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Racing on the Bay: An America's Cup Sailor Ahead of His Time

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When Oracle Team USA crossed the finish line on Wednesday, culminating the most improbable comeback in America's Cup yachting history, somewhere Tom Blackaller had to be smiling.

Only a sports footnote now, it was Blackaller's dream to turn San Francisco Bay into a winner-take-all sailing arena. A place where crowds could view the races from shore and cheer on faster-than-fast multi-hulls, like the new wave of America's Cup catamarans.

As Team Oracle went on its amazing winning streak, taking eight straight from New Zealand, the setting played as much of a starring role as winning skipper Jimmy Spithill. On television, the vistas were as stunning as the boats were fast, and we'll probably get to do it all over again thanks to the crew bankrolled by Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison. To the victors go the spoils as well as where the next round of races will be held.

Back in 1986, when I was a young reporter with The San Francisco Examiner, the local St. Francis Yacht Club mounted a campaign to win the America's Cup and bring such racing to the Bay. They turned to Blackaller to skipper their effort.

Growing up in Berkeley, he had first turned heads in the ultra-competitive Star class, twice winning world championships. By the mid-80s, Blackaller was major player on the Cup scene. He could be as fickle as the conditions on the Bay. So much so that several of us in the press nicknamed him "Doctor Heckle and Mr. Jibe." But Blackaller believed in the Bay and what a great sailing venue it could be.

Once I accompanied him for a sail and he waxed poetic about perfect it could all be. "The course is already laid out in front of us," he explained. "You have Alcatraz Island to north, Alameda to the east. Just put out the buoys and have at it. The wind is almost always there -- strong and true."

Unfortunately, Blackaller never got the chance to see his dream come to fruition. He lost to longtime rival Dennis Connor in the 1986 Cup trails in Fremantle, Australia. While he vowed to mount another Cup campaign, he never got the chance. Three years later, he died of a heart attack. He was only 49.

Sailors from the San Francisco Bay are known for having a swagger, confident enough to risk everything on a roll of the dice. Even though the winning boat this time was a who's who of top sailors from around the world, they still would have made Blackaller proud. Despite holding a big lead in the winner-take-all final race, Spithill & Co. refused to play it safe -- the sails stayed reined in, one hull out of the water on a sunny afternoon on the Bay when the wind was really ripping. Watching them fly toward the finish line, I was reminded of my favorite Blackaller story.

One afternoon on the Bay, he was steering his America's Cup boat, a 12-meter back then, in a neck-and-neck duel with Chicago's Buddy Melges. The pair was headed toward the mark off Chrissy Field when a windsurfer ditched in front of them.

The poor guy surfaced to see Blackaller bearing down upon him. Not knowing what to do, the windsurfer froze and those of us watching from the press boat worried that he was about to be keel-hauled.

But at the last minute, Blackaller cranked the wheel hard to one side and then the other, doing a neat half-circle around the fallen surfer and his downed rig.

As Blackaller passed him by, he couldn't resist yelling back over the transom, "Were you scared?"

Some purists may be terrified by what the America's Cup has become. Rock star sailors, hydrofoils instead of conventional keels, carbon-fiber multi-hulls. But if they compete again on the San Francisco Bay, where Blackaller once held court, count me in.

Tim Wendel is the author of 10 books, including Habana Libre and Summer of '68.

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