"He's a hard-driving guy. And that's what he's made us into. He makes you into a hard-ass."
To have it all, first you've got to want it all. Dennis Conner has never, ever, not wanted it all. A job well done is satisfaction enough for some people, but not for sailing's maestro. Every conquest on his path through his sport has been no more than a promontory from which to chart the route to the next conquest. Even the America's Cup of 1987 was just another stepping-stone.
Less than 24 hours after Stars & Stripes beat Kookaburra III for the fourth and last time, a victory that left no questions unanswered as to the relative merits of boats, helmsmen or crews, Conner was headed back out to Gage Roads to put Stars & Stripes through her paces once more, for the benefit of a cigarette manufacturer whose helicopter-borne camera crew hovered noisily overhead. As he cleared the entrance to Fremantle's Fishing Boat Harbour, Conner said, "O.K., guys, this is the first day of the 1990 campaign."
Conner is not an eloquent speaker. Except when he is describing a 12-meter match race, he has trouble squeezing his tumbling thoughts into tidy verbal packages. His delivery contains the hint of a stammer that worsens when his emotions are near the surface. "He can get so emotional he spaces out," says Malin Burnham, head of the Stars & Stripes syndicate and one of Conner's oldest friends. "He loses touch with the world."
February 16, 1987
After his Liberty had lost to Australia II in 1983, Conner became withdrawn in his disappointment. This time, as he crossed the finish line 1:59 ahead of Kookaburra III, Conner turned to his tactician Tom Whidden and said, "That was fun. I'm sorry it's over." But by the time he had reached Stars & Stripes's dock and security guards had whisked him through the crowds and toward the office 50 yards away, the reality of what he had done began to wash over him. Face to face with Brian Burke, the Premier of Western Australia, Conner could only mutter, "I appreciate your stopping by. I appreciate your stopping by." And again, almost vacantly this time, "I appreciate your stopping by." Burke was just the first of many politicians who would share the victory spotlight with Conner. On Monday, two days after an exuberant hometown victory celebration in San Diego, President Reagan congratulated the skipper and his crew at the White House.
Stars & Stripes had led Kooka III around every mark in every race of the America's Cup series. The last 12-meter to do that was Bus Mosbacher's Intrepid in 1967. The Stars & Stripes campaign, meaning all of it—the sailing, the science and the shoreside support—was, in the end, so thoroughly right and so devastatingly effective that it served to dull the pain of Australia's heartbreaking loss of the trophy it took so long to win (see page 90).
The role assigned to Conner was an odd one. He became an alien, outsize version of Australia's favorite kind of folk hero, the "little Aussie battler," the fellow who gets knocked down but always bounces up to fight again. Now, to American sailors who have suffered before various Conner juggernauts for years, and to the American yachting press which has often been subjected to a vindictive streak in Conner's complex nature, an aspect not usually shown in public, this turn of events was slightly absurd, rather like the Red Sox developing a soft spot for the Yankees. Nevertheless, the affection was real and it was fully expressed by a sign held by one of the thousands of Aussies who came to Fremantle the last day to welcome home the victor and the vanquished, WELL DONE DENNIS, YOU 'BASTARD' it read. The quotation marks around the epithet were in the shape of hearts.
Perhaps in response to the warm embrace in which he found himself in Fremantle, Conner has lately exhibited in public an appealing side that his friends maintain has been there all along. At the press conference after the final race, Conner was in the midst of giving his condolences to Kookaburra skipper Iain Murray and syndicate chief Kevin Parry when Murray's dog, Cliff, found his way onstage and took his place at his master's side. The audience began to laugh and Conner, puzzled, said, "I'm not trying to be funny." When the laughter not only continued but Murray and Parry joined in, Conner looked to his right, down the length of the speakers' table, and then he, too, began to laugh. "I've been upstaged by a dog," he said. Then he added, "I thought I got rid of Liberty." The laughter exploded. It was just a moment, but it was infused with more spontaneous good feeling than any that had preceded it in five months. Conner capped his triumphant performance when someone asked where he would vote to hold the next America's Cup. Without a second's hesitation Conner shouted into his microphone, "Fremantle, Western Australia!" That brought the house down.
The start of the final race was reminiscent of a younger, more aggressive Conner. At the 10-minute gun he did what he had done in every previous start: He steered his big, blue, not-very-agile Stars & Stripes into the spectator fleet at the right end of the line. Kookaburra's starting helmsman, Peter Gilmour, followed along, seeking to engage Conner in a close-quarter duel in which Kooka III, the more maneuverable boat, would have a distinct advantage. For several minutes Gilmour hung on Conner's stern, even when Conner attempted to shake him off by jibing sharply around one of the spectator boats. Eventually Conner led Gilmour back toward the starting line and on the way allowed himself to be engaged in a short series of serpentine loops, perhaps merely to let Gilmour know he still could go toe-to-toe if he chose. With a minute to go and both boats stalled head-to-wind at the line, Kooka III took controlling position, Gilmour appeared to have Conner trapped in position to be forced over the line early. But Conner managed to duck away, then squeeze back to the line just inside the buoy end. Gilmour had time to tack away onto port and cross the line at least even with Stars & Stripes, but he chose instead to pursue and wound up crossing five seconds behind, and eating Connor's dirty air.
Once across the line, Gilmour had to tack away for clean air, and when the boats first crossed courses, 1:12 into the race, Stars & Stripes was already two boat lengths ahead. Murray took the wheel of Kooka III, but the race and the America's Cup were already lost. The superior straight-line speed of Stars & Stripes left Kookaburra's crew no recourse but to watch helplessly as the lead of the smoke-blue boat from San Diego stretched to 1:59 at the finish.
"It's difficult when you have a boat like Stars & Stripes that won't play the match-race game," said Conner later. "When we won't tack and we don't cover, it's pretty hard for them to be aggressive and exploit the fact that they do tack better and they can maneuver better. I think they did the right thing to try to force us into a mistake at the start, either to foul out or be over the line early. Fortunately, where there's high risk there's high reward, and vice versa. It didn't work out well today, but I think that was the way to go."
As the festive crowds at the Stars & Stripes dock began to thin later that day, Conner's navigator, 31-year-old Peter Isler, stood chatting with the 27-year-old Gilmour in the middle of the yard as two sailors might after a Sunday afternoon of racing on Long Island Sound, or the Swan River. "Did you think you were over early today?" asked Gilmour. "We were sure we were going to be over early," said Isler, laughing. "Dennis is wily, isn't he?" said Gilmour, shaking his head in admiration. "His timing, god, is unbelievable."
The highest compliment a sailor can be paid these days is for another sailor to say, "He has a bit of Dennis in him." It has been said of Murray for his determination and his organizational capabilities, but more often it has been said of Gilmour for his youthful aggressiveness. Even Conner drew the parallel.
"My racing style is to be aggressive, as I have been in the past, but this time I didn't have a boat that could do that," Conner said the next day. "So I had to play with the personality of the boat I had. My boat can't tack, it can't turn, it can't stop, it can't go, and it can't go downwind. It can do one thing—it goes fast in a straight line. I had to adapt my style to the boat. That's not my style. My style is Peter Gilmour. I like to mix it up, but I had to have some maturity. I had to use what I had going for me as an asset and minimize the liabilities."
To see a 12-meter with so many liabilities safely through three months of trials against 12 challengers of every sort and description, Conner needed a crew that was almost as experienced and determined as he. During the dog days of the November round-robin when Stars & Stripes, ballasted for heavy winds that did not come, was losing an alarming number of races to boats she should have beaten, it began to look as though Conner might not make it into the semifinals. Some of the crew were concerned about what they felt was insufficient practice time with Conner at the helm. Money problems had kept Conner, the group's most effective fund-raiser, shuttling back and forth to San Diego. Stars & Stripes '85, the syndicate's trial horse, and '87 went to sea for practice sessions with Whidden in Conner's place at the helm of '87, but, as one crewman put it, "You don't see the 49ers practicing without Joe Montana."
Nevertheless, Stars & Stripes survived November and the subsequent challenges of USA in the semis and New Zealand in the challengers' final, seeming to grow stronger and faster with every hurdle. "If you count Cup-years-per-person, we had at least 16 America's Cups on our boat," said Conner. "The most anyone else had was maybe four—the New York Yacht Club boat—and most of the other syndicates had zero. While most of the syndicates were learning how to sail these boats—and I know that's disparaging in John Kolius's case, but even him—we were taking what we've got and making it go faster."
"He's a hard-driving guy," said starboard tailer Adam Ostenfeld, who is a sculptor in his other life. "And that's what he's made us into. He makes you into a hard-ass, the kind of person who doesn't think they're going to win till it's over. You just do your job perfect all the time."
About halfway through the campaign, the crew of Stars & Stripes '85, whose thankless role it was to be sparring partner for the first string on '87, took to calling themselves the Mushrooms, meaning that the syndicate, as the old gag has it, kept them in the dark and fed them manure. It was a mildly seditious brand of dog-soldier humor that, reportedly, did not sit well with Conner at first, but the name persisted. Eventually a homemade Mushroom battle flag appeared on the forestay of '85, and the Mushroom Salute—arms raised overhead with fingertips together, suggesting the cap of a mushroom—spread to other boats. Among the spectators it was the children who first picked up on the Mushrooms. Instead of waving from the jetty when the boats were towed to sea, they would bring their hands together over their heads, and the seagoing Mushrooms would return the salute smartly.
"It's all worth it," said Duncan Skinner, a 6'5" Mushroom drenched with saltwater and champagne and grinning happily at dockside. "Puking in the weight room, it's worth it. All the b.s. you get on the boat, it's worth it. All the drudgery of carrying Kevlar around, it's all still worth it."
The Stars & Stripes campaign was budgeted at $16 million, approximately $10 million of which went into the research, design and development of the boat. Of all the 17 syndicates that entered the regatta, Kookaburra was one of the few that spent as much. That two of the biggest spenders on technology were the two that survived in the end is an indication of the direction America's Cup competition has taken and the direction in which it is likely to continue.
Bruce Nelson, the 34-year-old San Diego-based naval architect who, along with Dave Pedrick and Britton Chance, formed Stars & Stripes's design team, said, "We feel we've developed a boat here that's approximately four percent, perhaps five percent, faster around the course than the best 1983 12-meter would be in Fremantle conditions. Now, four or five percent may not sound like a big increase to a layman, but if you had an Indianapolis 500 car that was five percent faster, you'd finish 25 miles ahead of the next car."
Only a shortage of money and time prevented the Stars & Stripes designers from reaching even further into the future. "I think it is fair to say we know how to do a boat in very short order that would beat Stars & Stripes '87 around the course consistently," says Chance.
In the waning days of Fremantle's America's Cup, as it became more and more apparent that the Auld Mug would soon be traveling back across the Pacific to a new home at the San Diego Yacht Club, Conner and Burnham were questioned again and again about the venue for the 1990 America's Cup. The usual answer was that the decision would be made by an as-yet-unnamed 11-person Defense Committee made up of five Sail America Foundation nominees and six San Diego Yacht Club members, with the yacht club to have veto power over any of those named.
In simpler times the obvious answer would have been the Pacific Ocean somewhere off San Diego. The average summer winds off San Diego are light to moderate, not unlike those in Newport, which were deemed adequate from 1930 to 1983. Now, however, 12-meter sailors and 12-meter fans alike have had a taste of high winds and big seas, and Newport-like conditions might not be good enough. As Stanley Rosenfeld, a yachting photographer for 57 years, said, "Thirty minutes in Fremantle is more exciting than 30 years in Newport."
The answer that everyone except possibly the citizenry of San Diego is waiting to hear is Hawaii. Hawaii is where the Stars & Stripes team camped for more than a year before moving on to Fremantle, where trade winds blow a steady 18 to 20 knots most of the time, where there is an unused commercial port five minutes from Honolulu awaiting rehabilitation, and where the facilities for transporting, housing, feeding and entertaining thousands of visitors are already in place.
The 1990 America's Cup will be Dennis Conner's show, and one way or another, the Cup will be sailed where he wants it sailed. However unpopular the decision may be in San Diego, Conner is certain to be swayed by the fact that his own designers, the men who made his victory in Fremantle possible by creating a boat to win in boisterous winds, have marked their ballots for Hawaii.
The America's Cup is going to be a bigger money game than ever in 1990. On the challenger side, Parry, who backed the Kookaburras with $17 million this time, has promised Australia a $33 million effort to win the Cup back. Yacht clubs in Sweden and West Germany have committed verbally to challenges. And Masakazu Kobayashi, a land developer who recently bought out Alan Bond's 12-meter interests—lock, stock and software—for $7 million, is but one of several Japanese businessmen who were shopping in Fremantle for used 12-meters.
And what of the potential 1990 defenders? In a graceful and blessedly short speech by New York Yacht Club commodore Arthur Santry at the Cup presentation ceremony at the Royal Perth Yacht Club last Friday lay a message that was almost overlooked in the flood of otherwise undistinguished verbiage. "...I don't think we'll give up until we have another real crack at this wonderful Cup regatta," said Santry. "Of course, that presumes that somebody is able to lift it from San Diego, and from Dennis and company, in 1990. And from what I've seen here this year, that will not be at all easy."