The man who lost the America's Cup in 1983 strolled out of his dockside office on Monday morning with a Diet Coke in his hand and white zinc cream smeared around his mouth. He responded politely but absently to the good wishes of the 200-odd syndicate people who had come to see him off, then stepped aboard Stars & Stripes, and while the Bose speakers on the syndicate tender, Betsy, shattered the peace of an Australian summer morning with Danger Zone from Top Gun, the smoky-blue boat from the San Diego Yacht Club slid out of her pen, headed for the Indian Ocean and Race 5 of the Louis Vuitton Cup final against New Zealand.
Before the sun had set behind Rottnest Island, Stars & Stripes was the 1987 America's Cup challenger and Dennis Conner was at the brink of a vindication for which he has waited 3½ years. On Jan. 31, when the America's Cup final begins at last, he will face the Australian defender, which at this writing seems sure to be Kookaburra III (she increased her lead over Australia IV to 4-0 in their best-of-nine series as Conner clinched). If Stars & Stripes does to Kooka what she did to New Zealand, Conner can retire from the 12-meter game a happy man, the skipper who lost the Cup, then won it back.
Although the Kiwis bowed to Conner 4-1 in the best-of-seven challenger final, they went down fighting. The fifth and deciding race was sailed in 28 howling knots of breeze and roller-coaster seas that caused a Kevlar jib on Stars & Stripes to explode on the second beat, and so confounded the Kiwis during a spinnaker change on the second reaching leg that they finally gave up and sailed the balance of the leg with no headsail at all.
The 25-year-old skipper of New Zealand, Chris Dickson, vying to become the youngest helmsman ever in the Cup finale, showed his lack of experience in the pressure cooker at the last leeward mark Monday, when the Kiwis were only eight seconds behind. Dickson cut the corner too close and New Zealand's hull grazed the orange buoy. When a mark is touched it must be rerounded. By the time the Kiwis were able to set off after Stars & Stripes again they were a hopeless 39 seconds behind. The gap at the finish was 1:29.
January 26, 1987
New Zealand's was a carefully orchestrated, clearly thought-out and masterfully executed first-time challenge. It rallied the support of the nation to its cause, and when Dickson and his crew were down 3-1 and backed to the wall, New Zealanders, instead of turning to more profitable pursuits, swamped the challenge office in Fremantle with messages of encouragement. Peter Debreceny, the syndicate spokesman, said on the morning of the last race, "We've got half a million signatures [15% of the nation's population]. We're into our sixth kilometer of fax paper."
The outcome of the series was fore-told on Jan. 13, opening day of the Vuitton Cup final. It was a "bottle day," in the language of Western Australian weathermen, the kind you would like to trap in a bottle and keep forever. The crowds that perched like sea gulls on the yellow limestone jetties that encircle Fremantle's new Challenger Harbour each morning to watch the parade of 12-meters head out to sea, had swelled to 5,000 or more. On the race course, where the afternoon sea breeze was already blowing 20 knots, 10 helicopters hovered like dragonflies over the starting line, and a hundred or more spectator craft, ranging from inflatables to the ocean liner Achille Lauro, stirred the rising seas into a boiling confusion.
The Kiwis had by far the better win-loss record (37-1 to Stars & Stripes's 31-7), their current winning streak was up to 28 and they had beaten the American boat two of the three times they met in the round-robins. The New Zealanders were the Cinderella team whose midnight had not yet struck. They were blessed with youth, talent and Kiwi "magic," an eerie blend of Maori myth, mass marketing and true grit, but they were also first timers matched against the wiliest skipper and most experienced afterguard in the 12-meter game.
Stars & Stripes and New Zealand were quite different boats, but ostensibly they were well matched. Stars & Stripes was thought to have an edge in straight-line speed in a strong breeze and heavy seas, while the fiberglass-hulled New Zealand, supposedly a more maneuver-able boat, and able to get back up to speed quicker after a tack, was an all-around design with a possible edge over the San Diego boat in light-to-moderate conditions.
Way back in September, before the Cup trials began, Conner questioned the legality of the Kiwis' unique fiberglass hull. He believed, and said as much, that the only reason one would build a fiberglass boat was if one wanted to cheat. Twelve-meter designers around the world have studied the use of fiberglass, but until the Kiwis did so, no one had figured how to make it more attractive than aluminum in meeting the requirements for certification by Lloyd's Register of Shipping. Conner created a squall that eventually led to a resurvey of New Zealand, which she passed with flying colors. Even before that, however, many knowledgeable observers were going on record as saying the Kiwi boat was nothing more than a very good boat that happened to be built of fiberglass, with fiberglass accounting for 5% or less of her overall effectiveness.
New Zealand's versatility was ideally suited to the early round-robin format. She could beat all comers in all weather, while Stars & Stripes had a struggle on her hands when she faced a lighter-air opponent on a light-air day.
The game changed, though, when the round-robins gave way to the best-of-seven series of the challenger semis and finals, which is what Stars & Stripes's designers, David Pedrick, Britton Chance and Bruce Nelson, had in mind: a Fremantle boat, one good enough to survive the round-robins but one that would be at her best when the summer winds began to blow during the challenger finals and the Cup itself. Now the all-around boat was up against a heavy-weather specialist, and with the wind known as the Fremantle Doctor blowing full strength more often than not, the chances of Stars & Stripes finding four days to her liking out of a possible seven were fairly good.
"I can tell you we had our hearts in our mouths in November," said John Marshall, Conner's design coordinator. "The optimum Fremantle boat could easily lose a round-robin series. But it's hard to lose a four-out-of-seven series with that boat, if she's truly optimum, because each race is against the same opponent. Then the weather statistics come into play in your favor instead of against you."
At the 10-minute gun before the start of Race 1, normally the beginning of a maritime minuet of circles and counter circles, Conner set off on a reaching beeline for the spectator fleet. There he stayed, steering his 55,000-pound blue canoe in and out among the bobbing vessels, as he avoided encounters with the more maneuverable New Zealand.
At the start Stars & Stripes crossed three seconds ahead, but Dickson had the favored left end of the line. (In theory the starling line is perpendicular to an imaginary straight line to the first mark. In practice, the line is often slightly skewed, making one end closer to the first mark, thus "favored.")
Four minutes into the race, Cornier tacked to starboard and crossed Dickson's bow with half a boat length to spare. Bruce Kirby, the designer of Canada II, who was watching the race from a spectator boat, leaned back, folded his hands and said, "Chris Dickson has just realized he is not going to win the America's Cup."
When the boats next came together, 16 minutes later, they were dead even, and Conner, unable to cross, tacked onto starboard on a lee bow position; that is, downwind of New Zealand with his stern even with Dickson's bow. From that spot Stars & Stripes's "exhaust," the air spilling from the edges of her sails, affected the flow of New Zealand's air, and Dickson was forced to tack away for clear air.
Conner continued on starboard until he caught a favorable shift, and when the boats came together for a third time he crossed Dickson's bow a boat length in the lead. From that point Conner was in control, and Stars & Stripes led around the first mark by 15 seconds. By the finish he had stretched that lead to 1:20.
The changes that Marshall and the designers of Stars & Stripes had come up with in December—new winglets, a new rudder, a new skin of microscopically ribbed plastic sheets, plus some good sails handed over by the defunct America II syndicate—had, collectively, improved the boat's upwind speed by some six seconds a mile in winds of 18 knots and up. All Conner had to do was stay clear of tacking duels, use his superior straight-line speed to get to the first mark first, and pray to Hughie (not even the Almighty escapes an Aussie nickname) for high winds and some luck.
Stars & Stripes led at the first mark in all five races of the Vuitton Cup final. Three of them she won easily: The first, a textbook race with no gimmicks, no breakdowns and near-perfect crew work on both sides, she won by 1:20; the second, a close copy of the first, she won by 1:36; and the fourth, when New Zealand endured multiple gear failures in 28-knot winds, she won by 3:38. In that fourth race Stars & Stripes had a sizable lead when New Zealand began coming unglued, so it is fair to assume the Americans would have won anyway. In the final race Stars & Stripes led by 42 seconds at the first mark and by 1:29 at the finish, but nobody called that one easy. "Thirteen years' beat 13 months' experience," said a chastened Dickson.
Only the third race, the one Conner lost, was touched with Kiwi magic. That morning a dozen Maori men in war paint danced and chanted a haka on the Kiwi jetty, waggling their tongues menacingly, as Maori warriors are wont to do, while an airplane trailed the message IF ANYONE CAN, A KIWI CAN overhead and several thousand New Zealanders (some 40,000 make their homes in Perth) cheered.
Dickson's chance came when, after rounding the first mark 21 seconds ahead, Stars & Stripes's crew saw the spinnaker they had just set break away from its halyard near the top of the mast and drift, twisting and billowing, into the sea. The damage was repaired in relatively short order but Dickson took advantage of the moment and at the bottom mark led by six seconds. From that point on Dickson held the reins. With a matchless crew to back him up, he countered every ploy in Conner's repertoire. Under three separate barrages of tacks, 132 in all, 55 on the last beat alone, the Kiwis kept their heads and finally won by 38 seconds. According to Dave Philips of The Providence (R.I.) Journal, a veteran Cup watcher who counts tacks with the fervor of a monk at his rosary, only once, in a 1974 race between Courageous and Intrepid, when the legs were 1¼ miles longer than they are now, were as many tacks exchanged in the space of one leg.
After winning the challenge series on Monday, Conner remained at the Stars & Stripes dock until sunset as the younger element in his somewhat overage crew gave each other champagne and Budweiser shampoos (also Pepsi shampoos, Pepsi-Cola being the latest corporate sponsor to jump on the Conner bandwagon). Then he and syndicate president Malin Burnham left for the postrace press conference, where old feuds were forgotten for the moment.
"For all the young guys, Dennis," said Dickson, "have you ever thought about quitting this game?"
"It's satisfying," said Conner. "But we can't lose sight of the real goal here. We've got our work cut out for us."
In 1983 the ousted British challengers helped Australia II get ready for Conner. Now Conner would like the Kiwis, as fellow challengers, to help him tune up for Kooka III. Last week when Dickson was asked his plans should his boat be eliminated, he replied that the New Zealand syndicate would help the Aussies, out of a preference for Fremantle over San Diego as a Cup venue. Other reasons might have been: 1) Conner's behavior in the matter of the fiberglass hull; 2) New Zealand syndicate leader Michael Fay's business interests, many of which are based in Australia; 3) the understandable reluctance of a non-U.S. participant to help send the Cup back to America, when it took 132 years to pry it away the first time.
The question Conner needs help answering is just how fast Kookaburra III is. She is known to be maneuverable, like New Zealand, but if she is as fast as S & S as well as maneuverable, Conner could be in trouble and his braintrust will have to scramble over the next few days for still more milliseconds.
John Bertrand, the skipper who won the Cup in '83 and worked closely with the Australia IV crew in the '87 campaign, believes "Kookaburra III is right in there against Stars & Stripes." An even more important factor, Bertrand feels, is Kooka III's skipper. "The dark cloud on Dennis's horizon is Iain Murray," says Bertrand. "He's only 28 but he's multitalented. Murray is not intimidated by people. He doesn't care one iota about past reputations and what they conjure up in people's minds."
Gary Jobson, Ted Turner's tactician on Courageous in '77, who has spent the Aussie summer covering the Fremantle waterfront for ESPN, thinks Stars & Stripes will be faster in a straight line but will be more vulnerable than Kookaburra III on light-air days, as begin to happen now and then in February. "Conner will have to use his lay-days judiciously to nullify that advantage," says Jobson. "I could see this going six or seven races, you bet."