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Jack Sutphen: friend, mentor, sailor, storyteller

Famous partners abound in popular memory. F. Scott had Zelda, Amos had Andy. Huntley had Brinkley. It was no secret to most that in the maritime world America’s Cup champion Dennis Conner had Jack Sutphen.

Sutphen was trial horse skipper for America's Cup icon Dennis Conner.

The veteran sailor had 47 years of America’s Cup experience but never competed in an actual Cup race. He is perhaps best known as Conner’s sparring partner, the trial horse skipper who raised DC’s competitive edge and ability to a place where no sailor had gone before.

Jack Sutphen, mentor to champions and an inspiration to hundreds of young professional sailors, died peacefully March 24 at the age of 93.

Although DC could at times be socially clumsy and a bull in a china shop with the media and fans, Sutphen was always there to smooth the ruffles. On the water, it was Sutphen who quietly and respectfully pushed the Cup champion at every opportunity and every point of sail. It was Sutphen who honed the blade in preparation for battle.

“Wherever Jack went he left his mark with friendships and respect,” says Conner. “He had a big impact on the America’s Cup from 1958 through 2003 — sailmaking, sailing, coaching or just being a friend. Those who were fortunate to actually know him will never forget him. I feel especially blessed [to have known him]. He was a sailor’s sailor.”

Sutphen had been a sailmaker of some note before he caught America’s Cup fever. And he had raced everything from frostbite dinghies and Dyer Dinks to open-ocean racing yawls and Alden schooners. He was a winning sailor and tactician, a natural leader of men, and he could read wind and its effect on canvas better than most anyone alive.

The two men met when Sutphen was kicked off the Courageous campaign in 1974 to make way for a young hired gun named Dennis Conner. Sutphen was tactician under Bob Bavier and doing a fine job, but someone had to go. He would later admit it was the worst year of his life.

To Sutphen’s surprise, he got a call from Conner in 1980. DC asked him, as Sutphen was fond of saying, “What are you doing for the rest of your life?” Sutphen became trial horse skipper on Freedom and then Liberty, then all of the Stars & Stripes boats.

Conner’s strategy of using the trial horse boat took sailing into a new era. Baron Bich had utilized trial boats, but never like Conner did. DC created the best boats and crew to challenge him, and then he picked from his team to create the best of the best.

Being a great sailor himself, Sutphen had no problem giving Conner what for on the racecourse. And at 22 years senior to Conner, he often had the opportunity to demonstrate how wisdom comes with age.

Was any man deserving of such loyalty? Sutphen, no matter what Conner would do or say in public, remained loyal as the day is long. He would never publicly say anything bad about Conner, nor would he complain about living in DC’s shadow. He would just smile and say, “That’s Dennis.” And then he would proceed to tell you how lucky he was to have sailed such great boats and in such legendary company. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he’d say. “I’ve had a hell of a good time sailing the ‘other boat,’ and for a lot of years.”

One of his favorite experiences was training off Hawaii for the Australian challenge. “We had a bunch of good guys in the ’80s,” Sutphen said. “Sometimes someone would sail with me and never make a mistake. Then when they got on the boat with Dennis they would fall apart from the pressure.

“Were we different skippers? Yes, I suppose so. We both wanted to win, no matter what the situation, but I didn’t have to worry about raising $15 million, and that probably allowed my boat to have less pressure,” he said.

Sailing the B boat was a disappointment to many young sailors with aspirations of being on Team Dennis Conner. But after sailing with Sutphen for only a short while they, to a man, recognized their good fortune at being on that trial horse and with someone as brilliant, wise and endearing as Jack Sutphen. The B boat was where many a great sailor cut his teeth. The crew of that boat was nicknamed “The Mushrooms” because they lived in the dark. They were proud of that moniker.

Sutphen was active in the San Diego Yacht Club.

“Our bottom line wasn’t to get to Australia,” Sutphen told them. “It wasn’t to ensure our own position on the boat. It was to get Dennis to Australia and to help him win, no matter what we had to do or what we had to sacrifice along the way.”

In 2007, Sutphen finally yielded to pressure from friends to document his sailing life. His book, “Messing About in Boats for 80 Years,” was a hit with everyone who knew him. He only published a couple thousand copies, and they went fast. In addition to documenting his fascinating career in sailing, the book was filled with humorous anecdotes and observations of major sailing events that took place in his lifetime.

Sutphen was a storyteller extraordinaire. His sailing adventures with Conner, Ted Turner, Olin Stephens, Baron Bich, the King of Spain and Jimmy Buffett, just to name a few, provided endless story fodder for anyone willing to listen. And Jack, like a favorite grandfather, always had an audience. One story got easier to tell over time — the day the B Team kidnapped Sutphen and made him judge a Hawaiian bikini contest. Sutphen made them promise never to tell Conner.

One of his favorite memories was captured by Angus Phillips of the Washington Post, describing a typical afternoon on the Indian Ocean preparing for the Australian defense, with all of the Twelves testing one another like young lions:

It started out as a sparring session, grew into a scrap, and before long became a full-scale, heavyweight America’s Cup brawl.

“Who’s that coming over now, New Zealand?” asked Jack Sutphen, skipper of Dennis Conner’s trial horse, Stars & Stripes 85.

“Yeah, and here comes Canada,” said his tactician, Robbie Haines. The big white yacht with KC2 on its mainsail rolled across the line of boats, luffed into the wind, shadowboxing to kill time, then tacked over and joined the fray.

“Looks like the French are coming down, too,” said navigator Dory Vogel. French Kiss shot across the fleet, hardened to the wind and formed up with the others.

One by one they rolled in across a wind-whipped sea until half a dozen 12-Meter yachts were steaming along side by side, hard on the wind, a boat-length apart, turning 8-1/2 knots through blue-green seas as a 25-knot howler sent sheets of spray cascading across their decks.

French Kiss was farthest to leeward, with the fiberglass New Zealand and its 24-year-old skipper, Chris Dickson, right alongside Conner’s No. 1 boat, Stars & Stripes, which thundered along next to Australia IV.

Sutphen, in Stars & Stripes 85, lay farthest to windward, hammering along with a fine view of the others below.

“But no one on our boat had a camera,” Sutphen would lament many times in the years to follow. Still, that image of all those finely tuned Twelves lined up, fighting to windward and so close together, made him smile again and again at the retelling of that very special, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Sutphen was looking forward to the 2013 Cup races in San Francisco. Until the very end, he could be seen sailing everything he could get his hands on in San Diego Bay. He was a frequent star of the “Every Other Wednesday Race” of old wooden sailboats. He helped breathe life into the wooden boat fleet in San Diego and, in particular, helped bring about the comeback of the Kettenburg PC (Pacific Class). Along with two dozen other PC owners, Sutphen led a movement to create one of the most active and competitive fleets in San Diego from a bunch of old boats most had given up on.

Ask any sailor in San Diego, and they will tell you Jack Sutphen remained the man to beat in any race, on any boat, right up to the end.

June 2013 issue