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Japan and France, raced one-on-one for the opportunity to challenge the defender.

Pushing the envelope, in terms of design, the yachts in 1995 were machines as intriguing as the sailors. Engineered and built in secret, they were unveiled to great fanfare and modified on the fly as the race series progressed.

Mighty Mary

The Stars & Stripes leads Mighty Mary during the final moments of the semifinals round of the challenger series.

Source Marilynn Young / Getty

But the cutting-edge designs came at a cost almost as high as their multimillion-dollar price tags: On the second upwind leg, in a challenger race between Team New Zealand and One Australia, the yacht AUS 35 suddenly slowed in 20 knot winds and 3-to-5-foot seas. Sports commentators struggled to explain what was happening in a heart-stopping moment when the yacht cracked in the middle. The crew threw off their boots and began diving overboard while the boat sank beneath them. In a little over two minutes, One Australia became the first America’s Cup team to lose a race by shipwreck.

Thanks to their backup boat, AUS 31, One Australia wasn’t out of the competition. But AUS 31 was older and slower, and would need radical changes in the days between the semifinals and finals of the challenger series to compete. A new lead keel bulb was cast in San Francisco, but delivery time was so short that it was still hot when loaded, and fire broke out on the transport vehicle. Despite One Australia’s efforts, Team New Zealand swept race after race. By the time they won the right to challenge for the America’s Cup, the team’s yacht, Black Magic, had become a household name in New Zealand.


Led by Blake, whose lucky red socks became a Kiwi fashion statement and inspiration for a team fund-raiser  that added some $100,000 to the coffers, it was Team New Zealand versus Team Dennis Conner for the America’s Cup. Though Conner had won the defender series aboard his syndicate’s own boat, Stars & Stripes, he took advantage of a hotly contested loophole and opted to sail his former opponent’s yacht, Young America, in the America’s Cup races.

The controversial move was not Conner’s first. Instead, it solidified his reputation for being ruthless. Young America, with its stunning Roy Lichtenstein mermaid artwork, had proven faster than both Mighty Mary and Stars & Stripes in the qualifying races. In a press conference, Conner said, “Anybody in touch with reality would not be looking forward to defending the cup with this boat.”

Black Magic

Team New Zealand’s Black Magic 

Source Marilynn Young / Getty

Though not unheard of, swapping boats was unusual in an America’s Cup, and Team New Zealand lodged an unsuccessful protest. A week later, Black Magic and Young America met at the starting line for the best-of-nine series.

Despite showing what race commentators called “top-class crew work,” and instigating aggressive tacking duels, Young America consistently trailed “the flying Kiwis.” By race four, Team Dennis Conner was down 3:0 and about to lose the fourth leg.

Sir Peter Blake

Black Magic crew head Sir Peter Blake drinks champagne from the America’s Cup.

Source Marilynn Young / Getty

The fifth race was Conner’s last chance to retain the cup, but sail problems dashed his dreams. Mr. America’s Cup was about to become the first man to lose the trophy twice. For the second time in 144 years, the most elusvie prize in sailing would leave the U.S. “The America’s Cup became New Zealand’s Cup,” commentators said.

Sir Peter Blake arrived home with the crew of Black Magic to victory parades. He would go on to lead Team New Zealand to a second cup victory, in 2000, later writing, “The America’s Cup is what it is because it is so difficult to win… It is not a game for the fainthearted.”

Rivals, including the all-female crew, could find solace only in having tried their best. Winning, after all, as Blake noted, was “almost impossible, almost, but not impossible. And this is why it is worth fighting for.”

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