Judith Lawson
September 12, 1977 12:00 PM

It may be that Robert Edward (“Terrible Ted”) Turner III is not, as he might like to believe, a deep-fried combination of Lord Nelson, Rhett Butler and Alexander the Great reincarnate. But he tries—Lord knows, he tries. For the bumptious 38-year-old skipper of this year’s America’s Cup defender Courageous yearns like a schoolboy to win and be recognized. “Fame,” he once observed, “is like love. You can never have too much of it.”

To describe the flap-jawed Turner as outspoken is as inadequate as saying the ocean is wet. A couple of months ago, for example, he found himself at Newport’s exclusive Bailey’s Beach surrounded by the gilded summer colony’s proper ladies. Put off by the jostling and huffing of snobbery, the exasperated skipper was overheard to remark: “You know what all those stiff-faced old broads need? They need to be bleeped, and I’m the man to do it.” Then, sensing catastrophe, he asked disingenuously, “Was I rude?”

Such breaches of decorum have not endeared Terrible Ted to the yachting establishment (“Clean up your act or else,” he was warned after his last indiscretion). But his antics have tickled the fancy of sailing’s salty polloi. “Even the New York Yacht Club guys get a lot of vicarious pleasure out of Ted,” claims occasional Turner crewman “Doc” Greenaway. And amid the backwash of continuous babble, few can find fault with Turner’s canny seamanship this summer at the helm of Courageous.

Though an older hull, Courageous has consistently showed her stern to her two newer U.S. 12-meter rivals, Enterprise and Independence. Finally chosen as defender of the Cup, yachting’s grandest international prize, Turner has no intention of becoming the first American to lose to a foreign challenger in the 107-year history of competition for the Auld Mug.

Turner’s pride, in fact, has been on the line already for more than three years. A top-rated sailor who had won just about every important ocean-racing trophy and who has twice been named Yachtsman of the Year, the Atlanta millionaire was humiliated in his first Cup outing in 1974. At the helm of Mariner, an expensive dud despite her fire-engine-red paint job, he was washed out in the selection trials. “They thought it was my swan song,” he says. “Now I want to prove it wasn’t my fault that we lost.”

Such tenacity dates back to Turner’s boyhood in Savannah, Ga. For his 12th birthday his father presented him with an 11-foot Penguin class catboat. Turner’s mother says that when the wind piped up and all the other boys took down their sails, Ted went right on battling the breezes. “I was famous almost overnight,” he recalls with a grin. “They called me Turn-over Turner, the Capsize Kid.”

Dampened but undismayed, he went on to sail competitively at Brown University, where he was a classics major. His father, an ex-used-car dealer, had toiled like a man possessed to build up his own outdoor advertising company. But when Ted was 24, his father committed suicide. Ted took over with virtually no preparation and has since parlayed the family billboard company into an Atlanta-based communications empire, replete with radio and TV stations. As owner of two of Atlanta’s big-league teams, the baseball Braves and basketball Hawks, he has shown a knack for making waves even on dry land. Earlier this year he appointed himself field manager of his last-place baseball team—until Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, predictably unamused, yanked Turner out of uniform after one day.

Turner’s three-year marriage to Judy Nye, daughter of a Chicago sailmaker, produced a daughter, a son and a joint national sailing title. But their marriage floundered, according to family intimates, because “they were too much alike.” Turner was remarried in 1964 to former airline stewardess Jane Smith, by whom he now has another daughter and two more sons.

With his family and business responsibilities, Turner can normally spend only six weeks a year racing sailboats. But when he decides to sail, he can count on a loyal crew of “old buddies” who take his onboard tongue-lashings in stride. “He never holds a grudge,” explains one. “He’s just like a big baby. You never take that stuff personally.”

“It’s as though he talks to reassure himself he’s alive,” offers another longtime student of the Mouth. But in this America’s Cup campaign, some of his crewmen are fighting blather with blather. “I try to stay close to him and keep talking so he can’t talk,” says Gary Jobson, Courageous’ 27-year-old tactician. “And I try to do what I’m told and shut up,” acknowledges the Terrible One ruefully. “But I find that awfully difficult.”

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