Interview: Peter Isler on the enduring charm of the J Class and the America's Cup | Boat International
6 things we learned from Peter Isler’s speech at the Newport Owners' Club dinner
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The homecoming appeal of the J Class World Championships

Former Olympic sailor and two-time America’s Cup winner Peter Isler was an honoured guest at the Boat International Owners' Club dinner in Newport last week (August 23). Fresh from a day of racing on board the newest J Class yacht Svea at the 2017 J Class World Championships, he spoke to Boat International editor Stewart Campbell (above left) about his career so far, the evolution of the America’s Cup and his admiration for the J Class fleet.

Although Isler lives thousands of miles away in San Diego, he couldn’t resist the urge to race in Newport, as it marks something of a homecoming for him. The navigator grew up in nearby Connecticut, where his sailing career began, and he was joined in Newport by his old Yale teammate Susan Daly.

Photo: Meg Heriot

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Isler’s early influences

Isler revealed that his involvement in the 1987 America’s Cup campaign began when he was approached by Tom Whidden, now CEO of North Technology Group, to be the team’s navigator.

“Tom cornered me and got me skilled enough at sailing big boats that I was in the position to steer an America’s Cup boat. I signed on as this young hotshot college sailor — it was the best decision I ever made,” he explained.

Photo: Meg Heriot

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The Race of the Legends teams were picked in an unusual manner

Shortly after winning the America’s Cup on Stars & Stripes 87, Isler took part in the Race of the Legends — a showdown between Ted Turner and Gary Jobson using the restored J Class yachts Endeavour and Shamrock V.

The original plan was to have two races — one in Newport and one in New York City — however, the manner of picking the teams was more akin to a schoolyard football match than a prestigious sailing regatta, Isler confessed:

“They had a big tent out on Goat Island and Gary had brought 45 sailors — it was like sand lot football, we slowly went through the crowd picking crew until we were down to people in the crowd I didn’t know.

“I saw this big guy with curly blonde hair and thought: ‘He’s pretty big, we’ll make him a grinder.’ A few years later, after he’d won the America’s Cup, Bill Koch (pictured) came to me and said: ‘Peter, I’ll never forgive you for choosing me and making me a grinder.’”

Photo: Getty Images

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Regatta organisation has come a long way since then

Isler admits that the Race of Legends was “a complete mess” and is grateful that regatta organisation has improved considerably in the 20 years since then.

“Spectator control was unheard of,” he said. “We had a great time racing the boats, but they were really slow and nowhere near as optimised as the boats are today.

“The Coastguard was so upset by the mayhem in the harbour with just two Js racing that they pulled the permit for the New York Harbour Regatta and hence the Race of the Legends never really had a winner.”

The contrast with this week's slickly organised J Class World Championships (pictured above) couldn't be stronger.

Photo: Onne van der Wal

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Isler has a soft spot for J Class yachts

Having sailed around the world in a wide variety of yachts, Isler knows a beautiful boat when he sees one and he was effusive in his praise of the modern J Class fleet.

“It’s no secret, you know it as soon as you see them sailing — they’re the most beautiful sailing vessels in the world,” he gushed. “You can’t help but fall in love with them. To see one sailing is truly spectacular and we’re lucky to have them. They are special, special sailing machines.”

Photo: Onne van der Wal

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The America’s Cup is more of a duel than a regatta

Emirates Team New Zealand’s recent victory in Bermuda means that the location, date and format of the 36th America’s is currently up in the air. Isler argues that this uncertainty is one of the things that gives the world’s oldest international sporting trophy its unique appeal.

“The coolest thing about the America’s Cup to me is that it’s not really a sailing event," he said. "It’s this idiosyncratic sporting event that harkens back to the days of the duels — you choose the weapon, I choose the venue, you say how many paces we’re going to step off, I say ‘Mother, may I?’ and we turn and shoot.

“It’s governed by a 100-year-old document that’s controlled by the New York State court system — it’s not a sporting event with commissioners like the Olympics, and that in itself is party of its beauty, I believe.”

The J Class World Championships concluded on August 26, with the 43.4 metre Claasen yacht Lionheart taking top honours.

Photo: ACEA / Ricardo Pinto

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