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Sailing

Competition Was Enough for Him

September 14, 1989|Rich Roberts

A year ago, at 48, Tom Blackaller learned to sail not just catamarans but the high-performance 40-footers that only younger, agile sailors with years of cat experience should be able to handle.

That he had won two events to Randy Smyth's one and led by a point in the standings was accomplishment enough. Smyth is America's top catamaran sailor.

Blackaller had taken to this competition only after a career of winning star-class world championships and graduating to America's Cup 12-meters.

The two sailors had been scheduled to compete in the Salem ProSail series at San Francisco this weekend. No one doubts it would have been a classic on Blackaller's home waters of San Francisco Bay. But, a week ago, Blackaller died of a heart attack while practicing in a sports car at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma.

His widow, Christine, and daughter, Lisa, asked that Blackaller's boat remain in the competition. The new skipper will be Jack Halterman, the helmsman Cam Lewis, who taught Blackaller the basics of sailing catamarans, and the boat has been rechristened Tom Cat.

If sailing was Blackaller's love, auto racing was his passion. Speed turned him on, which is why he took to the 40-footers so well and with such enthusiasm. He was asked once which he would rather win: an America's Cup or the Indianapolis 500.

Offhand, he indicated it would be an Indy 500, but Blackaller had one reservation. Winning an America's Cup would probably mean beating Dennis Conner somewhere along the way, and no auto race would ever offer that satisfaction.

After Conner, aboard Liberty, lost the America's Cup to Alan Bond's Australia II, skippered by John Bertrand, at Newport, R.I., in 1983, Blackaller criticized Conner at length in a Sports Illustrated article, claiming that Conner's refusal to share research and development information with the other American syndicates cost the United States the Cup.

Whether Blackaller was merely sniping at an easy target was never clear. In 1986-87, none of the Americans shared much information at Fremantle, at least until they were eliminated. But Blackaller insisted that his dislike for Dennis was real, rooted in one basic resentment: Conner took all the fun out of sailing.

Their rivalry was legendary--Conner the withdrawn and introspective technician, Blackaller the loud and brash alley fighter. On the water, Conner usually won. Off the water, nod to Blackaller.

Conner would ask, "Which really matters?"

Conner never felt comfortable going into a race unless he had an edge--his boat, crew, sails, whatever--but that takes a lot of work. Blackaller preferred to minimize the work and just try to out-sail his rivals. It usually worked, too, against everyone but Conner.

Even in the America's Cup at Fremantle, Blackaller not only took time off to get married but to go to some auto races in a nearby town--and was loudly put off when he didn't get to race.

One always knew where Blackaller stood. There are two types of skippers: the cool and calm, such as Conner, and the yellers. Blackaller was a yeller, and some former crew members have indicated he wasn't much fun to sail with, but he was popular with the media because he was so accessible and quotable.

He was also the sport's stormiest competitor. He was the only sailor ever ostracized from sailing's most prestigious match racing event, the Congressional Cup at Long Beach. A few years later he was invited back, in the hope he had mellowed, but he spent all week complaining about his sails and finally departed with a day's racing remaining.

Nobody had ever done that in the Congressional Cup. It probably would have been a long time before he was invited back again.

So while other America's Cup skippers pursued the world match-racing circuit, Blackaller turned to catamarans, not only for the excitement but because there was money to be made. It wasn't much, compared with other sports--$51,500 in three events this year--but, typically, Blackaller made no pretense of trying to maintain his amateur standing by funneling the money into trust accounts.

He paid his crew a standard wage. The rest he intended to keep for himself. Wasn't that part of the fun of sailing?

For most people, Blackaller was fun to have around and be around. Sailing will miss him.

Sailing Notes

MATCH RACING--Chris Dickson of New Zealand retained his world match-racing championship by beating Australia's Peter Gilmour in a best-of-three final at Lymington, England. Dickson, who has gone his own way since an unfriendly parting with Michael Fay after the '87 America's Cup, lost the first race but won the second when Gilmour lost his mast in gusts to 30 knots, and the third when Gilmour jumped the gun and had to restart.

Earlier, Dickson had lost a race in the round-robin phase against France's Bertrand Pace, then had lost his last round-robin match to Gilmour in the fleet's spare 35-foot Beneteau, leaving Gilmour at 8-1 and Dickson at 7-2 before the sail-offs.

In the semifinals, Gilmour then beat Peter Isler (6-3) of San Diego and Dickson defeated Eddie Owen (6-3) of Wales. Isler beat Owen for third place. Others: Rod Davis, New Zealand, 5-4; Russell Coutts, New Zealand, and Pace, 4-5; Gary Jobson, United States, and Greg Tawaststjerna, Canada, 2-7; Olle Johannson, Sweden, 1-8.

JUNIORS--Peter Wells of La Canada, with Jason Artof of Los Angeles as crewman, won the Bemis Cup for double-handed crews in the USYRU/Rolex Junior Sailing Championships at Greenwich, Conn. Yumio Dornberg of Santa Monica, sailing with Susan Wells and Brian Wynn, placed fourth in the Sears Cup for triple-handed crews. Patrick Downey of Miami was the winning skipper. Jonathan Greening of Long Beach was seventh in the single-handed series for the Smythe Cup. Five Southern Californians besides Artof were named to the 1989 USYRU/Rolex Junior Sailing Team: Kevin (K.C.) Alfred, Thousand Oaks; Alex and Giselle Camet, San Diego, and Ryan Cox, Thousand Oaks.

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