Conner salutes rise of junior programs, gets ready for trials


March 27, 1994|By PETER BAKER

Dennis Conner was in Annapolis on Wednesday evening to give something back to yachting, the sport that has carried him from training sessions in a lapstrake dinghy to world-class competitions such as the Whitbread Round the World Race and the America's Cup.

While on the deck of the Annapolis Yacht Club, where later he would preside over a program to benefit the club's junior sailing program, Conner recounted something of his beginnings in sailing, his triumphs and failures and his expectations for the America's Cup trials that begin next January.

"The main purpose for being here is for Cadillac Club Night," said Conner, whose appearance was arranged by General Motors Corp., which is a major sponsor of his America's Cup campaign.

"The secondary reason is I always kind of like to help the young kids, because I appreciate all that yachting did for me, and I look forward to having a little seminar with the juniors."

Junior sailing is the grass roots of yachting, Conner said, adding that today's novice sailors have opportunities that were only the stuff of dreams when Conner was a kid in San Diego.

"They have fabulous opportunities," Conner said. "There is just no comparison. When I first started out at the San Diego Yacht Club -- which now has the most successful junior program in the world, with 400 or 450 kids every summer -- there was no junior program at all.

"There wasn't even a junior instructor. Parents would kind of pinch hit on the weekends."

These days, for example, there are 20,000 kids sailing Optimists in Japan, there are numbers of junior sailing programs in Baltimore and Annapolis, and St. Mary's College in southern Maryland has a sailing team with 80 members -- nearly as many as Notre Dame dresses for home football games.

"It is night and day the way that the junior programs have gone," Conner said. "But you know 50 years is a long time and there have been a lot of changes."

And Conner is partly responsible for many of the changes over the last 20 years since he was a junior sailing a 9-foot dinghy.

Conner won a bronze medal in the 1976 Olympics, two world championships in the Star Class, two Congressional Cups and four Southern Ocean Racing Conference titles.

The setting of Conner's best known triumphs and failures has been the America's Cup, which he won in 1974 and 1980, lost to Australia in 1983, regained in 1987 and successfully defended in the catamaran-giant monohull series of 1988.

In the last America's Cup trials, Conner's Stars and Stripes lost the defender berth to Bill Koch's America3 by one close race. Koch admits to having spent $65 million on his campaign, but Conner said the real figure was probably closer to $80 million, some three times what Conner's group spent.

This time around, Koch has formed an all-women defense syndicate but has not announced he will build a new boat for them to race.

Conner, on the other hand, already has signed three major sponsors -- GMC-Cadillac, Citizens Watch and Sears, each reportedly to the tune of $3 million -- and is close to signing other major sponsors and will begin construction of a new boat in June. The new Stars and Stripes is expected to be launched around Thanksgiving.

A third U.S. group, PACT '95, also intends to compete in the defender trials.

Through the 1987 Cup series, the races were sailed in the 12-meter class, in which Conner and other American sailors were generally acknowledged to have the leading edge of technology.

"Or we thought so, until Ben Lexcen showed us otherwise," Conner said, recalling Australia II, the only non-U.S. boat ever to have won the America's Cup. "We lost in 1983, so we were no longer the leaders in technology by then, and in 1987 [when Conner regained the Cup during races in Fremantle, Australia] we were the guys who had a longer waterline and smaller sail area.

4 "That turned out to be the winning combination."

After the catamaran-monster multihull match of 1988, the International America's Cup Class racing yacht was created and all the competing syndicates were forced to start from scratch.

"And the guys who had the most money to spend had a huge advantage," Conner said, recalling that the economic recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s made it difficult to raise funds. "It was no coincidence that the two efforts who spent the most money [Koch and Il Moro de Venezia] got to the finals."

But where last time around Koch was able to build a handful of boats, for this America's Cup defense and challenge syndicates will be limited to building two boats. Sail inventories also have been limited and the course has been changed to a new, six-leg format.

The result of the changes may be that one cannot buy one's way through the trials and into the America's Cup series.

The most startling change for the coming Cup is the all-women team, which has not been tried in these trials before. Conner welcomes the competition and said that with the technology base Koch built last time around the women's team will be a strong opponent.

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