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Aug. 05, 2002
Aug. 05, 2002

Table of Contents
Aug. 5, 2002

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The jaw-dropping story of the summer happened off Long Beach,
Calif., last week when one of the most expensive sailboats in the
world--captained by the most famous sailor in the world--sank.

This is an article from the Aug. 5, 2002 issue Original Layout

Dennis Conner's $5 million Stars & Stripes USA-77, America's best
hope to win back the America's Cup from New Zealand next winter,
was sailing in waters as calm as Bob Hope's bathtub when the
rudder post broke. Next thing you knew, Leonardo DiCaprio and
Kate Winslet were swimming down hallways.

But that's not the delicious part. When it sank, Stars & Stripes
USA-77 was on its way to pick up some sponsors for a corporate
joy sail. Hey, fellas! How do you feel about submarine races?

Conner, a four-time winner and two-time loser of the America's
Cup, needs to raise about $40 million for his latest bid, and
those millions come from corporations like Airgas, which
specializes in capturing the toxic fumes emitted from Fox NFL
Sunday.

Actually, Airgas is a distributor of specialty gases, and as a
major sponsor the company's honchos get a once-in-a-lifetime ride
on an 80-foot America's Cup racing vessel. The big cheeses from
Airgas were on a launch, with Conner, heading for the sailboat
when they got the bad news. Sorry, the boat you helped buy just
sank...but who wants some cool Stars & Stripes stickers?

Conner handled the situation rather artfully. He wiped off his
flopsweat and said, "You know, a lot of people can go on a
sailboat ride, but it's not every day you can come to a sinking."
So he took them out to the wreckage site to see not a boat but
the top half of its 110-foot mast sticking out of the water like
Opie's lost fishing pole.

That must have been when it hit the suits that their corporate
logo was painted proudly on a boat at the bottom of the sea. Look
at it this way: You're now reaching the oft ignored sardine
demographic!

It took six hours to fish out the boat. At least Airgas chairman
Peter McCausland didn't flip out. "Dennis has promised us credit
for the time our logo was underwater," he said with a grin.

No one knows for sure why the rudder post snapped as the yacht
was sailing with the team's other new boat, Stars & Stripes
USA-66. Said team president Bill Trenkle, "I don't want to tell
you too much because I don't want to give away any secrets." (You
especially don't want the competition to steal your
snappable-rudder-post secrets.)

Luckily, all 15 aboard Stars & Stripes USA-77 were rescued by
other crew members in a support boat. Not only that, but because
the sponsors were about to board, the yacht was in only a
55-foot-deep channel outside the Long Beach breakwater.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the team is practicing in San
Pedro Channel, which is about 2,000 feet deep.

Conner still plans to race USA-77 in the Challenger Selection
Series. In fact, he was quoted on his website as saying, "Small
setbacks like this...."

Whoa there, Denny! Small setbacks? How much hull epoxy have you
been sniffing? Your boat sinking is a small setback? What was the
Perfect Storm, a pelican burp?

You wonder what his sales pitch will be the next time he goes,
hat in hand, to sponsors. And we're almost positive we can keep
it above water this time!

The challenger eliminations begin on Oct. 1, but there has been
such a bizarro run-up to the Cup, you wonder if anybody will be
left to eliminate. OneWorld, the U.S. syndicate that counts
Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen among its backers, has been
accused by Team New Zealand of stealing the Kiwis' designs.
(OneWorld claims it was inadvertent.) Italy's Prada team charged
the Oracle Racing syndicate with spying from a barge. (Oracle
denies it.) Both cases are being reviewed by an arbitration
panel.

The victorious captain from the 2000 Cup, New Zealand's Russell
Coutts, sold himself to a Swiss team. (Hey, what says "ocean
racing" more than Switzerland?) And the project manager of
Sweden's team was just sentenced to eight months in the clink for
tax evasion. So maybe the bottom of the ocean isn't as low as you
can go, after all.

We may never know who was responsible for what happened in the
bowels of Stars & Stripes USA-77 that day, but it must have been
a colossal screwup by a world-class knucklehead.

Hey, wait a minute. Anyone seen Bud Selig lately?

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
"A lot of people can go on a sailboat ride," said Conner, "but
it's not every day you can come to a sinking."