For skipper Dennis Conner and his eight-man crew, the celebrations could not begin soon enough. Champagne corks started popping even as Conner, a San Diego businessman who races oceangoing yachts strictly with a view toward winning, steered his sleek blue catamaran, Stars & Stripes, across the finish line off San Diego. Stars & Stripes had covered the triangular 39-mile course in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego’s Point Lorna in a mere 3:48:48, 21 minutes and 10 seconds ahead of its rival, a huge white sloop from New Zealand. That gave the American vessel a tworace sweep in last week’s best-of-three competition for the America’s Cup. But it did not end the legal battle that resulted from Conner’s controversial decision to compete in the swift twin-hulled catamaran—and, as a result, defy the unwritten rules of the venerable 137-year-old cup.
The victors’ exuberance was in marked contrast to the tense atmosphere that surrounded the actual races. Because of Stars & Stripes’ clear advantage over the 132-foot challenger, New Zealand, many sailing experts scornfully viewed the event as the greatest mismatch in the history of yachting’s most coveted cup. In Friday’s second
race, Stars & Stripes got off the mark 29 seconds ahead of New Zealand. Then, in a strengthening westerly wind, the American craft steadily widened its lead. After his third cup victory, Conner reflected on the uneven competition: “It would be hard to say it was the most rewarding or the most pleasant.”
Even before last week’s races began, New Zealand merchant banker Michael Fay, owner of the challenger, had taken Conner to court twice. Following Stars & Stripes’ easy victory, Fay planned to go before the courts again to challenge the legality of Conner’s 60-foot twin-hulled catamaran.
Stars & Stripes, at 6,000 lb. and with a carbon airfoil the size of the wing on a 747 for a sail, almost flew through the water. It also rode higher than the 70,000-lb. New Zealand. Both boats, in turn, were a sharp departure from the stately 12-m yachts used by gentleman’s agreement since 1958. Some critics accused Conner of unsportsmanlike conduct. Others disagreed, saying that the New Zealand challenger forced the issue when he insisted upon a narrow interpretation of the cup rules and used the U.S. courts to force Conner to race this year—instead of in 1991 as previously scheduled. Conner, who reclaimed the America’s Cup in 1987 in
Freemantle, Australia, initially refused the challenge. But when the courts ordered Conner to race or forfeit the cup, he announced plans to compete in the catamaran.
Stars & Stripes’ advantage over the New Zealand boat was apparent as soon as the two vessels began their first race on Sept. 7 before the crowd of about 10,000 people in Embarcadero Marina Park overlooking San Diego Bay. Sailing in variable sixto 15-knot breezes under clear skies, the single-sail New Zealand sloop with a crew of 34 took a 10second lead at the start. But after that, the American boat, equipped with its computercontrolled airfoil and sailed by a crew of only nine, easily outsailed and outmanoeuvred the challenger.
Once out on the open ocean, just as many observers had predicted, the American boat easily won the first race over a 40-mile course in 4:53:54—18 minutes and 15 seconds ahead of the New Zealand boat. New Zealand skipper David Barnes said that Conner deliberately held down his boat’s speed to make the race appear more competitive. Conner denied the allegation.
The America’s Cup race dates back to 1851, when the U.S. schooner America defeated 17 British yachts for an English yachting trophy called the Hundred-Guinea Cup. In 1857, the America’s owners deeded the trophy to the New York Yacht Club as an international challenge trophy, and the America’s Cup was bom. But the Deed of Gift, the cup’s original two-page set of rules, specifies that competing yachts must be oceangoing sailboats, no longer than 90 feet at the waterline. In 1956, the rule requiring oceangoing capability was removed, permitting the participation of the smaller 12-m yachts, but the specified length remained unchanged.
Eager to mount a New Zealand challenge, Fay decided to insist on the original reading
of the Deed of Gift. In a surprise move, Fay last July issued a challenge to Conner, who had successfully defended the cup in 1980, lost it in 1983 to an Australian challenger and won it back in 1987. But Conner, complacent in the assumption that the next races would be held in 1991, failed to announce plans for the challenge—and that left the door ajar under the rules. Fay promptly set June 1, 1988, for the first race and announced that he would build the largest vessel allowed under the Deed of Gift—a sloop measuring 90 feet at the waterline, or twice the size of 12-m yachts.
At first, Conner ignored Fay’s challenge on
the grounds that the next America’s Cup was not due until 1991. Fay took the issue to the Supreme Court of New York State, which is the trustee of the Deed of Gift. After a judge ruled last November that Fay’s challenge was legal, Conner announced that he would skipper a catamaran. Outraged by Conner’s audacity, Fay returned to the same New York court in May, arguing that the rules call for a match race of similar boats. The court ordered the race to go ahead as scheduled, with all further protests to be dealt with after the race.
The next cup challenge is bound to be less contentious. Even while the Stars & Stripes
battled the challenger, past and present administrators of the cup met in San Diego to agree on new regulations. At a news conference held after the first race, they announced that they had established a three-man committee to arbitrate disputes and with the power to decide on what classes of boat could race for the cup. That was welcome news for future challengers, who can now proceed with plans for the 1991 competition. William Inwood, director of Force 12 North, a syndicate that plans to mount a $27-million Canadian challenge in 1991, said that he was relieved that most issues had been resolved.
Meanwhile, Fay’s court challenge over the legality of the Stars & Stripes—he said that he would launch it immediately—will, in effect, decide the location for the 1991 America’s Cup. If the court decides in Fay’s favor—making him winner, by default, of last week’s competition—the cup will move to New Zealand. If the catamaran is ruled legal, the cup will remain in the hands of the San Diego Yacht Club.
If Conner wins in court, that will only deepen the bitterness felt among New Zealand yachtsmen. Waving the New Zealand flag during last week’s racing, Errol Cook, a sailor from Palmerston North in New Zealand, accused Conner of unsportsmanlike tactics and added, “A lot of Americans agree with me.” Indeed, a Gallup poll that Fay commissioned and that was published last month showed that 53 per cent of respondents in the United States had said that Conner’s use of a catamaran was unfair. Given those sentiments, this summer’s competition victory is likely to be remembered as the most unusual—but least admirable—in the cup’s long history.
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