Dennis Conner isn't like other folks. He isn't even like other sailors. People who race sailboats and people who write about people who race sailboats have been trying to figure him out for years. Why did Dennis say this? Why did Dennis do that? What is Dennis up to now? More often than not the answer is a verbal shrug. "That's Dennis," they say.
Conner, the skipper of Stars & Stripes and the most perplexing personality on the America's Cup scene in Australia, is a wily and fierce competitor whose mind is on sailing 100% of his waking hours. His racing companions say they form tag teams so that late at night Conner always has someone to talk to about sailing. While lesser skippers race for the sport of trying to win, Conner races in order to win. He has defined his sport in his own terms, and his opponents have been forced to accept his definition, like it or not. At the same time, Conner's definition means he can neither court the sometimes useful role of the underdog, nor can he expect to be granted its dispensations even when, as in this year's America's Cup competition, he might well deserve them. He is feared and respected by many, admired by some and loved by very few. After three decades at the top in the tight, gossipy little world of sailboat racing, he remains an enigma, of whom a yachting journalist said, "He's done it all. He's the best there is. His only flaw is that he's Dennis. He's his own Achilles' heel."
This week, in the semifinals of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the 3½-month-long series of races to determine the challenger for the America's Cup, Conner has arrived at his moment of truth. He must beat Tom Blackaller and his double-ruddered USA in a best-of-seven series or be eliminated from Cup competition altogether. In Sunday's Race 1 he got off to a stunning start, taking a thriller from Blackaller by just 10 seconds. And on Monday Conner won again, by three minutes and two seconds, leaving Blackaller a formidable catch-up task. (The winner of that all-American series will meet the winner of the New Zealand-French Kiss series in the challenger finals, starting Jan. 13.)
The stakes would be high at this point in an America's Cup "summer" no matter who was involved, but when Conner and Blackaller, longtime California rivals with many old scores to settle, are slugging it out in what Conner likes to call "a game of life," the battle, for the moment, overshadows the war. It is a perverse but genuine tribute to Conner and to his reputation as a competitor to say that his losing would be bigger news than Blackaller's winning.
January 5, 1987
Until 1983, when Conner and his red-hulled Liberty lost the America's Cup, the urge to explain Dennis sprang from his success, a competitive record un-equaled in his generation of racers. In small one-design boats, medium-sized ocean racing boats and massive 12-meter campaigns he has won everything that matters most to people who devote their lives and their fortunes—or someone else's—to the sport of racing sailboats. He has won the Star class world championship twice, the Southern Ocean Racing Conference circuit four times, and he has helmed two America's Cup winners: Courageous in 1974, when he was picked out of the chorus line, so to speak, to share the wheel with Ted Hood; and Freedom in 1980, when, to his eternal credit, or shame, depending on who's talking, he reinvented America's Cup campaigning.
The $200 million America's Cup exercise in extravagance that is going on in Western Australia right now was set in motion by Conner and his unprecedented two-year, two-boat Freedom and Enterprise campaign leading up to the 1980 Cup. Until then the typical America's Cup program was five months long, cost around $1.5 million and bore a striking resemblance to sport. Conner's businesslike approach changed all that. With exhaustive attention to detail, thousands of man-hours devoted to crew work and sail testing, and the spending of previously inconceivable amounts of money, Conner laid waste to the defender trials that summer. Freedom won 45 of a possible 48 races, while Courageous, sailed by Ted Turner, and Clipper, steered part of the time by Blackaller, had only four wins between them.
Turner, the last of the true 12-meter amateurs, was so disgusted with the turn the game had taken that he quit 12-metering for good. Blackaller, a San Francisco sailmaker who, like Conner, has twice won the Star class worlds but who, unlike Conner, would prefer to be racing Formula One cars, has twice tried to beat Dennis at his own game: in 1983, with Defender, a boat and a program that came nowhere near measuring up to Conner's, and this year with USA, a gamble on a revolutionary design.
Twelve-meter skippers like Conner and Blackaller are the rock stars of sailing. Typically, they are dashing figures in a glamorous sport who look and feel their best at the wheels of their boats, preferably wind-whipped and wave-lashed. Conner, whose weight goes up and down, mostly up, and whose face has a boyish softness that belies 30-odd years of sun and salt, does not fit the mold. He is a star, nonetheless, because in one sort of boat or another he has beaten them all.
An America's Cup syndicate is a small corporation. Its product is a sleek, 65-foot, 55,000-pound racing machine that is as fast and strong as the corporation's resources of time, talent and money can make her. Most 12-meter skippers view the business side of racing as a necessary evil, a tedious means to a possibly glorious end. They attend to the endless details of preparing their boats because they have been doing it since childhood, and they know that preparation wins races. They scrounge for funds because they have to. However, they would gladly sail a dinghy through an icy gale on the North Atlantic with a broken collarbone if it meant they wouldn't have to put on a blazer and show up for a sponsor's cocktail party.
Conner, by contrast, loves it all. "I come from fairly modest beginnings," he says. "To me it's kind of a rush to get to go and meet people like Edsel Ford or Mike Dingman at the Henley Group, to walk in and see them and be on a first-name basis. I never would have had that opportunity if I hadn't been there asking them for help. I find that fun. I called on Donald Trump and asked him for $3 million. I told him we'd name the boat Trump Card. He gave it a lot of thought. The point is, I enjoy that. I'm a businessman. Sailing is my hobby. It's fun to be a small businessman and to go see how the heavies operate, and see what life is like at the top in another game, if you will, the game of making money."
Conner is a businessman. He owns a carpet and drapery manufacturing business in San Diego, where he has lived all his life. He also dabbles in real estate. But his real business is the 12-meter business, and though he sometimes tweaks his American rivals—professional sailors like Blackaller, John Kolius, Rod Davis and Buddy Melges—with his technical status as an amateur, he admits he spends as much time at the game as they do. More, some say.
Fund-raising is fun for Conner because he has found a way to make it a contest. Though it would probably have surprised the Aga Khan, the principal backer of the now eliminated Azzurra syndicate, to learn that he was in direct, personal competition with a San Diego draper, he was—at least in Conner's mind. Earlier in the trials Conner said, "I have had a chance to compete here against the Aga Khan, against Michael Fay [the banker who heads the New Zealand syndicate] and the whole country of New Zealand, against the French nation, against the New York Yacht Club with all the effort and muscle they can bring to bear. I like the challenge."
Rumor has it that Conner sometimes makes 100 phone calls a day. Blackaller groans at that. "There are a hundred phone calls I can make a day to help my program," he says. "I can only force myself to make about 10. I just can't do it. I don't have that kind of discipline. That's one thing Dennis has, a remarkable amount of discipline. He must."
Blackaller is the most vocal of Conner's detractors. Part of Blackaller's Conner-baiting is gamesmanship born of a rivalry that dates back to 1967, when they first met in the Star Western Hemisphere championships. The other part is genuine antipathy. As Blackaller sees it, Conner has taken the fun out of sport. "I don't like his style and I don't like him personally," says Blackaller, who is as candid in public as Conner is guarded. "And I'd like to get him the hell out of sailing. I think he hurts it. I keep trying to get him in my own way, but it's hard. He's tough. And he knows I think he's tough. You've never heard me say that Dennis isn't a top sailor and a tough competitor. You've got to crawl over his dead body to win a race. That's always been true. But god, the way he does it is just awful."
No one, least of all Conner, can match Blackaller at dealing with the press. Blackaller's wit is quick and his joie de vivre is contagious. Conner is mistrustful of the press, and his responses to questions often seem devious. Experience has taught Conner that silence is his best defense against Blackaller.
"When Tom started criticizing Dennis [in Newport in 1983], Dennis probably didn't know how to react," says Malin Burnham, president of the Stars & Stripes syndicate. "As it kept coming and coming he finally decided and is now convinced that when Blackaller criticizes the most is when Blackaller is having trouble winning races. So Dennis just doesn't go back at him. What I'm saying is that Dennis has, with maturity, learned that many times it's better to keep his mouth shut, and I think he's respected for that." On occasion, however, and most unpredictably, Conner's frustration overcomes his caution, and he lashes out at an opponent he suspects of cheating or a reporter who asks a needling question. "If you're such an expert," he said to a New Zealand reporter who pressed him too hard one day, "why are you sitting out in the audience instead of sitting up here sailing a boat?"
For better or worse, the way Conner does a 12-meter campaign is the way it is done. This year, with the exception of French Kiss, every syndicate with a prayer of winning the Cup built at least two boats, some three, spent gruesome amounts of money and devoted at least two years to the effort. The one-boat Cup campaign is now an anachronism.
"Sailors are quick to copy and improve," says Conner. "That's why you have to keep moving. They're following in your footsteps in the snow. If you stop for just a minute they'll be by."
That's what Conner learned in 1983. It wasn't that he didn't try, or work as hard and long as he ever had, or spend as much money, or sail as well. He did all those things. But in the area of research and design his organization was weak where the Australians were strong, and Conner was beaten. No one who watched his last press conference in Newport's dingy Armory on Sept. 26, 1983, is likely to forget the sight: Conner alone and exposed under blinding TV lights, tears running down his tanned cheeks, an incongruously jaunty straw hat jammed squarely on his large head. At that point it was painfully clear that the burden Conner had carried through the long, bitter summer was too much for any one person, even Conner. The old joke—if the America's Cup were ever lost it would be replaced on its pedestal in the New York Yacht Club by the head of the skipper who lost it—wasn't so funny, after all.
"It's kind of ironic," says Conner now. "One year you do a fantastic job and win and you get 50 job-well-done letters. Then you lose and you get stacks of letters about what a nice job you did. I actually got more credit for losing than I did for winning. Now everybody writes, 'Dennis Conner, world's best sailor, world's foremost 12-meter helmsman.' "
Until now Conner's Cup campaigns have been dictatorships. He held all the strings, and he kept them short. After winning the Cup in 1980 he demanded and got a no-cut contract, a guarantee from the syndicate backers that he could not be dumped in midcampaign should things go badly. Conner's debut at the helm of a 12-meter rose out of just such a situation. Bob Bavier, skipper of Courageous in 1974, was abruptly and rather cruelly replaced during the August trials by the veteran Hood and the relatively little-known Conner, who handled the starting maneuvers.
This time around Conner has stepped back a bit. After Australia II copped the Cup with a winged keel that was a leap forward in 12-meter design, skippers such as Conner who were contemplating grabbing it back had to face the fact that high technology, very high, had hit the 12-meter game. Technologists, scientists and aerospace experts were the key to the 1987 Cup, and the syndicates needed someone who could speak their language. Conner chose John Marshall.
Marshall, 44, had served as Conner's mainsail trimmer on Liberty in 1983. A biochemist by training, with a degree from Harvard, he did a stint as a research fellow at the Rockefeller Institute in New York and has a background in sailing and sailmaking. He is also president of Hinckley Yachts, of Southwest Harbor, Maine. For the Stars & Stripes syndicate Marshall's assignment was to coordinate the work of the scientists and the naval architects.
"It goes against Dennis's nature to lose any element of direct control," Marshall said last month at the syndicate headquarters in Fremantle. "He's uncomfortable, particularly with technology and having technologists determine his fate. In this game technologists do make mistakes. There have been Olympic gold medalists out there [Marshall waves an arm in the general direction of the Indian Ocean] struggling to stay out of last place because their boats were hopeless. Dennis lived through that in '83, having a piece of equipment that was inferior and then being asked by the world to do a superhuman job. The last thing he wanted was to be back in that position, yet he had to decide to put himself in that position because there's no hope of winning if you don't have very, very strong technology."
Conner has to know people a long time before he trusts them, which is why there are many familiar faces from earlier campaigns around the Stars & Stripes compound. Closest to Conner is Tom Whidden, his tactician. Whidden, 39, has been sailing with Conner since 1979. A tactician is said to be the eyes and ears of the helmsman. He relays information about what is going on on the racecourse and what he thinks the helmsman should do about it. Ideally, the relationship between helmsman and tactician is based on total trust. The tactician says, "Tack," and the helmsman tacks. "In the old days," says Whidden, "I'd say Tack,' and Dennis would say, 'Well, why?' But that doesn't happen anymore. He used to pride himself that he was both tactician and skipper and that the tactician was just back there to pull the running backstay. He realizes that's not in the program's best interest anymore. That's part of the maturing of Dennis Conner on the race course. He's more disciplined. In Newport he would do things sometimes that weren't right just out of being impulsive."
Whidden can kid Conner where others can't, or don't. The day after the Cup was lost in 1983, the Liberty group was packing its belongings, in preparation for leaving Newport, when the phone rang. It was Ronald Reagan calling for Conner. Betsy Whidden, Tom's wife, who had answered the phone, relayed the message to Tom, who yelled out the window to Conner, "Hey, Dennis. The President's on the phone. He wants to tell you you screwed up."
"That was the best thing that came out of all that," says Whidden. "Dennis didn't laugh as hard as we all did, but he laughed. He thought it was funny. I think Dennis likes to be the center of attention, not the cause of it, or however you say that. He likes to be on the front end of the joke, not the other end."
Conner is much better known in Australia than he is in the U.S., having been the engineer of Australia's Cup defeat in 1980 and an agent of the perceived perfidy of the New York Yacht Club in the winged keel controversy of 1983. He was also the star a year ago of a TV commercial on behalf of an Australian state lottery. While some Australians viewed the TV ad as inappropriate, most saw it as a generous and pleasantly self-effacing gesture. The ad began with Conner saying, "Remember me? I was the skipper who lost the America's Cup."
The Conner syndicate has worked hard on its image. Lesleigh Green, a Perth public relations woman who worked for Alan Bond in 1983, was hired to smooth its way with the press, and the citizens of Fremantle were invited to an open house at the syndicate headquarters before racing began. The effort was rewarded with goodwill, friendly headlines and an editorial in a local paper that read, "From an enemy to be hated [Conner] has become already in just a few days someone to be admired."
Most effective of all, however, was an impulsive gesture of Conner's. On a September afternoon, soon after Conner's arrival in Fremantle, 12-year-old Tim Cook, who was hawking newspapers along the waterfront, spotted the Stars & Stripes skipper and asked for an autograph. Conner replied with an invitation for Cook to go sailing, written on the back of a paper beer coaster. A few days later Cook had his sail on Stars & Stripes, the syndicate had a headline to tack on its bulletin board (CONNER MAKES A DREAM COME TRUE FOR A NEWSBOY), and young Cook had this to say: "He's a generous bloke."
"Anything that's kid-oriented is Dennis's idea," says Judy, Conner's vivacious, red-haired wife. "It's something he does all the time. This is going to sound funny, but he does not like children. He doesn't play with them and things like that, but I think he wishes that somebody had taken more of an interest in him as a child and taken him sailing. So he offers those opportunities because that's where he thinks he missed out."
Conner grew up near the San Diego Yacht Club in a family that had neither interest in sailing nor the means to sail. Before Dennis was born, his father had a commercial fishing boat. "Albacore," Conner said a few weeks ago. "A fairly small, 60-foot albacore boat. I think my grandfather owned part of it. It wasn't exactly meager, but it wasn't a great living and I think, ultimately, my mother laid down the law and said, 'When are you going to get a regular job?' So he went to work for Convair during the war. He eventually worked up into an engineering-type position in estimating [production costs], even though he didn't have the background. Basically he worked there till he died. Actually today is his birthday. He died about three or four years ago. Maybe five years ago. Time flies."
Conner never wanted for food or clothes or a decent house or schooling, but he was alone a lot and he desperately needed to be good at something. Sailing became his vehicle. He learned it by hanging around the yacht club making a nuisance of himself.
"He was a pest, a pain in the ass," says Burnham, who was 15 years older, handsome, wealthy and a very good sailor. "He was always searching out older people for advice, he was always underfoot, wanting information. Why do you do this, and why do you do that? On one of the San Diego-Acapulco races there were five of us aboard. Dennis was by far the youngest, and he was one of those kids who never wanted to cleat the sheet down. And this was overnight racing. He always wanted to change something. An inch here, half an inch there. For a long time we called him Sak, for Smart-Ass Kid."
Conner's heroes were San Diego's hotshot sailors, a world-class bunch that included Star champions Burnham and Lowell North. His mentor and father substitute, however, was Ashley Bown, whom Burnham describes as "a successful ocean racer...an old-time, seat-of-the-pants sailor who was always coming up with new ideas...a San Diego institution."
"Dennis was always going to Ash," says Burnham. "Every Monday after school he would end up at Ash's house waiting for him to come home from work so he could ask him about the weekend sailing, either Ash's races or Dennis's."
Although Conner became a junior member at the San Diego Yacht Club, he never had his own boat as most juniors did. An $800 Starlet was beyond his means. In fact Conner was 27 before he bought a half interest in his first boat, a 33-footer, for $1,700.
"I've always known how much I have in my checking account, if you know what I mean," Conner says. "For the first 35 years of my life I could have told you how much, within a couple of dollars, I had in my pocket. But I couldn't tell you now if I had $20 or $50."
Suddenly Conner stands up behind the desk of his cramped office in the Stars & Stripes Fremantle headquarters and begins emptying his pockets. Several bills and an American Express Gold Card tumble onto the desk. He counts the money, puts it back in his pocket and sits down again. "It seems to be about $200," he says. "Things have changed. For the better."