For Dawn Riley the dedication of her yacht, America True, in San
Francisco on May 26 was supposed to be just another stop on the
way to next year's America's Cup in New Zealand. On an
appropriately blustery afternoon her syndicate became the first
U.S. team to have its yacht ready for the challenger trial in
Auckland in October. But as Riley watched the 75-foot boat being
trailered slowly up the Embarcadero Freeway, past crowds and
halted traffic, to her team's headquarters on Pier 17, the
normal progress of her campaign became something entirely
different. Never in her four-year drive to build America True
had she let herself become emotional. Now, making history as the
first woman to lead a team in 149 years of the America's Cup,
Riley almost succumbed to the moment. "I'd never pictured it
coming up the Embarcadero," she says. "That's when I got all the
butterflies. It was real."
Characteristically, she refused to lose her focus. She collected
herself, delivered her speech to the assembled crowd of 100 or
so and watched Buddy Melges, America True's coach, splash a
bucket of water from San Francisco Bay across the boat's shiny
topside, which is deep yellow with an abstract rendition of the
Golden Gate Bridge in red, white, blue and black. The hull was
covered in a tarp to protect the secrecy of its design.
As Riley left the podium, she got another surprise. Two
representatives of Louis Vuitton, sponsor of the challenger
series, asked her how it felt to be the favorite to win the
series. "Two weeks ago we were the guys with this little T-shirt
shop on the Embarcadero," Riley says. "Now it's like this huge
swoosh of 'Congratulations! You're going to make it!' And we're
like, 'Yeah, we knew we were going to make it all along.'"
Nothing would have seemed more improbable three years ago, when
Riley, fresh from a stint as the team captain of the first
all-female crew in America's Cup history, put up most of America
True's $100,000 entry fee herself. She was running her fledgling
operation out of a 10-by-10-foot office in San Francisco, and
just about everybody who had heard her idea of running a coed
syndicate had simply rolled his eyes in response. Since then,
she has had to do a lot of convincing, raise a lot of money and
develop a thick skin to bring to fruition an idea whose time,
she believes, has come: Her crew of 32 or 33 sailors, at least a
quarter of them women, will be the first truly coed team in the
Riley has been preparing for this moment her whole life. "Having
my own Cup boat was a logical progression," she says. "If you put
on a piece of paper what I'd done in sailing, what else was there
left for me to do?"
What she had done was put together one of the most impressive
resumes in her sport. Riley, who grew up near Detroit, was
baptized on a boat a month after she was born, and she's been
under one sail or another since she was 13. After graduating
from Michigan State (where she was captain of the sailing team)
in 1987, she flirted with responsibility, taking a job in
advertising, before she opted for a life filled with jibs,
spinnakers and apparent winds. In addition to her experience in
'95 with the all-woman crew of America3 sponsored by billionaire
yachtsman Bill Koch, she was the lone woman on the Cup-winning
crew of America3 in '92.
Where she really earned her stripes, however, was as a crew
member in two Whitbread Round the World races. In 1993 she took
over as skipper of the all-woman team aboard Heineken after half
of the boat's sailors quit following the first leg of the race.
Her performance in that Whitbread made a lasting impression on
many of her fellow sailors. "She's very professional, and she's
extremely quick to react," says '95 Cup teammate and America
True crew member Katie Pettibone. "In the Whitbread she took a
team that was falling apart and got it around the world."
Historically, yachting--especially America's Cup
yachting--hasn't been particularly open to women. When Riley
sailed with Koch in 1992, she was the latest of only a handful
of women to have taken an active sailing role in Cup racing. The
boys' club is still hanging on. The women who crewed America3 in
1995 heard all sorts of comments and were given nicknames, both
flattering and unflattering, by their male competitors. "If you
listened to it," says Lisa Charles, a member of that boat,
"you'd get really disgruntled."
By 1995, before she had finished sailing in her second Cup,
Riley had developed her own ideas about how to run a team. For
one thing, she wanted the sailors to be more involved in the
design of the boat. More important, she felt the need for a mix
of men and women. Last October, America True held open tryouts.
"I started looking for the best person for the job, man or
woman," Riley says. "I wanted to open it up and see what would
happen. You can do all the all-woman campaigns you want, but to
do it again and again doesn't open up the sport."
Of course, Riley needed money to do all this while building a
boat or two at the same time. Putting up the entry fee had
tapped her out, so she turned to Koch to provide start-up
capital and several million dollars' worth of data he'd
generated through computer tests in 1992 and '95. Riley also
found a loyal benefactor in Chris Coffin, a Chicago-based
technology consultant and now the COO of America True. He
underwrote most of the syndicate's $20 million budget, which was
enough for only one boat.
Slowly, as the campaign gained momentum, Riley signed on
sponsors that provided both money and technology for the boat.
Some engineers from NASA pitched in on the design work. "It's
such a new sport in terms of sponsorship and business that you
need all the credibility you can get," says Riley, who lives
frugally in a studio apartment in San Francisco and is deferring
her salary as CEO of the syndicate and captain of the crew until
after the Cup. "Since I'm a woman, in the beginning people
wanted to believe I wasn't credible. They forgot that I'd sailed
in two America's Cups."
Surprisingly, one person she had to convince was Koch. "My first
advice was, 'Don't do it,'" he says. "Then it was that she should
raise as much money as she could." Those honest answers, from a
man widely considered to be a maverick in sailing circles, were
the dose of reality that Riley needed.
"In our relationship he's like a mentor," she says of Koch. "He's
not afraid to tell me what he thinks."
America True is now on its way to Auckland. Its crew members
will go next month and will remain in New Zealand until they are
beaten or they come home with the Cup. They have already been to
Hauraki Gulf, site of the Cup races, once, for a three-month
training session. In the upcoming races Riley--unlike most other
syndicate CEOs, who skipper their crews--will take up her
customary position in the middle of the boat, in the pit,
managing a tangle of lines to help America True tack. John
Cutler of New Zealand will be at the helm. "I don't need to be
steering," Riley says. "It's not an ego thing. That's not what
I'm most comfortable doing."
She has been working too hard to consider what she'll do when
her Cup campaign is all over. "I'll figure it out when it
happens," she says, "but people keep coming up with different
jobs. I got done with a speech a few weeks ago, and somebody
told me I could be a lobbyist."
For now, however, Riley is content with her surprising status as
COLOR PHOTO: BILL EPPRIDGE
"Having my own Cup boat was a logical progression. What else was
there left for me to do?"
"You can do all the all-woman campaigns you want, but that
doesn't open up the sport."