For three years Dennis Conner has been known as the man who lost the America’s Cup. Although he sailed on winners in 1974 and 1980, Conner lost the yachting world’s most coveted trophy to Alan Bond’s Australia II in 1983, ending 132 years of U.S. dominance in the event. Thirteen challengers, including Canada II, competed for a berth in the 1987 Cup championship series. But it was the indefatigable Conner, a 44-year-old San Diego businessman, who last week earned the opportunity he had sought for the past three years. His Stars & Stripes ’87 eliminated New Zealand’s upstart Kiwi Magic, winning the right to face Australia’s Kookaburra III. The new racing series begins off Fremantle, Western Australia, on Jan. 31.
For Conner, recapturing the Cup has become almost a patriotic crusade. Always competitive and sometimes abrasive, Conner sails for the San Diegobased Sail America syndicate, which raised $20 million to build three new yachts and bankrolled a support operation that resembled an armada: dozens of crew members, coaches, designers, sailmakers, aerospace computer specialists, meteorologists and medical personnel.
In addition to top-secret design in-
novations, Conner spent millions of dollars to adapt Stars & Stripes to the difficult weather conditions off Fremantle, where until 1985 no one had raced boats in the 12-metre class. The course—eight legs with a total distance of 24.3 miles—features a prevailing westerly wind nicknamed the Fremantle Doctor for the relief it brings from Western Australia’s searing heat. The breeze sweeps in with wind velocities of 25 knots or more.
Conner’s campaign to regain the Cup was almost aborted by the New Zealand boat, New Zealand, better known by its nickname, Kiwi Magic. With its rigid fibre-glass hull, the New Zealand yacht boasted a 38-1 record going into the final challenge round and was favored to win. But plagued by equipment problems, Kiwi Magic lost the series with Conner 4-1 in high winds and treacherous waves. Said New Zealand skipper Chris Dickson afterward: “We were more than happy to have a boat left to put back in the pen.” For his part, Conner vowed to redouble his efforts to return the Cup to the United States. Accepting the Louis Vuitton Cup awarded to the successful challenger last week, he pledged to “put our heads down and go to work in the old American spirit and work
our fannies off.”
But Conner’s crew will face fierce competition from Australia’s Taskforce ’87 syndicate, headed by Perth millionaire Kevin Parry. Its fast and manoeuvrable Kookaburra III won the right to defend the Cup after it eliminated Alan Bond’s Australia IV 5-0 in a one-sided best-of-nine series. But the Australians are not taking chances. At week’s end, Kookaburra III still had to prove that it was indeed the fastest of the defenders in a series of time trials against its sister ship, Kookaburra II.
Bond, the Australian multimillionaire who spent a decade and more than $19 million before his Australia II finally won the Cup in 1983, accepted the elimination of Australia IV philosophically. And while officials of the two huge Australian syndicates had sniped at each other throughout the elimination rounds, Bond last week offered his crew’s assistance in preparations for the final. At the same time, he told the Kookaburra crew that he expects them to retain the Cup. “We brought it here,” Bond admonished. “Don’t you lose it.”
New Zealand’s Dickson, at 25 the youngest skipper in the competition, faced a more difficult decision. Traditionally, ousted challengers swear allegiance to their vanquishers. But relations between the New Zealand camp and Conner’s syndicate cooled after the U.S. group complained that Kiwi Magic’s fibre-glass hull was tantamount to cheating. And New Zealanders are riding a wave of Down Under solidarity. Last week syndicate chairman Michael Fay announced that Kiwi Magic would back Kookaburra.
For Australia, more than patriotism is at stake. Advertisers have spent more than $15 million to promote the race, and its total economic benefits are expected to approach $2 billion. That is a welcome development for Australia, but it will do little to assuage the amateur sailors who argue that a once-gentlemanly competition has gotten badly out of hand. As one disgruntled race official put it, “It’s not the sport they’re racing for, it’s the money.” For Dennis Conner, clearly, it is both.
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