Conner sets course for America's Cup

May 05, 1991|By Marty Klinkenberg | Marty Klinkenberg,Knight-Ridder News Service

On the day before Dennis Conner regained the America's Cup in 1987, he gathered his Stars & Stripes crew in a parking lot on the edge of Fremantle Harbor in Australia and had everyone take turns trying to chip golf balls into one of his boats.

To put that seemingly frivolous act into perspective, consider that four years earlier Conner had suffered the disappointment of becoming the first U.S. skipper to lose the Cup, ending 132 years of U.S. domination.

"You've got to loosen up sometimes, and Dennis can let his hair down," said Malin Burnham, president of the America's Cup Organizing Committee and chairman of the foundation that supported Conner that year. "He has a great sense of humor."

Humor and Dennis Conner have rarely been used in the same sentence. If anything, the no-nonsense winner of three America's Cups is accepted as being as unyielding as one of his masts.

Those closest to him know differently. Dennis Conner, widely regarded as a tyrant in deck shoes, is as esteemed as a friend as he is a yachtsman.

"Clearly, he is one of the world's best sailors," said Tom Ehman, executive vice president and general manager of the America's Cup Organizing Committee. "He is an artist who paints a beautiful picture on the water, and one of the most pleasant guys with whom a person could ever sail. He never shouts, never screams, never gets upset."

The people who sail with Conner do so because he wins -- and because they like and respect him.

"There is a misconception of Dennis," said John Bertrand, skipper of the defunct Beach Boys defender program, a former rival turned ally. "There is a big difference between his public image and what he is really like."

Though Conner leaves no doubt about who is in control, a little-known strength is his willingness -- and even insistence on -- seeking input from his crew.

"He has a great habit of asking everybody on the crew very poignant questions," said Sandy Purdon, commodore of the San Diego Yacht Club, the home base for Conner's 1992 America's Cup campaign. "That keeps guys way down the ladder involved in the race, and it gets everybody thinking what they can do to make the boat go faster.

"When you race with him, his boat is very quiet. He will even tack without saying a word because everyone knows what is happening all the time."

Tom Whidden, Conner's navigator and the crew member who has sailed with him the longest, has entertained ideas of launching his own America's Cup projects, only to decide to remain with Conner each time.

"It's much more than just his sailing ability that makes him special," Whidden said. "He has an uncanny ability to come up with the right idea at the right time to produce the right result.

"He is an easy guy to criticize for single reasons. But when you take a look at the big picture, there is not a lot that you can pick apart."

Yet off the water, Conner can be -- as Ehman described him -- "a John McEnroe."

At his best, Conner is uncomfortable in the public spotlight. At his worst, he can embarrass himself and everyone around him.

After defending the 1988 America's Cup in a catamaran against New Zealand's 130-foot monohull, Conner became the worst of winners, berating Michael Fay, head of the Kiwi syndicate, on live television. The two had been locked for more than a year in a public feud during which Fay had heavily criticized Conner's decision to race the catamaran. Everyone had agreed that gave Conner a tremendously unfair advantage.

"Dennis will probably not get high grades when it comes to his ability to relate to the general public," said Purdon, former executive director of Conner's 1984-87 Stars & Stripes campaign. "He gets so focused, and has such tunnel vision, that he can walk down a hallway at the yacht club and not recognize people he has known for 20 years.

"Those of us who know him realize he doesn't mean to be rude. He is just off in never-never land. A lot of people interpret it the wrong way and come off thinking he is an aloof, self-centered jerk.

"But he is not."

Pardon Dennis Conner if he gives you the brush-off. It's America's Cup time again, and the winner in 1980, 1987 and 1988 is after the oldest trophy in international sport once more.

"Dennis eats and breathes the America's Cup," said Bertrand, who will skipper a training boat against Conner in practice runs off San Diego in the months ahead. "He is so focused in on everything, and everything is so well thought out, it is not surprising he is so successful. He is totally dedicated."

The International America's Cup Class World Championships -- yacht racing's answer to the NFL's preseason -- started yesterday and concludes next Saturday in San Diego. Entered are a Conner rival to defend the Cup, America 3, and top challengers from New Zealand, Japan, Italy, Spain and France.

The first-time competition, staged to help showcase the new 75-foot yachts chosen to replace the shorter and slower 12-meter (40-foot) boats, will allow Conner to evaluate his program.

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