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Robert McCullough: a distinguished sailor

The two-time America’s Cup skipper and New York Yacht Club commodore has died at the age of 86

The two-time America’s Cup skipper and New York Yacht Club commodore has died at the age of 86

If one’s life is a vessel for his soul, the keel for Robert McCullough’s sturdy craft was laid by his father, an enterprising young salesman who struck a deal that led to the family’s wealth.

McCullough saw the benefits early, enjoying the Long Island Sound yacht club life in his childhood. As an adult, he contributed his energies to the family business, which eventually grew into one of the nation’s largest companies. The rewards included two shots as skipper of America’s Cup contenders. He sailed substantial yachts of his own, managed one America’s Cup defense and served from 1975 to 1977 as commodore of the New York Yacht Club, where he is seen as one of a handful who used their wealth to vault that institution to the top of the sailing scene.

McCullough died in August at age 86, remembered by yachting friends as “a distinguished sailor” and “a wonderful skipper, a very, very competitive individual and a great seaman.”

“He was a very skilled sailor, both around the buoys and on the ocean,” recalls sailing star Gary Jobson. “His 68-foot Inverness often led fleets into port.”

“If we didn’t do well,” says his son, Scott McCullough, “it was surprising.” McCullough’s three, progressively larger sailboats named Inverness “were usually in the top of our class, if we didn’t win it.”

Scott McCullough traces the foundation for his father’s yachting lifestyle to one deal his grandfather, W.G. McCullough, closed. At the time, in the early 20th century, he says, industrial salesmen were go-betweens who united a buyer with a company to manufacture the item needed. In this case, the item was textiles.

“He went around to Detroit and got contracts with General Motors,” Scott says. “[Then] he went to a small, failing [textile] company and showed them the contracts and said, ‘What can you do for me?’ They said, ‘How would you like to be president?’ He built the company up.”

Robert McCullough joined the company, Collins & Aikman, after his brother, Donald, had replaced their father, Scott says.

They made automobile upholstery, expanding the business and diversifying until the company was ranked by Fortune Magazine among the nation’s top 250, Scott says.

McCullough, born in Montclair, N.J. in 1920, moved with his family to Stamford, Conn., where as a junior sailor he skippered little Herreshoff sloops and Wee Scots at the Larchmont and Stamford yacht clubs.

“My grandfather had a boat that was built at Luders,” a 112-foot power yacht named Doromar, Scott says. “During Larchmont Race Week, they used to take the boat down and anchor off Larchmont and everybody would live aboard.”

McCullough advanced to Star boat racing and then, after prep school, entered BrownUniversity, where he was on the swimming team. “He gave up his last semester at Brown to join the Coast Guard in 1942,” says his son. That was the same year he married Margaret Hammons. During World War II, McCullough commanded a destroyer escort and taught anti-submarine tactics, Scott says.

When the war ended, McCullough joined the New York Yacht Club and soon was involved in America’s Cup campaigns. As a Cup skipper, he found success evaded him. He skippered Constellation in the 1967 trials, which Intrepid won. He came back in 1970, this time as skipper of Valiant, “probably the only bad 12 Meter Olin Stephens designed,” says David Ellwell, who was on McCullough’s crew. Again, Intrepid became the defender.

McCullough went on to manage the Courageous syndicate that defended the Cup in 1974 and then was chairman in the 1980s of the New York Yacht Club’s America’s Cup Committee.

Ellwell says McCullough was one of the “founding members” in the club’s purchase of the Newport, R.I., mansion called Harbour Court. A handful of members, including McCullough, each put up $100,000 and bought the property to get it off the market and then pressured the club members to buy it from them.

“I think it’s fair to say the wisdom of purchasing Harbour Court is what has made the New York Yacht Club what it is today,” Ellwell says. “It’s given us a waterfront presence.” The club conducted 30 to 50 races a year, including America’s Cup contests, before the purchase, he says. Now the club hosts up to 700 races a year, according to Ellwell.

McCullough retired in 1983 from Collins & Aikman and became chairman of the foundering non-profit South Street Seaport in Manhattan. “It’s the only time I’ve seen him grumpy,” says his son, “because he had to deal with politicians and unions. He managed to turn that [situation] around.”

Later, McCullough stepped in as chairman of Chesapeake Petroleum & Supply Co., a Washington, D.C., wholesaler of fuel oil and lubricants that was in trouble. His son says McCullough salvaged that company, as he had the museum.

All along, McCullough had been a supporter of BrownUniversity. He sent his son and daughter there, and he was involved in fund-raising. A fan of Brown football, he saw most of the games and considered the team a fund-raising asset for the school.

“Brown he spent a lot of time with,” his son says. “He got frustrated because it [Brown] got so wobbly to the left.”

Scott McCullough says once his father got a bee in his bonnet, he followed it through. “I always kidded with him because if he’d get a new car, he’d read that owner’s manual from Page 1 right down to the index.”

“He was very intense,” says the son. “He loved to sail and he loved to have friends around him.” He employed two paid crew members on Inverness to maintain it, but, his son says, “When it got to the point you had to have a pile of professionals on board, he didn’t like that.”

McCullough was a member of the Cruising Club of America, the Storm Trysail Club and the Pawling Mountain Club, and spent three decades on the Fales Committee, which advises the superintendent of the United StatesNavalAcademy on sailing matters. He is survived by his wife, son and daughters Constance Lindsay-Stewart, Sandra Margaret McCullough and Linda Anne McCullough.