23 Jan 2021

America’s Cup: Leslie Egnot on that historic 1995 campaign

5:04 pm on 23 January 2021

You couldn't get a more unlikely sporting rivalry - New Zealand sailor Leslie Egnot verse 'Mr America's Cup' Dennis Conner.

Leslie Egnot at the 1995 America's Cup.

Leslie Egnot at the 1995 America's Cup. Photo: Supplied

But in 1995, against all odds Egnot led an-all women's team which came excruciatingly close to beating Conner's Stars and Stripes for the right to defend the America's Cup against Team New Zealand.

When the America's Cup cycle rolls around memories of that campaign start flooding back to Egnot.

Team New Zealand of course made history in 95' when they won the America's Cup for the first time but there was another major story line in San Diego, and Egnot was smack bang in the middle of it.

From the controversy of a man being substituted on to the boat and a back room deal which saw Conner's team survive to make it to the final, the women's journey in the Cup had all the makings of a classic sports movie.

On the face of it, Egnot might not have been the most obvious candidate to take on the establishment but her demure nature belied just how tough she was.

In 1994 millionaire Bill Koch, who was coming off an America's Cup title just two years earlier, announced he was putting together an all-women's team under the America3, pronounced "America-cubed" syndicate.

Koch's decision was ground-breaking. Only a handful of women had ever sailed on any of the Cup yachts dating back to the first race in 1851.

By then Egnot had already achieved a lot in sailing, winning a silver medal with Jan Shearer at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the women's 470 class.

Leslie Egnot (right) with Jan Shearer at the Barcelona Olympic Games, 1992.

Leslie Egnot (right) with Jan Shearer at the Barcelona Olympic Games, 1992. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Egnot heard about the plan through friend Dawn Riley. The American had been part of the all-female crew that competed in the 1989-1990 Whitbread Around the World Race.

Egnot was born in America and still had a US passport so was eligible to sail for the syndicate.

Riley was helping to set the team up and encouraged Egnot to fly to America for the trials.

"They received over 600 applications and they whittled it down to about 70 to trial. I was in San Diego for a week," Egnot said.

Building a team from scratch

The women were pushed to their limits.

"I think they tried to work us to exhaustion. They wanted to see how our personalities gelled and how we coped with the stress and fatigue. There was strength tests, fitness tests, sailing tests on the boat and practice races."

Egnot returned to New Zealand and was delighted to find out she'd made the team.

It meant spending a year in America and Egnot's husband gave up his job to head over with her.

There were several women in the team who hadn't actually sailed before.

It was difficult to find female sailors that were big enough and strong enough for the grinding positions for instance.

"Our team had Olympic rowers, an Olympic weightlifter, we had an American Gladiator from the TV programme. We did need to bring some women in who hadn't sailed before.

"Also, for us to learn how to sail an America's Cup boat because only one of us had ever sailed one before and that was Dawn. But the rest of us it was very new to be sailing a boat of that size and with that much power and the loads."

They had a year to pack in as much learning as they could.

"It was huge, we trained as much as we possibly could. I wouldn't be surprised if we put the most hours on the water of all the teams just to try to learn as much as we could as quickly as we could. There was an incredible amount of learning."

The physical demands were gruelling. It would take 10 people just to carry the mainsail down to the boat each day.

Egnot got the nod to steer the boat early on, and it soon became apparent that she was the best person to skipper as well.

After months of training America3 lined up for the start of the defenders' trials. The eventual winner would sail up against the winner of the challenger series.

Beating Conner

The team onboard Mighty Mary couldn't have dreamt for a better start when they beat Dennis Conner's Stars and Stripes in their very first race.

It was even more satisfying because Conner had been so scathing of the team. He dubbed America3 among other things as "Team Lesbo".

It was all very surreal. To Egnot, Conner was a living legend.

"I'd followed his sailing career and we were up against his team and I know he was one of the many people who doubted our ability to actually sail a boat and get it around the course. When we managed to beat Dennis Conner that was pretty exciting for us just to see that all the hard work had paid off."

People suddenly started taking America3 more seriously after that.

"I think that they were very surprised and the other defenders knew that they had a race on their hands when they sailed against us and it wasn't going to be an easy win for them."

That's when the bags of mail started arriving daily.

"It was amazing the letters of support and faxes and things; heaps from New Zealand and all over the world, yeah it was very special."

Stars and Stripes skipper Dennis Conner.

Stars and Stripes skipper Dennis Conner. Photo: © Photosport Ltd www.photosport.co.nz

Egnot's grandfather had watched that race from a hospital bed in New Zealand.

"My dear old granddad. His name was Leslie as well, and he went to sea at 14 and sailed on a square rigger around Cape Horn four times and was shipwrecked four times.

"He was getting close to passing away and apparently, when he saw us beat Dennis Conner in that first race, he says, 'Well, I've seen everything I can go now I don't need to see anymore' and he passed away not long after that."

America3 would race against Stars and Stripes several times during the defender series.

Known as "Dirty Dennis" to many Kiwis, Conner was as seasoned as they come. A four-time America's Cup winner, he was 53-years-old in 1995. It was a baptism of fire for Egnot, just 32 at the time.

When Mighty Mary came up to pre-start, members of Stars and Stripes would shout insults across the water.

"I guess trying to get into our heads any way they could to try to beat us. Unfortunately that was one of their tactics I guess. I didn't pay too much attention to it, but some of the other girls on the boat could hear.

"I can't remember word for word but it's just a bit of slanderous sort of stuff.

"He [Conner] liked to use intimidation tactics ...he was quite rude, mean to us."

Man onboard

After coming out of the blocks strong, America3 had a string of losses as they approached the semi-finals.

The thing that was hurting them was lack of experience.

Leslie Egnot was skipper and helm of  Mighty Mary

Leslie Egnot was skipper and helm of Mighty Mary. Photo: Supplied

After a meeting between the team leaders and syndicate chief Bill Koch, the controversial decision was made to bring a man on board as tactician.

Cup veteran Dave Dellenbaugh joined the crew for the final round robin.

Some commentators felt they had abandoned their principles. Egnot was philosophical about it.

"It was getting close to the end of the round robin and we had had a bad run. What can we do to make a change, to improve? And it just felt like that was one area that we were lacking.

"We hadn't done that sort of racing before on those sorts of boats and having Dave on board - he'd been coaching us all the way through so it wasn't like we brought an outsider in. He didn't try to take over, he just brought his experience and a calm nature with him which was a great bonus."

America3 started to gather momentum in the semis, where they actually picked up more wins than Stars and Stripes.

It came down to the last race of the semi-finals.

The formula was simple - if they beat Stars and Stripes they would knock them out and progress to the finals against Young America.

That's exactly what they did but unbeknown to the crew, a backroom deal had been made.

What could have been

"We were pretty excited to have won that race and then to cross the finish line and to hear from Jane Dent who was working for TV One at that time. When she was interviewing me live on TV she explained that no it wasn't all over, we hadn't knocked Dennis Conner's team out. And in fact, it was just going to be a three team final rather than two team final. So it was a pretty, pretty big let down for the whole team."

America3 celebrate

America3 celebrate Photo: Supplied

A last minute deal had been reached that all three boats would advance into the finals.

"Our management had been chatting with Conner's team management, neither of the syndicates wanted to be knocked out. They'd changed it on us that morning before the race.

"Our management I guess didn't trust we could win. We felt they didn't have any confidence in us. Lots of emotions were running …initially everybody was pretty upset about it.

It was a decision Bill Koch later said he deeply regretted.

The team onboard Mighty Mary had every right to be furious but they had to regroup quickly.

"Once the initial shock set in, and we got over it, we just switched back over again and got back into racing."

America3 just edged Young America in the finals to set them up for a do or die last race against Stars and Stripes.

The almost all-women's team got off to a dream start in tricky conditions, pulling out to a massive 4 minute lead, coming down onto the final leg.

But there would be another twist as Mighty Mary suddenly got stuck in a big hole.

"The wind just disappeared, there was nothing, it was like a mirror. And we could see way in the distance Conner had a breeze, that he managed to carry right on through and overtook our team right on the finish line after we'd had this massive lead."

It was the most gut-wrenching time for everyone involved.

"It was the fickleness of nature that came through and allowed Stars and Stripes to come through and win that race - that was the end of our America's Cup.

"It was really a tough time. Team New Zealand were fantastic. We got to the dock and they were one of the first teams to come over and give their commiserations. And they dropped off a crate of beer just to let us know that they were thinking of us."

Stars and Stripes were then thrashed by Team New Zealand five-nil in the final.

Peter Blake shakes the hand of American businessman Bill Koch.
Team New Zealand v Team Dennis Conner in the 1995 America's Cup.

Teams NZ's Peter Blake shakes the hand of American businessman Bill Koch at the 1995 America's Cup. Photo: Photosport

Media shy

As skipper and helm Egnot was expected to front the media and attend regular press conferences throughout the America's Cup.

She would try to encourage other team-mates to go in her place.

"It was off the water stuff that I found hard. Fronting the media in particular, it was very hard. I just don't like speaking in front of groups and that and so you can imagine that was being thrown into the deep end, having to attend those press conferences and things. They did give us training beforehand, which helped a lot to have some practice to deal with it."

When Egnot came home she was still in demand.

"People wanted to hear about my experience and I had to talk in front of groups and gosh I just about had panic attacks before each one, you know suffered the anxiety of having to do that. But I guess the more I did it, I got affected less but still it made me really nervous."

On top of it, she had to come face to face with a bullish Conner at many of those press conferences.

A 1987 press conference infamously ended with Conner telling New Zealand boat designer Bruce Farr that he was "full of s* …get off the stage."

She may have been softly spoken, but Egnot was not easily fazed and didn't let herself get intimidated by Conner.

"Not really, because you know, when you've got a challenge ahead of you, and you want to overcome that challenge. That's how I looked at that I felt pretty cool to be rubbing shoulders with them, you know, and being able to be competing against them.

"You have to remember never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined as a kid growing up learning to sail that I would be in that position. So it was very special times. And yeah, it was pretty cool to be sitting next to him in those conferences."

Any attacks on the team also helped bring them closer together.

"A lot of us still remain really close friends. If it wasn't for COVID a lot of them would have been here for this Cup to come and watch and we would have been catching up with them right about now. So we made some really special friendships because we went through a lot of ups and downs."

Quiet determination

Egnot might not have come across as a tough character in the traditional sense but she had plenty of steel.

It came about in the quiet way she dealt with setbacks.

The all-woman crew onboard Mighty Mary.

The all-women crew onboard Mighty Mary. Photo: Supplied

Egnot carried an injury though most of the 1995 campaign, that would ultimately end her career.

In one of the early races Egnot fell over and hurt her shoulder. She suffered through it with minimum fuss.

"I kept on sailing and it just exacerbated the pain, through my arm and neck, which made it really quite difficult racing, because of the extreme pain. But I wasn't going to stop sailing because of it. It was too good an opportunity to stop."

Egnot teamed up with Jan Shearer again for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics not realising how serious the injury was.

Sadly it affected her Olympic campaign, the pair finishing 16th.

"I could only use one arm. We didn't know what the problem was and it just kept getting worse. The team doctor would give me cortisone injections before every race day and I'd get like 20 minutes relief when it should have been days."

Finally, after the Olympics a scan revealed why she had been in so much agony. Her collarbone was full of chips and Egnot had to have surgery to cut away part of the bone.

"I did try sailing after that but it was really hard because it had gone on for so long …it took several years really for it to be pain free."

Egnot's son Nick Egnot-Johnson has now taken up the mantle for the family.

At just 21 he rose to second in the world match racing rankings before COVID put a hold on competition.

For a number of years Egnot worked for Yachting New Zealand in different roles. She's still on the Olympic Committee and is an Olympic selector.

A feat still unmatched

At the end of the 1995 America's Cup, the women on Mighty Mary imagined that their efforts would pave the way for more women sailing in the America's Cup.

"That was what we wanted to see happen. We needed a starting point and the only way really to do it to get maximum impact was to have a women's team. Women now had this experience that could filter into men's teams."

At the next America's Cup in New Zealand in 2000, Egnot was involved in America True, a team that had men and women on board. But that was about as far as it went.

Egnot is still the only woman ever to helm an America's Cup yacht.

The design of the boats now require an insane level of power and strength to get them up on their foils, making it almost impossible for women to compete.

"I love watching them sail I think they're the most exciting things buzzing around but a side effect of it is that it's made it a little bit harder for women to sail."

Egnot has been encouraged by the efforts to get women into events outside of the America's Cup.

"They're working really hard to get gender equality and trying to get 50/50 women and men competing at the Olympics. They're changing one of the classes and it has to be a mixed gender class. You've also got the Volvo Ocean Race where there's a mandate now that you should carry a certain number of women on your boat.

"Things are changing, I think that people have recognized it is a problem and there hasn't been the same career path for women as professional sailors as there is for men."

Egnot still feels incredibly lucky to have been part of that team in 95'.

"It was special. By the time we started racing, we were so prepared for it that we didn't see the enormity of what was going on with what we were doing."

While the historic 95' campaign might not have forged the path that Egnot had hoped for, she's still able to sit back and enjoy the America's Cup for what it is.

"I really am excited to be following this America's Cup. I think the boats are just amazing and so spectacular and I can't wait to see it all unfold."