Red yacht from Italy has red, white, blue brains

May 10, 1992|By Tony Chamberlain | Tony Chamberlain,Boston Globe

SAN DIEGO -- When Paul Cayard hardens his sails at the starting gun to drive Italy up the beat in Leg 1 of the America's Cup today, he will not be the only American sailor aboard the red boat from Venice.

Just behind Cayard's shoulder, the slim 33-year-old with a cap of curly brown hair and owlish glasses is Robert Hopkins, a native of Manchester, Mass., who is the technical brain trust of the Il Moro syndicate.

When Cayard got the final word that he would be Raul Gardini's skipper and team leader, one of the first calls he made was to Hopkins, a U.S. Olympic coach who still considers himself part of the Manchester Sailing Association.

"It's the only yacht club I've ever been a member of," says Hopkins. "It's a great place, where the parents teach their kids how to sail. I started with my parents there when I was 9."

Though that was just over a couple of decades ago, Hopkins already has amassed a long sailing resume, most of it in the high-tech developmental end of the America's Cup. In 1987, he wrote the computer software program that Peter Isler used as navigator on Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes. Hopkins also worked with Stars & Stripes design coordinator John Marshall, developing the 12-meter that won the Cup back from the Australians.

Before that, he helped develop Britain's Victory '83 program that was runner-up to Australia as challenger for the Cup in Newport. Despite his highly technical position, Hopkins was a history major at Yale, where he competed on the sailing team, though not at the top levels.

"Yale was such a hotbed of great sailors then," says Isler, now an ESPN commentator, who was working with the Yale program as Hopkins came through, "that Robert was not varsity A division. He was not the most likely guy to pursue sailing as a full-time career. So it really is amazing how far he's taken it."

From Yale, to North Sails and his Olympic involvement, to America's Cup racing, Hopkins says sailing is now his entire life. "I maybe get a little bit of time here and there to read a book. But mostly everything for me is sailing."

He is far from unnerved by claims of superiority at the America camp. Helmsman Buddy Melges claims the U.S. team is better than "the Italian boys," and Koch has stated flatly that U.S. technology "is better than their technology."

"That really sounds in character," says Hopkins. "He deserves to be proud of American technology. A lot of Bill's personal identity is tied to technology. He's enthusiastic about technology the way some people are enthusiastic about golf. That's great. But we are proud of our technology, too."

Hopkins was sitting at the Italian syndicate dock Thursday morning munching a Danish for breakfast. One Il Moro boat sat high on a cradle completely enshrouded in canvas, while another of the red sloops was being lowered into the water by crane, ready for a day of team practice.

In a sense, Koch is correct, Hopkins says. "American technology is bigger and better. We have to prove we're up to his level. Outside the United States, carbon-fiber technology is sort of a boutique market, done on a very small scale. While the U.S. may have an edge in mass technology, the Italians think they have carved themselves a niche in the technological world that spins around the America's Cup. I think we are one of the best at that."

It may also be worth noting that Il Moro wears the role of underdog well. Before sailing against New Zealand in the challenger finals, Cayard never missed a chance to say that he and his team were sailing below par, and that he hoped they could improve. So, perhaps in that vein, Hopkins now says, "I think A holds a slight speed edge on us. I just hope we can compensate for it in the way we sail our boat."

But if they are behind Koch's MIT-related high-tech development program, the Italians don't really care, Hopkins says.

"I don't think anyone on this team worries about what Bill Koch says. Most of our team know him, respect him for what he's

about. But this is the way we like it. We are thrilled America is strong."

In 1987, he remembers, you had 14 challengers -- six from the United States -- descend and beat up on a country of 16 million people. But challenging now -- this is a lot tougher. "That makes it so exciting to take them on. They're going to be tough."

To Hopkins, one big difference comes down to the helm. "At this level, you need a one-person CEO/ skipper of the whole deal. Like Dennis Conner. That's what really works, but it has to be someone good enough, and Paul is."

And the syndicate head has to be a certain kind of person, like Gardini. The Italians sailed horribly in some early racing, Hopkins says, but Gardini maintained a quiet faith in them, "like a parent waiting for his young kids to grow up."

Against New Zealand last week, those children were fully grown and are ready for the ultimate test. Technology may be the ticket into this showdown, notes Hopkins, "but now we're both in. Now it's a boat race."

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