A Cacophony of boat horns shattered the late-afternoon calm of San Diego's Shelter Island Yacht Basin last Friday, hailing the conqueror of the local hero. Bill Koch's America, having dispatched Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes seven races to four in the best-of-13 America's Cup defender series, was taking a brief and somewhat reluctant turn in front of the host San Diego Yacht Club, a lair that, Koch believed, had been treating him and his crew "like a bunch of rich Easterners coming in to steal the Cup." After a few minutes America departed for its own compound, where the crew could celebrate its victory among friends.
Back at the SDYC, the champagne was uncorked for Conner, who arrived a short time after Koch did—just as they had at the finish of each of the last three races in the series. Conner had sailed his Stars & Stripes brilliantly, but as he had said all along, he was "a guy with 40 cards in a 52-card game." It would be the first time since 1980 that Conner, who had brought the America's Cup to San Diego, would not be sailing in the final round.
After 3½ months and 173 races, the two yachts that will begin racing this Saturday for the America's Cup were finally selected. The defender and challenger are old rivals, as it happens, with a history of bad blood between them. Koch's America will represent the SDYC in its defense of the oldest trophy in sports against Italy's Il Moro di Venezia, which last Thursday completed its stunning comeback against New Zealand in a challenger series that Raul Gardini, head of the Italian syndicate, likened to "fighting for the Cup with cold knives."
The man with the whetstone for the Italian side is 32-year-old skipper Paul Cayard, a native of San Francisco, whom Koch disdainfully refers to as "Gardini's hired gun." Cayard is one of the sport's so-called rock stars and is getting paid $800,000 for this Cup campaign. His association with Gardini goes back to 1985, when he began sailing the Italian industrialist's Maxi boats. The two men won a world championship in that class in 1988, at which time Cayard persuaded Gardini to challenge for the America's Cup. Gardini put Cayard in charge of the project, and in order to meet the Cup's eligibility requirements, Cayard and his family moved to Venice in December 1988. He has been the driving force behind the Italian challenge ever since.
The formidably funded Italian challenge, it should be noted. Until he was removed in a corporate power play last summer, Gardini was the head of Gruppo Ferruzzi, an Italian conglomerate whose properties include the industrial holding company Montedison. Gardini is the man who lured Danny Ferry and Brian Shaw away from the NBA in 1989, and snatched Yugoslav forward-center Dino Radja away from the Boston Celtics the following year, for his company's Il Messaggero Roma team of the Italian League. Gardini is used to getting what he wants. Tapping into Montedison's considerable resources, Gardini told Cayard to do "whatever it takes." The cost of Italy's five-boat campaign has been reported to be more than $100 million, though a Gardini spokesperson puts the figure at $43 million and counting.
The command team that Cayard assembled is a melting pot of nationalities and talents. Il Moro's design team was headed by German Frers of Argentina. Fernando Sena of Portugal was director of boat building, and Laurent Esquier of France is operations manager. Robert Hopkins Jr. from Manchester, Mass., oversaw Il Moro's technical and research programs and is Cayard's navigator. Of the 16-man crew, 14 are Italian.
"It's the perfect mix," says Hopkins. But it was Cayard's tireless pursuit of the infamous bowsprit issue that turned the best-of-nine challenger series with the Kiwis around. On April 25, with Il Moro trailing New Zealand 4-1, Cayard protested the manner in which the New Zealanders had rigged their gennaker to the bowsprit. The challenger jury responded by annulling what had been New Zealand's fourth win, but the decision was only a partial victory for Cayard, who had asked that the race be awarded to Il Moro.
Cayard kept hammering away at the issue, and his persistence finally paid off. On April 27, the jury changed the wording of an amendment it had written in March concerning the use of New Zealand's bowsprit. As a result, the crew of New Zealand had to make time-consuming adjustments in the way the gennaker was rigged. Unappeased, the Italian camp sent out an ominous press release that stated: "After today, one point will never be changed: Il Moro di Venezia has always complied with the rules of the America's Cup, New Zealand has not. Therefore Il Moro di Venezia will take any action that might be necessary to defend its rights."
Lawsuits? A knife fight? War? We will never know, since the Italians made the threat moot by winning the last four races of the series. "We persevered; we peaked; we got our act together," Cayard said after the fifth and final win over the Kiwis.
The Italians also employed a new carbon-fiber mainsail, which they used in the light air in three of the last four races. "We'd been improving it and improving it, and finally got it right," says Hopkins. "We used to joke that that mainsail was like a fine wine: It hadn't matured yet."
After Il Moro evened the series at 3-3 on April 28, the Kiwi command staff panicked. Syndicate manager Peter Blake, tired of watching Cayard control nearly every start, replaced skipper Rod Davis and tactician David Barnes with Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth. Coutts enjoyed a reputation for being more aggressive than Davis, particularly at the start of a race. The hope was that Coutts would throw Cayard off-guard.
That prospect amused Il Moro's strategist, Tommaso Chieffi. "Paul Cayard is a very strong personality," said Chieffi. "There was a little surprise to see Coutts instead of Davis, but we didn't get particularly excited about it."
Indeed, when Cayard saw that his old friend and rival, Davis, had been replaced, he smelled blood. "I read that as a major weakness," Cayard said. "Imagine the meetings they must have had to make that change. Imagine the disruption."
Coutts had skippered New Zealand only twice in competition before the pivotal seventh race on April 29, and it showed. The Coutts-Butterworth team made several significant errors, yet lost the race by only 20 seconds. Facing elimination, the New Zealanders came back with Coutts at the helm last Thursday. Cayard beat Coutts to the starting line by five seconds and won the 20.03-nauticalmile race by 1:33, gaining for Italy a first-time berth in the America's Cup final. "I don't think anyone will ever realize how good the Italian team is," says Hopkins. "Mainly, all we've gotten credit for is having a big budget and giving good parties. That's a very perilous attitude to have, and New Zealand paid dearly for it. Now we'll see how the Americans handle that."
The answer was not long in coming. "Our technology is better than the Italian technology," says Koch. "I've raced Paul Cayard a number of times and won; Paul doesn't scare us."
Koch should have learned his lesson about underestimating an opponent. Once smug about the ease with which his four-boat campaign would trounce Conner's one-boat effort, Koch had been force-fed about $65 million worth of humble pie since the defender trials began in mid-January. "Before, when I said we'd beat the socks off Conner, we had our socks handed to us," Koch said after America finally eliminated Stars & Stripes. The Wichita, Kans., oil company heir added, "The Kansa Indians have a saying that the greatness of your tribe is determined by the greatness of your enemy. We feel Dennis Conner is probably the greatest sailor that's ever been."
He certainly seemed to be after tying the series 4-4 on April 28, Conner's third win in a row in the five-to eight-knot winds and flat seas that Stars & Stripes favors. Suddenly, the tune being sung by the Koch camp was You and Me Against the World. Everyone in San Diego, it seemed, was pulling for Conner. Koch complained that upon returning to port, America had been pelted by apple cores and greeted by raised middle fingers. "We've spent a fortune in this town, and they're thumbing their noses at us," Koch fumed. "On the other hand, it's brought our group together and given us a fortresslike mentality."
Conner's momentum was quelled in the ninth race of the defender series, after the America crew recut the boat's sails overnight and made some other as-yet-undisclosed adjustments to improve her upwind performance. It worked. On the third leg, Conner watched as America rocketed past, and said, "Man, that's beautiful. I'm telling you, he's just so fast. There's nothing I can do." Then he added a classic Conner dig: "It's amazing they could ever lose a race in that boat." America won the race by a margin of 1:08.
Stars & Stripes lost the last two races in bigger winds by 1:43 and 5:08, the latter a distance so great that Koch told co helmsman Buddy Melges that he could no longer read the advertisements on Conner's sails. Docs Koch believe, then, that the America's Cup will remain in San Diego? "You bet your ass it will," he says.
Kiwi skipper Davis disagrees, predicting a resounding win for the Italian boat in the best-of-seven final. "I haven't decided if it will be 4-1 or 4-love," he told The San Diego Union-Tribune. "But I think it'll be a pretty good thrashing."
Conner, for one, gives the edge in skippers to Cayard. But when it comes to tartness of tongue, this Cup rates as a toss-up. Koch and Gardini have raced their Maxi boats against each other for several years, but the rivalry has not exactly bred mutual respect. Asked how he felt about Cayard's sailing for Italy, Koch answered dryly, "It's hard for me to imagine having an Italian green card. But that's Paul's choice. He's a professional sailor. He goes where the money is."
Cayard's view of Koch is similarly acid. "Bill Koch had no concept of sport and sport under pressure until a year ago," he says. "He started competitive sailing eight years ago, when he was 43. So he's 35 years behind the 8 ball and probably always will be."
Sharpen up the knives, mateys. Sounds like that "friendly competition between foreign countries," which the Deed of Gift for the America's Cup describes, is finally at hand.