Storm Amid the Lull

America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• and New Zealand took leads in an America's Cup series enlivened by controversy and a Dennis Conner comeback
May 03, 1992

The breezes off San Diego may have been light last week, but onshore conditions were blustery and tempestuous as an international cast of petulant multimillionaires ranted, raved and rhetorically stuck their tongues out at one another, a sure sign that the America's Cup was in town. And for once, Mr. America's Cup himself, Dennis Conner, was on the outside looking in, too busy mounting an improbable comeback against Bill Koch's $64 million America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• syndicate to pay heed to the spite and vitriol being traded by the two challengers. Italy and New Zealand, whose best-of-nine series for the Louis Vuitton Cup stood, as of Sunday, Kiwis 3, Italians 2, annulments 1.

New Zealand, led by financier Sir Michael Fay, is no stranger to America's Cup controversy. In its inaugural challenge, in Fremantle in 1987, the Kiwis were accused by Conner of cheating in the design of their so-called "plastic fantastic" fiberglass yacht. The charge was never substantiated, and it became moot when Conner defeated the Kiwis, four races to one. in the Louis Vuitton challenger finals before winning back the America's Cup from the Aussies.

Then there was the 1988 fiasco, when Fay built an unorthodox 133-foot yacht and challenged the San Diego Yacht Club (SDYC) to defend the Auld Mug with a similar vessel. Instead, the SDYC, with Conner at the helm, defended with a 60-foot catamaran, creating a mismatch—Conner routed the Kiwis in two straight—that ensnarled the oldest trophy in sports in the courts until April 1990, when the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the catamaran defense was legal under the Deed of Gift, the document that sets out the America's Cup rules.

One result of all this nonsense is that in 1989 the old 12-meter America's Cup design was scuttled in favor of the International America's Cup Class (IACC) yacht, which is longer, taller, lighter and faster than the 12 meters and has more sail area. No more aluminum, wood or fiberglass, thank you. The material of choice for the new IACC yachts is carbon fiber from hull to mast to sails. The expense of building these 75-foot monsters—of which the Italians built five, New Zealand and America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• four apiece—is, even by yachting standards, outrageous. The boats cost $3 million to $4 million each. Masts are $500,000 a pop. And they do pop, occasionally. Conventional Kevlar mainsails cost about $40,000, unless you're talking about one of the liquid crystal, high-density polymer, carbon-fiber jobs that Koch's Cubens, as they call themselves, sometimes use.

The average budget for this year's eight challenging syndicates—six of which have been eliminated—and two defenders has been about $25 million, ranging from the $15 million for Conner's one-boat Stars & Stripes campaign to the $64 million plus spent by the America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• syndicate. That's a combined expenditure of more than a quarter of a billion dollars. All of which gives new relevance to the old chestnut that the best way to make a small fortune in yachting is to start with a large one.

But this is a no-frills America's Cup, devoid of tax dollars, parades, advertising and throngs of visitors. The America's Cup Organizing Committee (ACOC), which is in charge of running the defense for the SDYC, is so strapped for cash that it handed television production over to the Challenge of Record Committee—whose feed has been picked up by TV rights holders around the world—lest the ACOC bankrupt itself. The financial benefits of hosting this regatta, once estimated to be nearly $1 billion, are a windfall that has failed to materialize.

Which might be appropriate, because the wind hasn't materialized either. "The back side of Point Loma is a very strange place to sail," says New Zealand skipper Rod Davis, who grew up in nearby Coronado but married a New Zealander and now holds dual citizenship. "There are a lot of surprises that come up out there that even growing up in the area can't prepare you for."

Surprises like shifting, dying breezes, the mysterious El Niño effect, ocean currents, the Catalina Eddy, full moons, swells and drifting kelp, to name but a few. If the Fremantle Cup was a rodeo on the high seas, the San Diego Cup is a chess game in a tidal pool. That plays right into the strengths of the 49-year-old Conner, the San Diego native who has missed only one America's Cup final since 1974, and his underfunded, undermanned Stars & Stripes campaign. Defying his credo that "in sailing, money equals speed," Conner has gone from being a nettlesome thorn in the side of Koch's Cubens to being, well, a shark closing in for the kill. Weather permitting.

After losing her first three races to America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• by wide margins in the heavy swells that were prevalent during the full moon, the year-old Stars & Stripes, the oldest, widest hull left in the regatta, sort of ghosted back into the picture. When the wind dropped to the five-to-nine-knot range that .Stars & Stripes prefers and the seas flattened, Conner's boat beat the three-month-old America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• in three of the next four races, including two victories last weekend. That narrow weather window is the only one in which Stars & Stripes can match Americans¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•' straight-line speed. But five to nine knots and flat seas are common conditions off Point Loma.

Without her speed edge, America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• was in trouble as she headed into the seventh race on Sunday. Koch, Dave Dellenbaugh and Buddy Melges all took turns at the helm, but none was a match for Conner. In the first seven races, the veteran crew of Stars & Stripes proved far superior in everything from selecting and setting the sails to finding wind shifts. "The only major problem we have is inexperience," said Koch after his one-minute 28-sccond loss to Conner on Sunday made the best-of-13 defender finals 4-3 in favor of America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•. "We're getting a baptism by fire out there sailing against Dennis."

Match-racing lessons is more like it. Stars & Stripes's first win, on April 23, came after America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• took a three boat-length lead and then failed to cover Conner midway up the first mark, allowing Stars & Stripes to capitalize on a wind shift. "Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered," Koch said afterward. "We got greedy trying to stretch our lead."

Win No. 2 for Conner, last Saturday, was set up when he engaged Melges in an inspired luffing duel at the top of the first mark, breaking off at the perfect moment to take a four boat-length lead that he never relinquished. Stars & Stripes got its third win on Sunday, and it came as a result of Conner's aggressive prestart maneuvering. He pinned Dellenbaugh outside the starting area, thereby forcing America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• to jibe too close to Stars & Stripes in a desperate attempt to escape. America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• drew a foul. The 270-degree penalty turn the judges assessed her gave Conner a six boat-length cushion that he opened to 10 by the end.

"My attitude hasn't changed," said Koch, who seems to revel in his underdog role. "We still need to win three more races and have an uphill battle. But I don't think anyone who's been watching would bet on Stars & Stripes against America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• in a drag race."

But sailing in the fickle zephyrs off Point Loma is a far cry from drag racing, and anyone who knows Conner would be loath to wager against him just because he's at the helm of a slower boat. "We'd rather face Koch, obviously, because of his lack of experience," says one member of the New Zealand camp. "Love him or hate him, you never feel comfortable with Dennis on the other side of the fence."

Back at you, Kiwi crusader. Ever since New Zealand became the first challenging syndicate to set up operations in San Diego, in December 1990, the Kiwis have behaved like men on a quest for the Holy Grail. Fay keeps referring to this America's Cup campaign as "unfinished business," and he takes tremendous pride in knowing that when it comes to sailing, his country of 3.4 million people can compete with the industrial giants of Japan, France, Italy and the U.S. "New Zealand has more boats per capita than any country in the world," says Fay. "The whole country stops to watch the America's Cup. It's not like the team feels a burden of fulfilling national expectations. But wouldn't it be great if kiwis could fly?"

The kiwi, of course, is New Zealand's national bird, a chicken-sized creature with a very long beak that is quite flightless. If Fay really wanted to see the kiwi take off, all he would have to do is stick one on board his sleek, red, sledlike yacht New Zealand, the radically designed creation that almost certainly is the fastest boat in San Diego. Among its unique features: an open cockpit, saving weight. A narrow bow and flattish hull, enabling it to surf downwind. It is steered by some sort of top-secret tandem keel that enables the boat to sail closer to the wind than its competitors. And it has a vertical, foreshortened bow and an accursed 39-inch bowsprit.

The bowsprit—the spearlike appendage extending off the front of the boat—is what caused all the controversy last week, and promises to do so again. Paul Cayard, Il Moro di Venezia's San Francisco-born skipper, who lives in Venice, had been complaining for weeks about the Kiwis' use of the bowsprit, but he didn't file an official protest with the Louis Vuitton jury until last Saturday, when his boat was beaten for the fourth time in five races and was, seemingly, one loss from elimination. Bowsprits are legal in America's Cup yachts. However, cutting through (he John Paul Jones jargon, there is a rule that states, circuitously, that a bowsprit cannot be used to control the headsail in any way. That is what Cayard accused the crew of New Zealand of doing. Day after day. Race after race. The jury, after a heated two-hour meeting on Saturday night, agreed that for a period of eight seconds in the fifth race, New Zealand had, in fact, misused its bowsprit. The jury took away the Kiwi's fourth win and ordered the race to be resailed on Sunday. The jury didn't give the win to the Italians because, it reasoned, the misuse of the bowsprit had in no way affected the outcome of the race.

It was the first annulment in the 141-year history of the America's Cup and a ruling that infuriated both Italy and New Zealand. "If one yacht violates the rules, the other yacht is usually awarded the race," said Cayard. "The decision is defective. Do you have to be just a little within the rules or totally within the rules? To me the whole thing is a joke."

Not so to Raul Gardini, the industrialist who, with the help of his former company, Montedison, has bankrolled the Italian effort. At an extraordinarily acrimonious Sunday-morning press conference, Gardini accused the New Zealanders of unsportsmanlike behavior and then threatened to pick up his ball and go home with it. "There have been five races," Gardini said through a translator. "I consider all five races to have been raced in an illegal manner by New Zealand. I consider the Louis Vuitton Cup over and Il Moro to be the winner."

Fay, steam virtually spouting from his ears, scolded Gardini and Cayard for criticizing the five-man international jury and concluded, "My suggestion is to get back on the water and see if you can win the next race."

Gardini, his aristocratic veneer swiftly disintegrating in the solvent of his enmity, suggested that New Zealand, in the interest of fair play, withdraw from the regatta. Said Fay, "I think in English he wants us to be thrown out of the show."

Ah, but the show must go on. So a few hours later Il Moro got back on the water and won its second race over the Kiwis, this one by a decisive 43 seconds. New Zealand took pains to use the bowsprit in a noncontroversial manner, but Cayard still protested the race he had won for the purposes of further arguing his case for future reference. More important, suddenly, instead of holding a commanding four-race-to-one lead, as the Kiwis had 24 hours earlier, New Zealand was ahead of Il Moro just three wins to two. Said Fay, "The America's Cup is the hardest cake in the world to bake."

His voice was not without a trace of admiration.

PHOTODANIEL FORSTER/STOCK NEWPORTIn their second race, II Moro di Venezia (far left) squeaked out a win over New Zealand. PHOTODANIEL FORSTER/STOCK NEWPORTThe Italians changed sails but were blown away in race No. 3. PHOTODANIEL FORSTER/STOCK NEWPORTWhen Stars & Stripes (left) and America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• were becalmed, their race was abandoned.

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)