Fear and Loathing at the America's Cup 
An interview with Ralph Steadman
By Gadfly Staff

From Gadfly June 1998


Early in 1970, Hunter S. Thompson met Ralph Steadman, a Welsh artist looking for work in America. The two were brought together through Scanlan's magazine which had hired them to do a story about the Kentucky Derby. Steadman's art became an essential part of Thompson's work, and their unique partnership culminated in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. "He's had my drawings around the wall to write to," says Steadman. "That's how necessary I have been to his career, would you believe it? He won't acknowledge that ever, that's the only thing. Or if he does, it's begrudgingly." A book of Steadman's drawings, Gonzo the Art, is scheduled to appear this fall. When we asked about his favorite adventure with Hunter, Steadman recounted the following story.

"Hunter and I never got proper journalistic accreditation to go anywhere. Nobody was giving us passes to go in here or there. We always had to somehow talk our way in. We were total mavericks. We went to the America's Cup, Rhode Island, in late 1970. The Gretel and The Intrepid were the two boats fighting it out—Australia versus America. It's a long, boring race unless you're into yachting. But these guys were serious seamen.

"I hate boats and was getting seasick all the time, and Hunter gave me one of his pills which turned out to be psilocybin, a hallucinogenic. And Hunter had the idea that we had to do something, the two of us, to make a story, because there really was no story. Also, Scanlan's, the magazine that had sent us there as our second assignment—the first being the Kentucky Derby—was going bust. It had gone through three quarters of a million dollars of borrowed money in nine months, which doesn't seem like much now maybe, but it was a hell of a lot then.

"The drug was taking effect, and I was quite happy to do whatever Hunter suggested, and he said, 'There's a couple of spray cans here, Ralph. There's red and there's black. You're the artist. What are you going to do with them?'

"So our idea was to take a little dinghy from the sloop we'd hired. We'd had a rock band on board, but they had long since left by the time we got to this stage. They'd been on board for about four days, and it was mayhem then. We had tried to get in and out of the race so we could spoil it. It was a funny, terrible thing to do, but we were journalistic vandals trying to make a story out of being mischievous.

"And now our idea was to get in between the two racing boats, The Gretel and The Intrepid, in the moonlight. The drugs began to take hold, and I could see streaks of red in the water—weird flashes like the moon makes, but they had turned red in the water. The moon was crystal clear—white—and it was making jagged things in the water, like jack knives. And I had these two spray cans and I was going to write 'Fuck the Pope' so that in the morning nobody would know the words were there until the boats came out into the harbor and suddenly everyone could read it.  That was the idea. That was a story.

"But you know how when you shake spray cans they go click, click, click, click, click, click? Somebody heard us and Hunter said, 'We've got to flee, Ralph! We've got to flee! My God, there are pigs everywhere! We've got to flee now! We've got to go! Otherwise there'll be machine guns and all sorts of things happening! Anything will be coming any minute now. My God, we've got to go!'

"And he pulled on the oars in the dinghy and they came out of the oarlocks and he fell back in the boat, and there was all sorts of cursing because nobody expected to see anybody there. Hunter was on his back, and he said, 'Oh, we're just looking at the boats, just looking at the boats.' And I had two spray cans in my hands.

"When we got back to the boat with our little dinghy, there was an alert around that something weird was going on.  Hunter took a flare gun, and he said, 'We failed, Ralph. We failed. It's hopeless. The story's over. We're finished.' And he shot these three flares up into the air in the harbor, and they came down on other people's yachts and set fire to things. The harbor police were well taken care of looking after these yachts with fires on them. People were screaming and screeching and running about, and I was in a raging state by this time. I was gibbering, and Hunter was saying, 'That's good, Ralph. Keep going, keep going.' He was writing down what I was saying.

"Then we hitched a lift from a passing small boat to get to the shore again with what was left of our baggage. Some of my clothes had been taken, but I had my passport and my ticket home. That's really what I was clutching. It's a very strange kind of self-preservation. Hunter always says he never leaves home without a return ticket.

"I was gibbering and in a hell of a mess. By this time it was getting light and we found a coffee shop, and Hunter was making frantic calls to Aspen to make sure they knew he was on his way back from Boston to register for the Freak Power vote in Aspen in 1970 which he damned near won. That was for sheriff. He wanted to rename Aspen Fat City and break up all the roads with jack hammers and put down turf. That was his idea. And any drug worth taking shouldn't be paid for, that was another idea. It would have been a hell of a reign.

"So I got on a plane back to New York. I had managed to keep my shoes, but I had no socks. I was a bit decrepit by this time. I was palpitating enormously. I couldn't sit down. At the time, they didn't have such serious security measures on airplanes, so I stood up the whole way. I couldn't close my eyes, because when I did I saw purple pulsating flesh in front of my eyes. It was a pretty hideous thing. So I had a bad time with him generally in the early days. In fact, I had a bad time with him most times. But it's always been fun for some peculiar reason. It's a perverse kind of fun."