MASTER ON A MISSION

Dennis Conner brilliantly sailed Stars & Stripes to a commanding 3-0 lead over Australia's Kookaburra III and was, at last, ready to reclaim the America's Cup
February 09, 1987

All great sporting events have in common one unbearably exciting moment just before the gun or the whistle or the bell, when odds and records and pedigrees no longer matter and any outcome seems possible. On Saturday the 1987 America's Cup reached that moment. Day after day for almost four months, potential challengers and defenders had raced on separate courses until, finally, through the winnowing process of the trials, only two boats remained. Now the challenger. Stars & Stripes, and the defender, Kookaburra III, were face-to-face for the first time, like mountain climbers who have ascended the same peak by different routes.

"Today is a reality check," said Britton Chance, a member of the three-man team of naval architects who designed Stars & Stripes, as he paced the syndicate dock before the first race.

Eight hours later, much of the suspense was gone. The American boat had trounced the Aussies by 1:41 in the light winds that were supposed to favor Kookaburra III. The next day, Stars & Stripes did it again, winning by a comfortable 1:10, this time in heavy weather.

And on Monday, when Dennis Conner and crew made it 3-0 with a 1:46 victory in 12-to-18-knot winds, all Australia was filled with gloom. The Land Down Under was only a race away from losing the best-of-seven series and the America's Cup. The bright possibilities of early Saturday were only a memory.

At seven that morning rivulets of spectators were already flowing toward the waterfront through the streets of Fremantle, the once-quiet port town in Western Australia where the Swan River meets the Indian Ocean. By 10 o'clock, when Stars & Stripes slid out of her pen in Fishing Boat Harbour, to be followed a few minutes later by Kookaburra III, the limestone jetties that shelter the harbor from the open sea were hidden under 20,000 flag-waving bodies. Not since the New York Yacht Club's Resolute met Sir Thomas Lipton's Shamrock IV in 1920 (the last time the Cup was sailed off Sandy Hook in New York Harbor) had so many people turned out to see the boats off.

In the good old days when the Cup was U.S. property, it was said that the first leg of the first race always told the story. If the defender was faster than the challenger, which she almost always was, that was apparent by the first-mark rounding. The rest of the series was only a formality.

This year the pundits were more cautious. Watching Conner and Liberty fall to Australia II 4-3 in 1983, after Liberty had been leading 3-1, was a sobering experience. This time, the experts said, the leader at the end of the second leg will win the race, and the series could go the distance. Conner said it. Iain Murray, skipper of Kookaburra III, said it. How could anyone disagree? Still, the bookmakers made Stars & Stripes the favorite at 5-to-4 odds. Conner's by-now-legendary knack for being on the right side of wind shifts, for controlling starting maneuvers, for being wilier and smarter and, when necessary, meaner than any other 12-meter skipper alive, overcame the oddsmakers' caution. Even the Aussies who watched their beloved Australia II, "the little white pointer" (pointer is Aussie for "shark"), reduce Conner's Liberty to ignominy found it hard to believe an Australian boat could win again.

Murray, the 28-year-old skipper who masterminded the Kookaburra campaign that derailed Alan Bond's well-oiled and much more experienced Australia IV machine, was accustomed to playing the underdog. "The first race is like the end of the financial year," he said on Saturday, standing straight-backed in the cockpit of Kooka III, his fingers grasping the wheel lightly, the way a good putter holds his club. "It's when you find out how profitable your business has been. It's just another day at the office, but an important one."

Day 1 looked more like Newport in July than Fremantle in January. The sky was gray and the wind was light and so shifty that the race committee postponed the 1:10 p.m. start 20 minutes, waiting for the afternoon sea breeze to settle into its customary southwesterly direction. A minute and a half into the race, however, the wind shifted 25 degrees to the south, and Stars & Stripes was the beneficiary. Conner had picked the left end of the starting line, so when the big shift came, he was on its inside and instantly several boat lengths closer to the mark than Kooka III.

Stars & Stripes rounded the first mark 1:15 ahead of Kooka III and held the lead to the finish, but it was the way she did it that was a pleasant surprise for her designers—and a puzzle for Murray. "We really expected that in 13 knots of true wind we would not be the faster boat," said Dave Pedrick, another of S & S's designers. "We were prepared to concede that."

Downwind legs were supposed to be Kooka's racetrack; however, her only gains on Stars & Stripes were on upwind legs. "We all expected that Kooka would have a downwind advantage," said Murray on Saturday evening, "but today she seemed to have an upwind advantage. I don't know. It wasn't a very fair day and we were often in very much different breeze strengths and directions, so to make any judgment we better wait for a reasonable sea breeze."

The next day Murray got an unreasonable sea breeze, one that started at 22 knots and gusted at times as high as 30, the kind of weather for which Stars & Stripes was made. Peter Gilmour, the aggressive 27-year-old mainsail trimmer who takes the wheel for Kookaburra's pre-start maneuvers, got the better start when, with 50 seconds remaining until the gun, and being squeezed across early by Conner, he wheeled around the committee boat at the right end of the line. At that point Conner bore away and ran down the line to the left end. When the gun went off both boats were already up to speed, but Gilmour was three seconds ahead and had the preferred windward position.

Then Murray took the wheel. If he could prevent Conner from crossing in front of Kooka III, he would then be able to approach the first mark on a starboard tack with the right-of-way. For 14 minutes both boats plunged through lumpy seas toward the left side of the course, but gradually through that long tack Conner inched Stars & Stripes up on the Aussies, first bearing off for speed, then hardening up into the wind for distance toward Murray. Finally, Conner was close enough that Murray, experiencing the distorted air falling off Stars & Stripes's sails, had to tack away onto port, thereby losing two boat lengths that he never retrieved.

Stars & Stripes led by 12 seconds at the first mark. By the second mark the margin was 29 seconds, and by the end of the second beat it was 1:14. The only thing that could have stopped Stars & Stripes after that would have been an exploded main or some other major mishap, a real possibility in such wind. But with a comfortable lead Conner could ease the pressure on his rig by sailing conservatively. Kooka III, which was never again in striking distance, trailed the San Diego boat to the finish line.

Normally a skipper who has lost the first two races of a best-of-seven series would request a lay day. But with lighter winds predicted for Monday, Murray decided to keep sailing. "We're down two and we're going to go for it," he said.

"I think if the wind changes, our fortunes might change with it," added a hopeful Gilmour.

"We've been ahead in the America's Cup 2-0 before, and we didn't like the way that ended up," said a cautious Conner, referring to 1983. "We have two more races to win, and until then we'll stay reserved."

Murray's decision to race on Monday had to be made by 8 p.m. Sunday, when the next day's forecast called for winds from 10 to 15 knots, supposedly Kooka III's kind of weather. Instead, Monday turned up a typical Fremantle summer day with the southwest sea breeze, the Fremantle Doctor (originally called the Fremantle Docker because square riggers waited for it to run them in to the docks), blowing 12 to 18 knots. Gilmour made a contest out of the start, engaging Conner for several minutes of close maneuvering before the boats split tacks and crossed the line dead even. Then Murray took over and, making use of the winds at the lower end of the day's range, held the lead at the first crossing.

After that, however, Stars & Stripes's boat speed began to take its toll. Two-thirds of the way up the first leg, Conner was in front. From a 15-second lead at the first mark, S & S gained time on all legs except the second reach and the last run. "The boat is a friggin' rocket," said Buddy Melges, skipper of Heart of America, the Chicago challenger.

The third race was memorable for two America's Cup firsts: a shark alert before the start (hammerheads had been sighted on Sunday) and a crank who said he had placed a bomb on Kookaburra III. The race committee authorized a chase boat to approach Kooka III during the last leg to offer her crew the option of abandoning yacht. "Our initial response," said Murray, "was to ask what was the bad news." It was the Aussies' only chuckle all day.

If Conner had seen the tired, haunted look on Gilmour's young face immediately after the second race, he might have shuddered. It was the look of someone whose world is crashing around his ears but who is powerless to do anything about it. Conner, as the Aussies say, has "been there, done that." This time around the situation was different. "Our design group gave us a boat to work with that was up to the task," said Conner before the races. "And the crew has done a great job in taking that boat and sailing it around the course somewhere near its potential. That's why we're here."

Determining Stars & Stripes's potential occupied Conner's brain trust through much of the agonizingly long break between the final trials that ended on Jan. 19 and the first Cup race. While in public the Americans were saying, "It's probably going to be very close," and "We are guardedly optimistic," in private they were very, very confident.

The America's Cup, one must remember, is a little like an iceberg. What one sees—and hears—is not necessarily all there is. One reason for the general euphoria in the Conner camp was that Bruce Nelson, the third member of the boat's design team and S & S official observer at the pre-Cup measurement of Kooka III, took one look at the defender's bared underbody and recognized a variation on the winged-keel theme similar to a design the Stars & Stripes group had tested and rejected. Armed with this knowledge, John Marshall, who coordinated the design project, began to play computer games. "We made up a computer run based on what we think Kookaburra is, based on the data we've already explored," said Pedrick.

A mathematical model of Kooka III was put through her paces 120 times against data from Stars & Stripes's actual race performances. Factored in were permutations of wind and points of sail and sea conditions. The results were gratifying, and since then Marshall & Co. have been hard pressed at times not to break into song. "We feel comfortable as long as it doesn't blow 12," said Marshall before the races began.

But it blew 12—and less—on Saturday, and Stars & Stripes came through. A boat that is built to handle the Fremantle Doctor but can win in light air, too, deserves the America's Cup. And the skipper who lost the Cup in '83 because his boat was slow deserves a Stars & Stripes.

PHOTOJON WRIGHT PHOTOBILL EPRIDGEDay 1: Thousands lined the harbor as the boats headed for the showdown Down Under. PHOTOROBERT GARVEY/BLACK STARAt the sixth mark of Race 2, Stars & Stripes knifed through the Indian Ocean in the lead. PHOTOENRICO FERORELLI/DOTAt the America's Cup ball, this belle's cup overfloweth. PHOTOROBERT GARVEY/BLACK STARKooka had mainsail zipper trouble here in Race 1 and came unzipped again in Race 3. PHOTOROBERT GARVEY/BLACK STARS & S, crossing ahead of Kooka on Monday, led at every mark in the first three races.

"Our design group gave us a boat that was up to the task. And the crew has done a great job."

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)