Cry not for Big Bad Dennis for boats, Cup strategies again are a-changing

OUTDOORS

May 03, 1992|By PETER BAKER

After a run of 12 years, Dennis Conner is out of the America's Cup. But shed no tears for Big Bad Dennis; he is but again a victim of the changing times, overtaken again by a new technology and a syndicate head who has put a new twist on a traditional game.

You will remember that in 1983 Conner's Liberty lost to a curious boat named Australia II, a winged-keel marvel campaigned by Australian Alan Bond's bucks and Australian-Dutch technology.

Back then, the America's Cup was raced in 12-meter yachts, a design class that had been around for many decades and which had raced for the Cup since its resumption after World War II in 1958.

In those years, Americans designed, manufactured and operated the yachts, the sails and gear aboard U.S. entries for the Cup. The French, English, Swedes and the Australians -- save Bond -- all used home country crews and products.

As a result, America was able to maintain the leading edge -- until beer and real estate magnate Bond came along with Australia II, designer Ben Lexcen and a Dutch scientist named Dr. Peter van Oossanen.

Lexcen spent four months in van Oossanen's laboratory and testing basin in the Netherlands researching Australia II's keel shape, and when he was finished, the mold for the 12-meter class was broken, even though it would take several more years for the class to sink out of the America's Cup.

Oddly enough, as the 12-meter class began to sink, so did Conner -- even though in 1987 he regained the Cup by beating the Kookaburra defense group in Fremantle, Australia.

Conner was a titan in 12-meters -- he lost the Cup (the only American to do so) in 1983 by 41 seconds in Race 7 of a best-of-seven series -- because he is a great sailor, and &r 12-meters had become so well defined that great sailors often made the difference.

Take a look at 1987, for a minute. After three years of preparation on the water and building a slew of boats, Conner blew away the Australians in four straight races and brought the Cup back to the United States.

Along the way to regaining the Cup, Conner picked up the nickname Big Bad Dennis from the New Zealand team because he protested their fiberglass boats, a first in Cup competition. He also thumped them in the challenger finals.

In 1988, Michael Fay and his New Zealanders threw the biggest curve in some 50 years of Cup racing, challenging with a 132-foot sloop designed by Bruce Farr of Annapolis.

Conner responded with a catamaran, a fast, two-hulled vessel that left Farr's boat in the dust and put the America's Cup into the U.S. Supreme Court, which found the use of a catamaran proper.

But all the hoopla resulted in a movement to change the boats that would be raced for the Cup, to bring the world's greatest round-the-buoys race closer to the first decade of the 21st century than the early decades of the 20th.

And after years of being the best funded, best supplied American campaign, Conner found himself something of the odd man out. Where for years Conner and his Stars & Stripes group had held a virtual monopoly on 12-meter technology and talent, a man from Kansas named Bill Koch was orchestrating a leveraged takeover.

Over the past couple of years, Koch and his America3 group have built four of the new International America's Cup Class boats to Conner's one and trained at least two crews to Conner's one.

Koch even threw out his fourth boat after only a few weeks of sailing and raced his third in the challenger finals against Conner, who lost the best-of-13 series, 7-4.

It has been the kind of campaign that Conner waged between 1983 and 1987, when getting the Cup back from Australia was akin to a search for the Holy Grail.

Fittingly enough, New Zealander Fay's group also has been eliminated from the challenger final. Fay, too, falling to a megabucks campaign mounted by Raul Gardini, who hired an American skipper, Paul Cayard, and spent some $70 million to campaign five boats.

Koch has spent some $60 million and has bought a chance to meet the Italians starting May 9 off San Diego.

Conner's group spent a third of that, built but one boat and gave Koch a run for his money.

One has to assume that by 1995 Conner will be back and clawing again for the top.

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