Philly's Wright set for America's Cup Hall of Fame

Posted: June 28, 2012

These days, Jonathan Wright is far removed from the coast of Australia, where he once spent hours, if not entire days, on the water as part of the most renowned American sailing team in history.

Today, his work is no less time-consuming and arguably equally instrumental. The 66-year-old serves as the Vanderstar Chair at the United States Naval Academy, overseeing the quality and safety of all sailing vessels.

Wright, who grew up in Chestnut Hill, supervises trips in which 80 midshipmen squeeze onto a 45-foot vessel, in part to complete the academy's requirement that all graduates know how to sail.

The life that Wright has dedicated to sailing will be honored Friday when he is inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.

"I feel very honored to be chosen," Wright said. "I'm there representing, I feel, all the other guys that did it as amateurs and contributed to sailing these boats but didn't get a lot of glory - the guys in the middle of the boat."

Wright's days in Australia became pivotal for American sailing because of the accomplishments of Stars & Stripes in the 1987 America's Cup, the Tour de France of sailing.

Many of the sailors from the 1987 team made up the 1983 American team on Liberty that lost the America's Cup for the first time in 132 years when Australia became the first country to feature a winged-keel design, giving its boat superior speed.

Embarrassed and angry, skipper Dennis Conner, whom Wright refers to as the Jack Nicklaus of sailing, raised 12 times the amount of money for the 1987 running to update equipment.Conner led the team of 11 to practice in Hawaii for a year and Australia for the nine months leading up to the race. The squad practiced 11 hours a day, six days a week in preparation for the 1987 tournament.

The Americans easily won the challengers tournament to set up a rematch with Australia, which they swept, 4-0, in the best-of-seven competition.

Conner represented that team on the covers of Time magazine and Sports Illustrated the following week.

"This award is well-deserved and long overdue," Conner said of Wright's induction into the Hall of Fame. "He came from a family of sailing, which manifested to winning in all types of boats. He's a great guy."

America's Cup is the oldest active trophy in international sports, no less prestigious to its followers than Lord Stanley's Cup is to hockey fans.

Wright competed in five America's Cups spanning 13 years, winning three times and placing second once.

"I think they picked me because I did it five times," he said. "Not many have done that. I feel that's what I'm representing - all of those people that helped me do that. They're going to be a big part of my speech."

Wright's father owned a sailing shop on the South Jersey shore and Wright got his start at the Stone Harbor Yacht Club.

Twenty-five years removed from his last America's Cup competition, he's still finding ways to sail, even if the 80 novice midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy are a far cry from his old mates in Australia.


Contact Chad Graff at cgraff@philly.com or 215-854-4550. Follow on Twitter @ChadGraff.

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