Skip to main content
Original Issue


His zest for a lively scrap has made Ted Turner, onetime dinghy dunker, an ocean-racing champion

Ever since he was a gangling 12-year-old, Robert Edward (Ted) Turner, the famous landlocked sailor of Atlanta, has been working and playing hard, picking up a few scars and winning a bundle of honors both in the business world and at sea. Although he is only 32, in his gloomier moments Turner swears that senility is sneaking up on him. There is a touch of premature gray in his hair and mustache, but despite this hint of decay Turner is still utterly gung-ho. When he wins a close one—in business or in a racing boat—he savors the moment jubilantly. When he loses a tough one, he is equally exuberant and vocal, damning the fates that opposed him and praising the opponents who walloped him.

Although winning is surely his goal, it is not what keeps Turner alive. Competition is. When business is going well, or when he crosses the line in an ocean race with time to spare on his rivals, he sometimes seems bored. On land or sea Turner revels in adversity. He loves to battle with his back against a wall. If there is no wall close by, he will go miles out of his way to find one.

When he is ashore, serving as president of Turner Communications Corporation, an amalgam of billboard companies and radio and TV stations, Turner tries to act as a flannelized executive should, but the salt-soaked honesty of the sailor keeps oozing out. Whereas most corporate executives take great pains to maintain their images, Turner delights in destroying his. Within minutes after closing a successful deal, Turner the empire builder begins tearing himself down. "As a conquering hero I am a failure," he declares. "Every time I cut the head off a dragon, it grows three more." When an insurance agent tries to sell him on the phone, Turner replies, "I gotcha, but you don't understand, this is a risky business I'm in. When the elephants start fighting, the ants get stomped. Do you realize, at this very moment you are trying to sell insurance to one of the ants that may be trampled to death tomorrow?"

The real gambling skippers of the ocean-racing circuit love to beat and be beaten by Turner, for he always plays hard inside the rules. Although he has been ocean racing for only six years—still an apprentice in length of service—he already rates as an accomplished man who drives self, crew and boat to the limit. The result is rewarding: he was voted the Martini & Rossi Trophy as the outstanding yachtsman of 1970—a year in which a pretty good sailor named Bill Ficker successfully defended the America's Cup—and he has not let any barnacles grow in 1971. A fortnight ago he put American Eagle second overall in the Annapolis-to-Newport race, then sent her on to England to be ready for the Fastnet classic while he participated in a few Stateside adventures, e.g., last week's Tempest nationals. But blue-water rivals who are impressed with Turner's devotion to sailing should spend a few workdays with him for a taste of real dedication. Compared to the intensity with which he attacks his work, Turner is downright frivolous at sea.

Turner the communications executive uses his paneled office in Atlanta the way a circus tiger uses its cage. One moment he sits at his desk embroiled in a problem; the next he is on his feet, pacing back and forth and letting out an occasional roar. Turner's office phone is in sorry shape. The once-springy, coiled wire of the receiver has been stretched to the breaking point and is now as limp as linguine. Any slick TV or radio operator who hopes to sell Turner a bill of goods has no chance unless he comes well armed. Deep in Turner's business brain there is a hard core of common sense and humor. Around this core there are compartments of active gray matter that can sort and digest statistics and minutiae at a rate that would choke a computer. If you want to know how I Love Lucy, Superman, Batman, Ultraman and Dragnet rate as television fare in Atlanta, ask Turner. He will fire back the latest figures right from the hip. When he is at a loss for facts, which is seldom, he falls back on common sense. Recently over cocktails a TV agent suggested that Turner was trying to do too much at one time. Turner replied, "When you are up to your rear end in alligators, it is hard to remember that your original idea was simply to cross a swamp." Another TV agent pointed out that some of the stock-car racing footage on Turner's Atlanta outlet, WTCG, was not new. "So it's old," Turner roared. "Jesus Christ is 2,000 years old, and He still gets good ratings on Sunday."

At sea aboard Eagle, the 67-foot America's Cup sloop that he bought for a hock-shop price and turned into a winner, Turner serves not only as skipper and taskmaster but also as head cheerleader, court jester and prophet of impending doom. In the words of Dick Grossmiller, a seasoned hand, "When you sail with Turner, he has you working, weeping and laughing all the way."

For example, on an 811-mile race to Jamaica this spring, as Turner drove his Eagle through 25 knots of wind, he gambled on keeping the spinnaker flying. As the wind kept heading, the spinnaker was hauled around so hard it looked like a jib—it was stress against stress, rigging versus sail. In 2½ years of spectacular racing. Turner's ripsnorting Eagle had busted her mast twice. What would bust this time, the rigging or the sail? The crew was apprehensive. Shouting above the wind and sea, Skipper Turner reassured all hands. "Never fear," he bellowed, "American Eagle is the only boat in the fleet with a permanent damage control officer. If the mast goes this time, I will pull the plug and we will go down with her."

Later, running before the wind in a mishmash of crisscrossing swells, Eagle was hard to hold on course; the end of her boom was catching water. Turner cried out, "I read Arthur Knapp's book on sailing. What did Arthur Knapp tell me to do in a case like this? I forget. Maybe we should jibe. Tomorrow may never come. The sky may fall. So I say let's jibe her now."

Toward the end of the race, in a falling wind, the crew raised a light spinnaker that had not been properly stopped. The sail wrapped around the headstay—a hopeless mess. In the heat of the moment Skipper Turner cussed like a muleteer. Then, when the damage was finally undone, he admonished the deck apes in the manner of an Episcopalian cleric. "We have done those things that we ought not to have done," he intoned. "And we have left undone those things that we ought to have done. And it has cost us plenty. Next time let us stop the spinnaker before we put it up."

At the finish in Jamaica, two boats had beaten Eagle across the line. But no matter. After shouting into the sea wind for three days, Skipper Turner stepped ashore croaking like a raven but still jubilant.

In newspaper accounts of his sailing, Turner has been variously described around the world as irrepressible, ubiquitous, fabulous, passionate, priestlike, devilish, forgiving, relentless, tall, lean and dark-eyed, blue-eyed and gaunt, bold, cautious, wild, canny, brainy and audacious. There are those who say Turner is a riverboat gambler at heart, and there are those who think he is Rhett Butler reincarnate. Turner was born in Cincinnati, an old riverboat town that is now so fancy-pants and industrialized that many of its people are barely aware they reside on the stenchy Ohio. From the age of nine to maturity Turner lived in Savannah, Ga., a seaport that, despite the headlong pace of the world, has managed to retain some of its original flavor.

Two years after taking over a billboard company in Savannah, Turner's father bought his son a Penguin, a racing dinghy that in gusty weather has no more stability than a soap dish. When the dinghy was presented to him, young Turner made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with it. He was finally suckered into using it by one of his father's employees, Jimmy Brown, who had sailed a bateau with a makeshift rig on the Savannah River and the estuaries thereabouts. Brown pointed out to Turner that the Penguin was a handy means of getting to nearby islands where he could pop away with his pellet gun at birds and other critters.

After two years of larking around in the Penguin and playing Frank Buck on the golden isles of the north Georgia coast, Turner tried racing in the teenage program of the Savannah Yacht Club. "I was famous almost overnight," he remembers. "They called me Turnover Turner, the Capsize Kid. I had as much aptitude for sailing as an eight-minute miler has for winning the Olympics." In his first year of racing he capsized 11 times and did only slightly better the next. In his third and fourth campaigns he finished second in the club championships.

In his fifth year of racing, Turner left his Penguin and moved into a Lightning. The next three years brought a fair share of victories but never the club championship. He probably would have done better but he was strictly a weekend sailor. During summer vacations from his 12th year on he worked for his father's company, digging postholes, creosoting poles, erecting billboards and pasting messages on them. The five-day workweek did not pain Turner until the fall of his sophomore year at Brown University when he got a tempting offer from two of the world's finest skippers, Bill Cox and Bob Bavier. Impressed by Turner personally and by his unbeaten record as a collegiate dinghy racer, Cox and Bavier offered him a summertime job as instructor at the Noroton Yacht Club in Connecticut—$50 a week, room and board and a chance to race a little in a hot Lightning fleet. Turner's father refused him permission, insisting that he return home the following summer and work for the billboard company for $40 a week.

In remorse, 19-year-old Ted Turner went out and had a drink, his first. Earlier on his father had promised him $5,000 if he did not smoke or drink until he was 21. Since the first drink had cost him five grand, Turner reasoned that if he had a second drink it would cut the cost in half. So he had another. And another. Shortly thereafter, in the company of several other flaming youths, he headed for Wheaton College, a girls' school. A ruckus followed, and Turner and his cronies were suspended from Brown.

"Until I had to turn down the sailing job," Turner says ruefully, "I was known as Mr. Straight Arrow, the kid on the white horse. I was the guy who won cadet honors in military school. I was the local boy who went to an Ivy League college but didn't drink while everyone else was getting bombed out of their minds."

After a tour in the Coast Guard, Turner went back to Brown University and was elected captain of the sailing team. In the classroom he was well on his way to a diploma when his father discovered that he was majoring in classics rather than in a field that would serve him better as a businessman. "I am appalled, even horrified," his father wrote, "that you have adopted classics as a major. I suppose everybody has to be a snob of some sort, and I suppose you are distinguishing yourself from the herd by being a classical snob. If I leave you enough money, you can retire to an ivory tower and contemplate for the rest of your days the influence that the hieroglyphics of prehistoric man had upon the writings of William Faulkner." Turner's father concluded his letter, "You are in the hands of the Philistines, and dammit, I sent you there. I am sorry." The elder Turner did not send his son the funds to complete his senior year. Disillusioned, Turner quit college.

Over the years Turner's father had acquired billboard companies in several Southern cities. In the process he extended his credit in a way that was not unrealistic, but weighed on him nonetheless. Emotionally wracked, the elder Turner committed suicide in 1963. So at the age of 24, Ted Turner inherited a corporation that was stylishly in hock. Today Turner Communications Corporation is in good shape, although to get Turner, the worrying boss, to admit it, is something else again.

As a round-the-buoys sailor, Ted Turner has won national titles in three classes of boat: Y-Flyer, Flying Dutchman and 5.5-meter. He reckons that he might have been content with closed-circuit racing and never ventured onto the open ocean except for his innate restlessness and literary appetite. "When I am happy doing one thing," he says, "I lift my eyes to the next plateau, and that's what gets me in more trouble. I am like Miniver Cheevy. I long for what is not—knights and ladies fair and horses prancing." As a schoolboy Turner read the sea fiction of Conrad, the history fiction of Nordhoff and Hall, the naval annals of Mahan and assorted other tales of wine-dark seas. He also fed upon the contents of Yachting magazine, which told of the victories won by latter-day hulls like Caribbee and Finisterre. He was, in brief, so well marinated by salty writers that when another round-the-buoys sailor. Ding Schoonmaker of Miami, suggested in 1964 that they try ocean racing together. Turner was for it.

It was Schoonmaker's idea to charter a boat and campaign it on the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit, the world's best such competition. After they had contracted for a 40-foot sloop, Scylla, Schoonmaker became involved in small-boat racing in South America, so Turner went it alone in the SORC. "I knew red-right-returning and all that," Turner recalls, "but I didn't know a compass deviation from a variation."

In the early winter before the 1965 SORC competition, the chartered Scylla was delivered to Turner on Pamlico Sound near Morehead City, N.C., 1,200 miles from where the first SORC race started in Tampa Bay on the Florida west coast. In the first 50 miles to the starting line Turner missed a channel marker at night and ran Scylla aground, fortunately on a flat where she could be kedged off. Jimmy Brown, the Savannah salt who had sold Turner on sailing a dinghy, was aboard. As Brown remembers, the voyage to Tampa Bay "was not all bad, just a little bit of horror now and then." When Scylla put into port for stores or repairs along the way, one or another of her Corinthian crew would remember a pressing business engagement and jump ship. On reaching shore, two of the crew knelt, kissed the earth and swore they would never go back to sea.

Turner raced Scylla in the 1965 SORC without distinction. In the longest of the six races in the series—a 400-miler from St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale—he lost a couple of valuable hours hunting for the crucial rounding mark at Rebecca Shoals in the Florida Keys. In a 100-mile race from Miami across the Gulf Stream to West End, Grand Bahama, for want of better guidance Turner followed a rival boat most of the way.

During his first, undistinguished year as an ocean racer, the computer sections of his brain must have digested a lot. On his second try in 1966, at the helm of a sloop called Vamp X, he won the SORC by a country mile. His victory in 1966 resembles one scored 104 years earlier when Confederate General Jeb Stuart led 1,200 hell-for-leather troopers on a wild ride that panicked a Yankee army of 100,000. The SORC fleet that Turner took by surprise included a number of custom hulls costing $70,000 or more and manned by experienced blue-water sailors. Turner's winning Vamp X was a stock Cal-40 hull—a somewhat unconventional one at the time—that cost a mere $50,000 fully equipped. Turner's crew was composed primarily of small-boat sailors who had never stood a night watch at sea. In the Civil War, when Jeb Stuart and his troopers came rip-roaring out of nowhere to harass a whole army, smart generals on both sides realized a new style of war was aborning. The dumber brass dismissed Stuart's Panzerlike raid as optimistic bravado. Similarly, when Turner's Vamp X won the SORC, there were traditionalists who discounted it as a surprising streak of luck.

The smarter rivals beaten by him recognized that Turner had merely made the most of a neglected truth: men who have been seriously racing small boats on closed courses make fine ocean sailors. In a short, daytime race in a small boat every foot of distance made good and every second of time saved count for a lot. All of Turner's ocean crews since the first have been dedicated to the small-boat principle. On a long sea race with Turner there is a constant sense of awareness in the crew and almost endless action. Sheets are eased an inch one moment, then trimmed an inch, then eased again. The boom vang is set and reset. The winch grinders—the muscled apes—pump all day and through the night to keep the bright spinnaker fat and happy. From one long sea mile to the next, a Turner crew is always with it, trying to get another ounce of sail power out of the God-given wind.

If Turner never enters another race, because of what he has done since 1969 with American Eagle, now seven years old, at the very least he deserves mention in the annals of yachting as a salvage man without peer. For the first five years of her life American Eagle was a hapless Cinderella. She was originally designed and built as a conventional 12-meter hull for the explicit purpose of racing around buoys in defense of the America's Cup. Although she competed in the cup trials of 1964 and 1967, she never won the honor of defending it (curiously, when the Eagle raced against Constellation in the 1964 trials, the respective helmsmen were Bill Cox and Bob Bavier, the same Connecticut sailors who years before had offered Ted Turner a summer job).

After the Eagle's second unsuccessful cup campaign, a wealthy Torontonian named Herbert Wahl bought her for $60,000—roughly one-fifth of her original cost. He spent $100,000 converting Eagle into an ocean racer, then took her through the New York canals to Lake Ontario. Racing against "dirt track" competition, the Eagle proved to be a dog. At this low point in her life, Turner, the rambunctious crown prince of sailing, bought her for $70,000.

Over the years, in the U.S. and Europe, about a dozen 12-meter hulls have been converted for ocean racing, but none has been truly campaigned or won honors like Turner's Eagle. Since 1969, over classic courses on both sides of the Atlantic—from St. Pete to Lauderdale, from Port Huron to Mackinac, from Newport to Cork, from Kristiansand to Sandhamn, from Plymouth to La Rochelle, from Execution Light to Stratford Shoal, from Cowes to Fastnet Rock, and from Here to Hell-and-Gone—Turner's Eagle has raced more than 12,000 miles, collecting a good deal of silverware in the process.

A year ago Turner won his second SORC title with Eagle, setting a record that is apt to last. Against fleets ranging in size from 40 boats to 127 he won four of the five races counting in his final score and finished eighth in the other. Nor was that all he was doing. Forty hours after the end of the second race in that series, Turner landed in Sydney, Australia. Three hours after clearing customs he was abroad a 5.5-meter boat competing for the Scandinavian Gold Cup, an international prize that is not so famous as the America's Cup but is nonetheless a very sacred bit of yachting grail. In the Gold Cup, one boat of each nation competes in three races. The winners of these races then carry on, with the title going to the first boat to take three firsts. When Turner reached Australia, two races had already been run. So for him it was win or out. He won and went on to take the title. And after that, he came second in the world 5.5-meter championships. Forty hours later he was back aboard the Eagle off the east Florida coast competing in his third race of the SORC.

Ashore, when less than a dozen business problems are weighing on him, Turner tries to live at a normal pace, and sometimes he almost succeeds. He loves his wife Jane, enjoys his home, and is most concerned about the welfare of his five children: Laura Lee, Ted IV, Rhett, Beauregard and Jeanie. While driving a New York TV associate to his home recently, Turner declared, "I am worried about my 3-year-old son Beau. I can't seem to communicate with him the way I used to. I think there is a generation gap." He warned his dinner guest, "We have a houseful of kids and antiques. You know, there is a fine line between antiques and junk. Ours are supposed to be real antiques. In any case, a lot of the chairs are uncomfortable."

Every now and then, when the homebody spirit is really welling up in him, Turner leads his five kids out the front door, and together they attack the weeds rampant on the lawn. At dinner Turner quotes St. Paul, "I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content." An hour later the self-styled man of content is pacing back and forth in his living room declaiming on things that he ought not to have done or has left undone or should be doing. At home as in the office, he can carry on a conversation while roving about performing a variety of minor acts. With barely a break in a sentence, he fiddles with a stereo set, dusts bric-a-brac, crosses the living room to let a cat in, wanders down a hallway to pat a child, wanders back, shoots one of the children's cap pistols, lets the cat back in, steps onto the sun deck to swat a few bees that have been harassing his loved ones, and so forth and so on.

Why did Ted Turner go to sea? For such an ever-moving man, it is the only container of sufficient size.

Recently, after watching movies of Turner's Eagle in action, a guest who professed to know nothing about sailing asked, "Have you ever won the America's Cup?"

"You do not win the America's Cup," Turner replied. "You defend it." After a pause he added, "I have never defended it, but it is a lovely idea."