Life, Death, and Winning: Why Only One of Those Matters to People Like Ted Turner

For all of his eventual entrepreneurial swagger and ruthless accumulation of wealth, Ted Turner has always been, deep inside, just another history nerd. When, as a teenager at Brown University, he informed his dad that he wanted to major in classics rather than business, the elder Turner savaged him in an eloquent note.

“I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted Classics as a major,” his father began. “As a matter of fact, I almost puked on the way home today.” He called his son a snob, snarling that he was destined to “contemplate for the rest of your days the influence that the hieroglyphics of prehistoric man had upon the writings of William Faulkner.”

As he wound down the riposte he observed: “I think you are rapidly becoming a jackass.”

This was in 1957. Twenty-two years later, Turner had yet to create CNN, but he had purchased the Atlanta Braves and Hawks, a 5,000-acre plantation in South Carolina, and a fistful of radio and TV stations. An obsessive sailor — he was captain of the team in college — he had won an America’s Cup and been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated (headline: “Terrible Ted Takes Command”) in a sweater embroidered with his ship’s name, Courageous. In 1979, Turner skippered another ship, this one called Tenacious, in the biennial Fastnet ocean race up the English Channel and across the Celtic Sea.

It was a catastrophic competition, chronicled in the 30 for 30 short above. Fifteen racers and another three rescuers were killed when an unexpected hurricane-force storm blew in and tossed yachts around like rubber duckies. At the finish line at Plymouth Harbor, “a pier was crowded with solemn women and men … staring mournfully out to the English Channel,” recalled John Rousmaniere, a sailor-writer. “Plymouth has been a naval port for centuries, and so this pier must have served many hundreds of times as a widow’s walk. But I wonder if ever in its history it had supported so many people whose hearts were aching.”

Most ships gave up, waiting to be rescued by military and commercial fleets. Dozens sunk or were abandoned. Tenacious not only finished the race, it took first place in handicap-adjusted time. “I was more afraid of losing than I was of dying,” Turner said, more than once, about that long dark night — but that wasn’t even the most callous of his frank postrace remarks.

“I’ll tell you what I did,” he said shortly after returning to land, according to the biography Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way. (His biographer, Christian Williams of the Washington Post, was along for the ride as part of the Tenacious crew.)

I came up with a great line, and it’s going to be on British television tonight. They said, ‘How can we avoid tragedies like this in the future?’ And I said, ‘You ought to be thankful there are storms like that, or you’d all be speaking Spanish. ‘Cause it was a storm like that that sank the Spanish armada.’

Standing on a dock, he then launched into a verse from the 1842 poem “Horatius,” about an ancient military officer unafraid to sacrifice his life to prevent the sacking of Rome. Turner may have eventually changed his major at Brown back to economics, but he became a history-worshiping jackass nonetheless.

“Watch me,” Turner boasted during a positively bonkers 1978 interview with Playboy, in which discussion ranged from his suspension from baseball to his low tolerance for alcohol to his father’s gunshot suicide when he was 24. “I’m like a bulldog that won’t let go. Why do you think my own racing yacht is named Tenacious, dummy?”

“We give up, why?” the interviewer said.

“Because I never quit,” Turner said. “I’ve got a bunch of flags on my boat, but there ain’t no white flags. I don’t surrender. That’s the story of my life.”

Turner is far from the only unapologetic ultracompetitor in the history of yacht racing, nor is he the only business magnate captivated by the high speeds to be found on the high seas. Dennis Conner, a renowned sailor known as “Mr. America’s Cup,” also competed in the 1979 Fastnet race, and he had a similar reaction as Turner to the deadly storm.

A Sports Illustrated piece noted that Conner ultimately regretted playing it safe. According to the book Fastnet, Force 10, he “echoed Turner’s pride in fearlessness when he told the New York Times that the worst thing about the race was that his boat, Williwaw, did not win it.” He likened it all to the Indy 500: “We’ll take our chances. The danger is part of it. We were racing all the time.”

Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who bankrolled the America’s Cup–winning syndicate just last year, is, like Turner, both a rich eccentric and a longtime yachting enthusiast. He, too, endured a night of squall-fueled terror during a major ocean race. In 1998, he was at the helm of the 78-foot-long Sayonara for the famed Sydney-Hobart, an excursion from Australian to Tasmania that was struck that year by a storm reminiscent of the one that hit Fastnet in 1979.

“The sky looked wrong,” Ellison recalled. “The waves looked wrong. Everything was wrong.” Several boats in that race were wrecked by waves, some in excess of 80 feet; six sailors were killed. (Rousmaniere did point out that, thanks in part to shipbuilding regulations that were put in place in the aftermath of the Fastnet tragedy, the percentage of the fleet that capsized or turtled in the Sydney-Hobart was substantially reduced.)

Ellison, unlike Turner, didn’t scoff at the storm Lieutenant Dan style or seem to value winning over survival, though he did point out that “you’re so busy doing your job that there’s no time to think about dying.” He never sailed that race again, preferring to remain closer to shore. But he did remember the “incredible” feeling of crossing the finish line first.

It’s a beautiful sunrise. The sky is pink and amber and Prussian blue. It’s gorgeous. There’s heather on the hills. It’s a Scottish community. A small boat pulls up next to you, and with bagpipes, greets the winner. Incredibly somber bagpipe music is playing. Gorgeous sunrise. Beautiful. Tough guys crying. It’s something I’ll never forget in my entire life. The glory, the wonder of being alive.

What forces folks to risk so much on something that, from the outside looking in, rewards so little? It’s a question that comes up often, and not just regarding water sports. We glimpse men and women — husbands and wives; sons and daughters; parents of little children — hurling themselves off cliffs in flying-squirrel suits, or skiing down chutes so narrow that one walnut-size piece of debris could lead to death, or launching themselves high into the sky on tiny little bikes. We wonder what on earth they’re thinking, whether they’ve even thought at all.

It’s easy to gasp and easier to judge, but so often these types — these “thrill seekers,” as they are commonly known — have found the sort of personal clarity that many people spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on therapy bills or yoga classes to achieve. They know who they are and what they want and what it takes to get it.

If you don’t know these types, you may find them frivolous; if you do, you know just how serious they are. They spend more time assessing snowpack and evaluating the safety of the conditions than they do blazing down a hill. They spend their every waking hour honing survival instincts and muscle memories so, should something go awry, they can best react. “You’re supposed to have a strong vessel with crew and equipment for any condition,” Turner explained. “I feel a little like Noah. I knew that the flood was coming, and I had a boat ready that would get me through it.” That’s good risk management, even if it comes across a bit like Goldman Sachs executives praising themselves for surviving the financial crisis.

Grouping Ted Turner with the Shane McConkeys of the world is giving the man too much credit, to be clear. He’s far too outwardly competitive for that; his high comes not from the sailing, but from the winning; not from the race, but from the finish line. But there is an overlap in the calculation of their recklessness, in the precision of their abandon.

It’s hard to explain and uncomfortable to justify, for sure; it’s like Minnie Driver telling Matt Damon that when she looks at a piano she sees chopsticks. Most people look at an expanse of white snow or blue sky or churning ocean and see fear or risk. Others see a blank canvas to be painted, a God-given wonder to be honored, the only way to live. When Turner stood on the dock spouting off the words of Lord Macaulay, it was, as his father had once feared, an utterly pretentious show. But even he probably wouldn’t have memorized all of those words unless they had some inner resonance.

But fiercely ran the current,

Swollen high by months of rain

And fast his blood was flowing,

And he was sore in pain,

And heavy with his armor,

And spent with changing blows;

And oft they thought him sinking,

But still again he rose.

This piece has been updated to correct the name of the sea the Tenacious traversed in 1979.

Filed Under: 30 For 30

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes