There was still one more race to go, but Dennis Conner, relaxing at the helm of a Cal 40, had already clinched victory in the Congressional Cup, the prestigious three-day match-racing series staged annually off the Southern California coast. Pausing for a quickie celebration before the final start, Conner drank beer with his crew, smiling hugely beneath his broad-brush mustache. As spectator boats tooted and honked, he exclaimed, "This is terrific—even more exciting than winning the SORC."
Though beaten rivals may find it ostentatious of him, Conner can scarcely help comparing his victories, if only to try to keep them all straight. A fellow to reckon with ever since he won the Star class world championship in 1971, the 32-year-old San Diegan gained wider prominence with his meteoric rise in last summer's America's Cup defense effort, then sailed his new One Tonner Stinger to the overall championship of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference (SI, March 10). And by winning last week's Congressional Cup, his second victory in the event in three years, he left little doubt that he is the hottest sailor afloat.
In many ways Conner's triumph in the Congressional was more impressive than that in the SORC, where the competitors shared the limelight with new hulls and sails. By contrast, the sponsoring Long Beach Yacht Club tries to make the Congressional Cup a test of pure sailing. The format is as unique as it is simple: take 10 crack skippers, put them in 10 virtually identical Cal 40s, then pair them off on a six-mile windward-leeward course out beyond the Long Beach breakwater until everybody has met everybody else. This is a round-robin series—45 head-to-head races in all—and except to note for the record that Dennis Conner's craft was named Anona II, the typesetter can spare the italics; in theory, anyway, the boats are unimportant.
What matters instead, given so short a course, are cunning starts, adroit tacks and well executed spinnaker runs. These skills are mastered early by hotshots in California, where match racing has been popular for some time, but the art has only recently begun to catch on elsewhere. Partly as a consequence, all 11 Congressionals so far have been taken by Californians, among them collegians and other upstarts who have knocked off illustrious invaders.
As for Conner, his earlier achievements in the Congressional Cup—he was runner-up in 1972 before winning the next year—were characterized by sheer aggressiveness, especially in starts. He also displayed the killer instinct last summer in Newport, where he served aboard both Mariner and Valiant before signing on as starting specialist on Courageous, the defender. By the time Conner returned for this year's Congressional, his reputation had grown fearsome; at the Long Beach Yacht Club's packed bar, discussions of his racing style bristled with words like ruthless, merciless, or, as one rival insisted on putting it, nasty.
At times Conner seemed anxious for a change of image. Asked about an upcoming match, he replied casually, "Frankly, I don't even know who I'm sailing against." And he sailed a number of races in a dignified blue blazer, as though he were the gentlemanly reincarnation of Sir Thomas Lipton. Such ruses might even have worked but for the way Conner tore through his opposition. He won eight of his nine races, losing only to Seattle's Bill Buchan, and one of his crew complained, "Dennis keeps telling us to trim sails even when we've already done it. He gets carried away sometimes." Conner admitted, "Maybe I am a little nasty. I know I don't feel very friendly to my opponents."
For an indication of just how unfriendly he could be, consider the fate of his first opponent, Ted Hood, who shared the cockpit with Conner last summer as Courageous' skipper. Her victory over the Australian challenger helped Hood sweep Yachtsman-of-the-Year honors for 1974 and this year the estimable sail-maker avoided being completely upstaged by beating Conner in a match-racing series for One Tonners in Florida in January. Hood dared not make too much of it. "Dennis is the best at this kind of racing," he allowed graciously. "But being on Courageous with him, I may have learned a few things from him."
Receiving a fresh lesson in the Congressional Cup, Hood found himself outfoxed in prestart maneuvering, with Conner crossing the starting line 23 seconds in front. Hood managed to close within a boat length a couple of times but Conner held on to win by 19 seconds. Ashore, the winner crowed, "Did you see my race with Teddy Hoo-Hoo? Wasn't that something?"
Teddy Hoo-Hoo was disconsolate. "I just wasn't alert on the start," he said, shaking his head. "My timing was off. We were still luffing when we should have been starting to tack." Hood's luck was soon to turn even worse, the problem this time being the churning four-foot seas that met the Cal 40s the second day. The blustery conditions finally forced scrapping the day's racing but not before Hood's boat, getting into position for a start, was dismasted by a 30-knot gust. The sign that somebody later tacked on the disabled craft—TED HOOD 3, MOTHER NATURE 1—was overly optimistic. Hood was given a substitute boat but had little time to familiarize himself with it. Racing concluded Saturday under picture-postcard conditions—tranquil seas and southeast winds of 10 knots—and Hood ended up losing five straight races, for a final 3-6 record.
Conner meanwhile was beating back other challenges. After outdueling Hood, he rolled up three easy victories only to find his 4-0 record matched by a genial fellow named Tony Parker, who captained Harvard's sailing team in the late '60s. Lightly regarded before the competition, Parker had performed well despite being unhappy with his spinnaker. Making allowances for such things, a race official announced at a skippers' meeting that anybody who cared to could surrender his spinnaker and draw for a replacement, sight unseen. The official called the procedure a "crap shoot," an unwitting pun that cracked up the assembled yachtsmen.
"I wonder if that's spelled s-h-o-o-t or c-h-u-t-e?" one of them muttered. Parker stuck with the spinnaker he had.
Spinnakers turned out not to matter much, however. Up to his starting tricks, Conner had Parker floundering far out of position when the starting gun sounded. Conner's boat crossed the line more than a minute ahead and the race, for all practical purposes, was over.
It was later in the afternoon that Conner suffered his loss to Buchan, who was tactician aboard the rival Intrepid when Hood, with Conner at his side, sailed Courageous to victory in the conclusive race of the America's Cup trials. Losing to Buchan now, Conner suffered a perhaps understandable letdown, but he could ill afford a similar lapse against New Yorker Graham Hall. Having likewise lost just one match, Hall, a notable small-boat racer, was still very much in contention.
For a while it appeared that Hall might have to sail the final day without tactician Andy Rose, a Congressional veteran and one of the few sailors who can hope to outwit Conner in match racing starts. When it came time to leave the dock, Rose was missing. After repeatedly checking his watch and casting anxious glances toward the parking lot, Hall finally headed out into the harbor. Five minutes later Rose arrived on the dock.
"I had trouble getting my car started," he said. "Then I was going 80 on the highways, but I hit every red light." He clambered into a powerboat and was transferred onto the Cal 40 just in time.
The start was lost to Conner by 13 seconds, which was somewhat better, start-wise, than Rose had done with his car. But as Hall's craft approached a leeward mark, a fitting on the spinnaker pole worked loose, playing havoc with efforts to jibe. Then the spinnaker ripped and had to be replaced in midrace. Somehow Hall succeeded in pushing Conner all the way, losing by a scant 23 seconds. It was after this win, the one that wrapped it up, that a jubilant Conner and his crew broke out the beer for their celebration.
Then came the final race, pitting Conner against USC sailing star Benny Mitchell. Conner won it although outsailed at the start, which had not happened to him all week, not even in the defeat by Buchan. "If you win the start in match racing," Conner says, "you'll win the race 75% of the time." The race against Mitchell was meaningless, but the hottest skipper afloat dislikes losing starts under any circumstances. Next time Dennis Conner may have to take off his blue blazer and get tough.