Cup defenders could face stormy sailing Merger might benefit rivals Conner, Koch FTC

OUTDOORS

January 14, 1992|By PETER BAKER

Today in the Pacific Ocean, two groups representing the San Diego Yacht Club officially will begin a series of elimination races to determine which will earn the distinction of defending the America's Cup in May.

In another year, it might have been but a stroll in the park for either team. But, given the state of both groups, it may turn out to be quite a trek.

Preposterous, of course.

Not.

One of the American combatants is Dennis Conner of Team Dennis Conner, he of fame and infamy. Conner, of course, is the guy who was the skipper of the 12-meter yacht that lost the Cup to Australia's winged keel in 1983, won it back in 1987 and then defended it on the water and in the courts in 1988.

The other team, America3, is headed by Bill Koch, who wasn't emphatically involved in big boat sailing when Conner lost the Cup. Koch, a Kansan who has made his millions in alternative energy and real estate, is, at 51, a relative newcomer in this pursuit of what purists call the Holy Grail of yachting.

And perhaps herein lies the problem: While Conner has Cup experience dating to the middle 1970s and a crew that has been many times through the wars, Koch seems to have the financial backing and perhaps an advantage in technology.

While Conner has a budget of $20 million and what is shaping up as a one-boat campaign, Koch has $40 million, three boats and a fourth to come.

Koch, however, also seems to feel that since he is paying the majority of money for the toys, he should be the key player in the game, a stance that may not sit well with skippers who already have proven their skills in big-boat competition.

In fact, Gary Jobson and John Kostecki, two match racing skippers of considerable repute, have stepped through the revolving door to join Koch's campaign and spun back out.

Koch, meanwhile, with world class skipper Buddy Melges coordinating his sail training, has taken the skipper's role aboard his best boat, Defiant.

And somehow that seems contrary to his credo: "If you combine talent, technology and teamwork [America3], you come up with a very powerful force."

Based on Koch's track record, he has acquired the technology and the teamwork, but seems to be lacking the talent.

Koch's edge is based on technology attained in the maxi-boat racing circuit, where his Matadors won the 1990 and 1991 world championships.

Koch spent six years and close to $8 million to develop Matador2, and after the 1990 Maxi Worlds he says he was approached by virtually every potential defense syndicate. Clearly he had something special that could be applied to the new, 75-foot International America's Cup Class racing yachts that will debut in Cup competition this year.

In broad terms, what made Matador work was a move to a heavier displacement and a bulb keel with a trim tab. While other designers went lighter for more speed, Koch and his research group went heavier and faster.

It was the approach of a maverick, a very smart maverick who has put up $22 million of his own money. The question is whether he will outsmart himself by not signing on a top-notch skipper. For his part, Koch says that he was the skipper of his Matadors anywhere from 20 to 100 percent of the time, and what was good enough to win the Maxi world championship should be good enough for the America's Cup.

On the other hand, Conner has been playing it as he always has -- close to the vest. Conner is a master gamesman and capable of sandbagging as well as a barroom pool hustler.

But the weak U.S. economy has limited Conner's budget to half of America3 and Japan and a third of the Italian syndicate. New Zealand is working with $25 million.

Today, Conner's one boat and Koch's two will begin the Defender Trials with the first of three round- robin series. As the round robins continue, Koch plans to rotate his new boats into the competition, and Team Dennis Conner could have all it can handle just contesting a friendly armada.

The winner of the defender trials probably will get to take on New Zealand, Australia's Darling Harbour group, Japan, France or Italy. All but France finished ahead of both of Koch's boats, and France managed to finish ahead of one of them.

Granted that a lot of things might happen before May 4, when San Diego Yacht Club must decide which boat it will race in the best-of-seven America's Cup series, but one way to ensure the necessary blending of technology, teamwork and talent would be for Koch and Conner to merge operations.

Otherwise, it could be a troublesome trial for the defense.

The America's Cup at a glance

) Defender selection trials

The round-robin races of the Defender trials are scored on a weighted scale for victories, with the top-scoring yachts advancing to the semifinals, which will be scored simply on the number of wins. The defender of the Cup will be decided at the conclusion of the final trial series.

Jan. 14-26 -- Round Robin 1, with victories worth 1 point each.

Feb. 8-18 -- Round Robin 2, with victories worth 2 points each.

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