SWINGING IN A STAR

He glitters in other types of boats as well, but world champion Dennis Conner keeps returning to his first love, sailing's most popular and competitive class
July 30, 1978

Like old soldiers. Star-class sailors never die. Unlike old soldiers, Star sailors do not even fade away convincingly. A skipper may swear off the game and sell his boat, pressed by the need to get to know his family better, or to prop up his sagging financial affairs, or for some other drab reason. Whatever the motive and however firm his resolve to quit forever, sooner or later he will show up on a Star-class starting line somewhere, if need be in a borrowed or stolen boat. The top-ranked skippers of the Stars are often wooed away from their own class to seek a greater or lesser grail in another kind of craft on a different part of the sea. But however great the temptation, be it the command of a stripped-out Southern Ocean racing hull that costs 10 times more than a Star or the helm of an America's Cup defender that costs 100 times more, Star sailors usually return to their own class.

There are no supernovas among the Stars—never a sailor come suddenly from nowhere to shine brilliantly in one series and as suddenly sputter out. The best of them are a constant and long-lived lot. In his first Star world championship off Portugal in 1952, 19-year-old James (Ding) Schoonmaker of Miami placed seventh in a fleet of 29. In 1975 on Lake Michigan, at the age of 42, Schoonmaker finally realized his almost impossible dream, beating a field of 73 that included Walter von Hutschler, a German-Brazilian who won his first world title in 1938.

In this age of computerized design and supersynthetics, the Star class is a contradiction and an anachronism. The boat itself is an old, hard-chined design conceived in 1911, in the dark ages of wood, cotton and sisal. The design is so highly restricted that innovation is well nigh impossible. Elite skippers like Ding Schoonmaker have so monopolized the action in recent years that for a novice who has spent a mere decade in the class, first place in a major regatta is about as accessible as the ingots in Fort Knox. But despite its age and the monopolistic ways of its sailors, the Star remains the most competitive and popular keel-boat class the world around. It is sailed on the sweet waters of Paw Paw Lake in Michigan and on the wine-dark Mediterranean. Swedes race Stars on the Kattegat, and Australians in Sydney Harbor where, on a crowded race weekend, any craft smaller than a ferryboat is imperiled. Curiously, on western Long Island Sound, where it was born, the Star is almost an endangered species, but 3,000 miles west, from San Diego to Seattle, it is thriving. And although Star is constantly exporting talent to other classes it does not seem to suffer from the drain.

Many world-class sailors have jumped from one kind of boat to another, but few have distinguished themselves by doing so. Without a doubt the most famous boat jumper is Paul Elvstrom, the great Dane from Hellerup. In the past 30 years he has won Olympic and/or world titles in seven different classes, but even Elvstrom, on his ventures into ocean racing, has been strictly middle-of-the-fleet.

When it comes to hippity hopping with spectacular success (and seeming abandon) across the whole spectrum of sailing, from small boats to big boats and back, there is no one with a record to equal that achieved in the past seven years by Dennis Conner, a Star sailor from San Diego. A nutshell accounting of Conner's accomplishments in the past seven years runs like this: In 1971, when only 29 years old—a fledgling by Star-class standards—he won the world championship of the class. In 1972 he took the Star North American title and sailed a Cal 40 to second place in the Congressional Cup, the world's most testing match race series. In 1973 he won the Congressional Cup in an Ericson 39. In 1974 he was starting helmsman and tactician on the 12-meter Courageous when she defended the America's Cup. In 1975 he won the Southern Ocean racing circuit in a One Tonner called Stinger and the Congressional Cup in a Cal 40. In 1976, nine months after he first set foot in a Tempest, he took the U.S. Olympic Trials in that class and subsequently sailed off with the bronze medal on Lake Ontario. In 1977 he won his Southern Ocean racing class in a 46-foot sloop called High Roler.

Then, as if to prove beyond doubt that Star sailors never die, after a three-year absence he went back to the class. Early last August he won the Star North American title against a small but good fleet. Two weeks later in the world championship off Kiel, West Germany, he really rang the bell. Sailing against a record field of 86 from 19 countries, he took his second world title with a perfect score of five firsts—a feat neither he nor anyone else is apt to duplicate between now and Judgment Day. Moreover, this past winter, hopping into a big boat again, a 46-foot sloop called Williwaw, the sixth so named and campaigned by Seymore Sinett, an old Star-boat sailor from North Jersey, Conner won the new boat division of the SORC.

When Conner starts rummaging through his past, sorting through his triumphs, his near misses and occasional drubbings, he reveals part of his essential genius. His memory of crucial moments in major events is near perfect. Reviewing a single leg of a big regatta where all the money was on the line, he can recall without hesitation where he was on the course, where his important rivals were and how the subtle wind shifts affected the fortunes of them all. The less important the regatta, the less perfect his memory. For example, if you ask Conner how he did in a local Star series—one of those small Southern California affairs that attract only three or four former world champions—after staring vacantly like a schoolboy who cannot remember whether he left his half-eaten Popsicle in his gym locker or on the bus, he will reply, "Were we in the regatta? Yes, and we did lousy." If pressed as to how poorly he did, he will reply indifferently, "Oh, we won it, but we sailed lousy. A couple of thirds ruined our score."

Third place is anathema to Conner. So is second place—and all other places except first. His brief incursion into the Tempest class is testimony to that. An Olympic class since 1932, the Star was replaced in 1976 by the Tempest, a new and promising keel boat that, like the Star, is a two-man craft. In the summer of 1975, on his way to the Admiral's Cup in England, Conner stopped at Kingston, Ontario to look in on the pre-Olympic regatta. There he found old Star rivals messing around in Tempests. His interest kindled, Conner straightway contracted to buy two, although he did not have enough ready scratch to pay for half of one.

In mid-September, two weeks after first boarding a Tempest, Conner took second in the North American championships, abetted by a temporary crewman, Dave McComb, who was experienced in the class. During the winter Conner tuned and tested his Tempest on the West Coast but did not sail competitively again until a pre-Olympic regatta off St. Petersburg, Fla. in March. By then he had lined up, as permanent crew, Conn Findlay, a 45-year-old, 6'6" San Franciscan, who had a unique asset. However they fared in their Olympic quest, Findlay was not apt to suffer from big-time jitters because he had won two gold medals and a bronze as an oarsman in previous Games. After they took third in the series at St. Petersburg, such is Conner's stature that a rumor spread on the docks that the Conner-Findlay team had been holding back in order not to give away their true boat speed. Faced with the charge today, Conner laughs. "No way we were holding back," he says. "We were incompetent." There is bald evidence to support his claim. They capsized twice at St. Petersburg, and twice Findlay's trapeze wire parted. There are less obvious ways of sandbagging in a sailboat race than dropping a two-time Olympic champion in the water.

After winning their regional Olympic eliminations—a modest achievement because there were less than a dozen Tempests seriously active on the West Coast—Conner and Findlay set off to test their mettle against the best of Europe. In no time at all they found their mettle was worth about two cents on the foreign market. As Conner recalls, "We got slaughtered. We would cross the starting line near boats we thought might win, and five minutes later we couldn't read the numbers on their sails." In their first foreign regatta they finished 24th in a field of 35. In the next they were 21st out of 48. Although in the European championship they climbed to 13th in a fleet of 54, they seemingly had made almost no headway in their Olympic quest. The 12 skippers who finished ahead of them came from eight different countries, and seven of them showed up on the Olympic starting line on Lake Ontario.

After two races at the Olympics, Conner was leading a hot foreign pack that included the European titlist, John Albrechtson of Sweden; the defending Olympic champion, Valentin Mankin of the U.S.S.R.; the 1975 world champion, Giuseppe Milone of Italy; and the 1974 world champion, Uwe Mares of West Germany. With only 200 yards to go in the third race, Conner had a clear lead and had Mankin solidly pinned. Then a fluky wind shift from the other side of the course lifted Felix Gancedo of Spain and Albrechtson past Conner. In the crowd assembled at dockside after the race, Conner's wife Judy confided, "This is going to be one of those evenings when Dennis' personality is definitely not on the upswing." '

When the Olympic series ended, Albrechtson had won the gold medal and Mankin had edged out Conner for the silver. In a matter of three months Conner had leapfrogged the best skippers of six countries to get the bronze medal, a very respectable performance. Judy told him he should be thrilled, but he was not thrilled. After the flags of all the nations were furled and the Olympic flame flickered out, as Conner walked away from the closing ceremonies, Bob Black of the Associated Press asked him how it felt to win an Olympic medal in a boat he had sailed less than a year. "Bronze is better than nothing," he replied without wasting a smile.

Any sailor impressed with Conner's ability to hippity hop from one endeavor to another should think twice before trying to do likewise. Behind successes that seemed to have come to him overnight, there were months of toil and haggling and a welter of contributing factors that reach well back in time. A sliverthin edge in any of the fundamentals of sailing is often enough to win a race. Put a lot of slivers together and you have certain victory—provided some idiot gambling on a far corner of the course doesn't get a 30-degree wind shift on you. Conner has a lot of slivers going for him.

In the eyes of his crewmen and arch rivals, Conner is one of the very best because he has a natural feel for the helm; because he has desire; because he is aggressive; because he can smell a change in the wind; because he has an almost flawless sense of time and distance; because tactically he is as quick-witted as a cat; because he slaves like a dog preparing his boat; because he has the absorptive capacity of a garbage truck and the discrimination of a well-fed computer; and so forth and so on.

Add to all that the fact that Conner was born at the right time in the right place. In 1942, the year of his birth, in the staid halls of the New York Yacht Club and at sacred Cowes in England, San Diego was best known as the town where Charley Lindbergh bought his transoceanic plane and the U.S. Navy kept a lot of oceangoing muscle. But even then the supremacy of the Star class had shifted from the East Coast to Southern California. "I was born close to the water," Conner says, "near a little sand beach and a large sewer outlet. We lived in a small house a block from the San Diego Yacht Club. Instead of getting in trouble at the corner drugstore like other youngsters, I got in trouble at the corner yacht club."

Swaddled in a life jacket, he first took the helm of a dinghy alone at the age of two years, 11 months. (There is a family snapshot to prove it.) His parents always had some kind of dink and usually a larger boat, but they were not well enough off also to provide Dennis with a smart class boat. Therein lies a lesson for hopeful champions who envy Conner's winning ways. Behind the last successful seven years of his life there were almost 20 years of crewing for others in boats large and small. For those who covet the handsome racing machines that Conner is asked to skipper today, there is a further lesson. When Conner first went sailing for himself and won the Star world title in 1971, he did so in a four-year-old secondhand boat, No. 5291. In that world regatta there were only five older boats in a field of 49. The five finished 16th, 43rd, 47th, 48th and last.

Conner spent much of his boyhood crewing for chums and pestering adults to take him aboard. He was diverted for a while by Little League baseball. "I made the team," he says, "but I never batted fourth." In his late teens and early 20s he crewed for adults, notably Carl Eichenlaub, the famous boatbuilder who also was the West Coast's most successful Lightning skipper. As Eichenlaub recalls, "From the moment Conner stepped in the boat, he was asking why we did this and why we did that, and he never stopped asking. He was soon years ahead of his time."

Conner next crewed in a Lightning for Alan Raffee, a drapery and carpet man who at 5'10" and 200 pounds had played reserve offensive/defensive guard for Red Sanders at UCLA and, therefore, knew something about desire and a lot about self-preservation. After they had won a Pacific Coast championship and nearly took a North American title against Tom Allen, the winningest Lightning skipper of them all, Conner persuaded Raffee that they should get into the Star class. After all, why not mix it up with the best of the West?

Half sold on the idea, Raffee contracted for a Jersey-built Lippincott hull to be delivered to New Orleans for the North American spring regatta. "You know, the Star is much more complicated than a Lightning," Raffee says. "Whooee! It has shrouds, stays, down-haul, boom vang, traveler pulleys and all that. So I sent Dennis down three days ahead to rig the boat, and about a day later Bob Lippincott phones me from New Orleans. 'Raffee,' he says, 'you have this kid here who doesn't know what he's doing,' and I told Bob, 'Hell, Conner knows more than I do, I hope.'

"You know, the Star class is very elite," Raffee continues. "Everybody said it would take us years to get anywhere. And can you believe it, in the first race at New Orleans against 60 boats, we break out on top. We are first at the weather mark, first at the reaching mark, and still first at the second weather mark. Coming back downwind we really didn't know how to sail a Star. With Lowell North and Tom Blackaller bearing down on us, I would tell Dennis, 'The other crewmen seem to be sitting farther forward,' and he would move forward. Then he'd say to me, 'Raff, they all seem more back now,' and the two of us would shift back. By doing what everybody else looked like they were doing, we got third, and after the second race we were still third in points. On the way to the starting line of the third race we broke our mast, and that was the end for us. When we pulled the Star out of the water, we put it on the trailer backwards. Bob Lippincott sees us and says in front of everybody, 'Jesus Christ, they might have won the regatta and they don't even know how to get their boat on a trailer.' "

Sailors of proven worth across the whole range, such as North and Ted Turner, usually have started in small boats and ended up in ocean racers. With Conner it was a two-way itch early on. In his late teens and early 20s his dual ambition was furthered by an old Star-boat rapscallion named Ashley Bown, who always played the game aggressively, stretching the racing rules to the limit as a good skipper should. In 1935 Bown stretched the rules so far that they had to be rewritten.

From its very beginning the Star has been an intense class. Four decades ago excessive regional and national rivalry were the order of the day. During the second Star championships in 1923, at a smoker honoring the huge fleet of eight boats that had assembled from three different countries, one ugly American, angered by the success of a British Columbia skipper, tore the Canadian flag off the wall. In 1933 there was a near riot at the world regatta in Long Beach, Calif. because a local hero was disqualified twice. Over the years, between East Coast and West Coast, there were charges and countercharges of "team" racing, and in 1935 it all came to a head, In the final race that year the West Coast hero, Hook Beardslee, needed only to stay within two boats of a venerable easterner, Adrian Iselin, to win. At the start of the second windward leg of a twice-around course, Bown was ahead. Looking back, he saw that several Easterners were sitting on Beardslee so Iselin could get ahead of him. So Bown luffed and filled and luffed, waiting for the Easterner, Iselin. "When I got on top of Iselin," Bown relates, suppressing total glee, "I took him past the mark, halfway to China. Beardslee got around the mark ahead of him, and at the downwind finish there was the damndest mess you ever saw. Eastern boats and western boats were milling around above the finish line, all waiting for their man to cross." Although they had broken no written rule, two of the lesser culprits were given short suspensions, and Bown was expelled from the Star class until the next annual meeting, at which an explicit team-racing rule was adopted to take care of men like him.

As a teen-ager, Conner cultivated—perhaps plagued is the word—Ash Bown not only for his Star savvy, but also for a berth on his Owens cutter Carousel, which in those days was the scourge of the Pacific ocean racers. In late afternoons Conner would show up at Bown's home to pump him about tuning, sail draft, tactics, and God knows what all. (The skull sessions would have fascinated anybody interested in pure sonics. Even today, when he is excited, Conner's voice works up into the alto range, while Bown's normal speaking voice is about one octave higher than the average foghorn.) The talk sessions would sometimes end with Bown bellowing, "For God's sake, Dennis, go home. The wife and I want to eat dinner."

Bown's ocean-racing crew were tried and true men in their mid-30s. "I'd had kids—19-, 20-, 21-year-olds—sail with me," he says, "and most were all right when there was action, but in a long ocean race on a night trick the kids lose interest in sail trim and all the little things that add up. Dennis finally got to sail with me on the 1964 Acapulco Race because he was so goddam insistent. He kept asking. I told him I couldn't take him because I had a full crew. Then he found out before I did that one of my crew had a death in the family, so I had to take him.

"I don't think Dennis slept the whole 1,575 miles to Acapulco. When he was off watch, he would be up in the fo'c'sle with the hatch open, looking at the spinnaker and driving Malin Burnham at the helm absolutely nuts. He'd tell Malin that he was sailing too high or too low, and Malin would say, 'Shut your goddam mouth.' Haifa minute later Dennis would suggest maybe easing the spinnaker a little, and Malin would tell him to shut up again. We won the race by five hours," Bown concludes, "which was some kind of record."

In this brief testament of Conner the Kid among the elders, there is threefold irony. Ash Bown himself had sailed in the Transpacific Race to Honolulu as a 14-year-old. Malin Burnham had won the 1945 Star world title when only 17 years old (another feat that is not apt to be duplicated between now and Judgment Day). Guess what happened to Jim Reynolds, another of the elders who put up with Conner on that Acapulco race? Seven years later, at the creaking age of 42, Reynolds ended up crewing for Conner when he won his first Star world title.

In his own quests, and as an unpaid hired gun on boats owned by others, Conner puts in a lot of mileage. Despite the travel, he also has an ordinary life. While still in San Diego State University he worked part-time for the North Sail Company but preferred not to turn his love into a business. "Among other things," he says, "I did not like the idea of going into a race intent on killing guys who bought my sails."

After he graduated with a B.A. in business, Conner went to work for his old skipper, Alan Raffee, in the drapery and carpet business. Today he manages his own drapery fabrication plant. He is a dutiful Rotarian. He is a home gardener. He usually remembers his wife Judy's birthday and, without more than three or four minutes of fumbling around in his mind, he can come up with the names, ages and grade-school years of his daughters, Julie and Shanna.

He is co-owner with his old Star crewman, Jim Reynolds, of a single-screw, wooden powerboat called Jorge Viejo that was built 42 years ago in Brooklyn. Jorge Viejo is aged enough, but not quite beautiful enough, to qualify as a classic boat. Regardless, like other latter-day boating idiots, Conner and Reynolds have lavished money on her as if she were the only lady left in town. And, like many another modern boating Babbitt, Conner dreams of chucking it all some year and cruising under sail around the world with the wife and kids. (He has never cruised a day in his life.) With him it is a calculated dream of the moment, postponed until 1981 after the Moscow Olympics when his daughters will be 11 and nine or, as he puts it, "old enough to remember it and still young enough to enjoy it."

Although in all his match racing, in the Congressional or the America's Cup, Conner has drawn no more than his quota of protest flags, he has won more than his share of racing starts. As a consequence, his services are in demand, so much so that last summer while he was in Germany preparing for the Star world championship, the Enterprise syndicate tried to talk him into forgetting the Stars and sailing in their last-ditch effort in the America's Cup trials. Trying to put his continued success at the starting line in perspective, Conner said two years ago, "It is a case of the rich get richer. My opponents now worry about what I am going to do to them rather than concentrating on the things that they can do to me."

Ron Anderson, a California boatyard owner who has crewed for two other Star world champions and is now teamed with Conner, describes his present skipper this way: "Dennis is a master at controlling other people on the race course. He has a very big bag of tricks, and I'm convinced he hasn't been halfway through the bag yet." Going into the next-to-last race of the Star worlds last summer, Conner had a whopping lead on everybody and needed only a cushion of seven more points to make it mathematically impossible for the second-place skipper, Sune Carlsson of Sweden, to beat him. A short way up the final leg of that race Conner was 300 yards in front of Carlsson, who was about 100 yards out on a clot of boats. By simply carrying on, Conner would have picked up one more point, but it is part of his credo never to put off totally squashing an opponent if it can be done immediately. Glancing back at Carlsson, he said to Crewman Anderson, "What about the Swede?"

"Why don't we just win this race?" Anderson replied.

"Let's go back and bury the Swede in the fleet," Conner said. Forthwith he swung the boat around and sailed straight back down the course. When he was about 10 lengths above Carlsson, he began covering loosely until Peter Tallberg of Finland, coming from the right, got between them. Then, whenever Tallberg tacked away to get clear air, Conner would tack over on him and force him to tack back over on Carlsson. So it went, tack after tack, until there were six boats between Conner and Carlsson and the finish line was near. At that critical moment, dear Lord, from the far left side along came Andrjez Kochanski, a Pole from Morocco, on a collision course with Conner. By the grace of it, Conner had starboard rights. After several quick tacks he crossed the finish line eight feet ahead of the Polish-Moroccan. By so doing he put exactly the number of boats between himself and Carlsson that he needed to clinch the title with one race yet to go. As lagniappe, Conner won the final race the next day.

In two weeks Conner will be defending his North American championship and in October his world title in San Francisco. The next America's Cup challenge is in 1980, and so is the next Olympics. Although participation in neither is simply for the asking, Conner has already decided which berth he will seek. Because the Tempest failed to attract the interest around the world that was expected of it, it was taken out of the 1980 Games, and the old Star class was put back in. As a consequence, Conner plans to spend the next two years among the Stars where he was born. He was invited to the Congressional Cup this March but declined because it conflicted with an important Star regatta. Weighing his decision recently, Conner said, "I have won and have been very lucky on the Southern Ocean circuit. I have won the Congressional Cup. I have won the Star worlds. I have helped defend the America's Cup. The one big thing left for me is the Olympic gold medal. I find I sail better if I come back to the dock every day knowing, if I lost, I had no excuse except that somebody outsailed me. I feel John Albrechtson beat me in the Tempest last time because he was better prepared. Next time I don't want any excuse to lose."

TWO PHOTOS PHOTOConner, shown here with crewman Bill Smith during a run off Nassau, won his second world Star championship with a perfect, unprecedented five firsts.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)