San Diego is host as teams open bids for hallowed trophy AMERICA'S CUP 1995

AMERICA'S CUP BOWS AGAIN

January 08, 1995|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,Sun Staff Writer

After more than two years of research, development and crew training, 10 sailing teams are making final preparations for the start of the America's Cup trials this week in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego -- fine-tuning rigs, fairing hull surfaces and pumping themselves up for a winter and spring of what promises to be hard-knuckle competition.

On Thursday, the Citizen's Cup Defender Selection Series will open for the three U.S. teams, with Team Dennis Conner matched against America3, the first all-woman crew to sail in the 144-year history of the event.

The Louis Vuitton Cup Challenger Selection Series will begin Saturday, with seven teams from five foreign nations competing.

After two years of preparation, one might expect that the teams know where they stand -- and probably they do.

"But no one out here is going to come out and say they are the fastest," said Jim Brady, a former Annapolis sailor who now is the navigator aboard Conner's Stars and Stripes. "You let your performance on the race course do the talking for you."

America3 will sail the first round of the trials in a boat built for the 1992 America's Cup. The group's new boat is scheduled for delivery in February.

PACT '95's Young America, delivered to the team only a few weeks ago, was damaged during a freak windstorm Wednesday and might not be ready for its first race of the trials on Friday.

And Team Dennis Conner, with a new boat in the water since mid-November, has mostly declined to sail in close quarters with other defense or challenger teams.

"The boat is ready. The crews are ready," said Dawn Riley, one of five skippers who will rotate for America3 through at least the first round. "But the situation is that no one knows how they really will do until the first gun."

But each team has had a yardstick of some sort by which to measure their improvement. In the case of Team Dennis Conner, Brady said, the potential of the new Stars and Stripes first was measured against the boat that was sailed in the 1992 trials.

"We know where the old boat was in relation to the better boats in 1992, and in relation to the newer boats that were in the world championships here last fall -- most notably oneAustralia," Brady said. "Now we can sail the new boat against the old one and see where we line up that way."

Kevin Mahaney, skipper for PACT '95, said the setup of the first round of the trials will be beneficial to his group, especially since the syndicate will be forced to scramble to get Young America ready to race.

"There is no lack of confidence here," Mahaney said the morning after Young America had been damaged by the windstorm. "We are young and new to the America's Cup, but we didn't come here to compete. We came here with one purpose: to win."

America3 and PACT '95 will enter the first round with only a slight disadvantage because victories in this six-race series are worth only one point. In succeeding rounds, victories will be worth two, four and seven points, and then all three boats will enter the semifinals, with points scored earlier determining seedings.

The defender finals are scheduled to start April 10 and the America's Cup series will begin May 6.

"In this first round, I don't think that anyone is going to be extremely upset if they don't do well," Brady said. "This first series simply isn't the end-all to having a fast or slow boat."

But it is, skippers agree, a time to improve boat handling, hone tactics and judge the mettle of the competition.

"No one wants to go out and wreck their newest boat before the fun really gets going," Brady said. "The first round is more a warm-up to find where everyone stands."

Among the challengers, a lot of attention is being given to John Bertrand and oneAustralia, the boat that easily won the International America's Cup Class world championships last fall.

Bertrand is the skipper who sailed the boat that won the match that started to turn the America's Cup upside down.

A dozen years ago, Bertrand waltzed into Newport, R.I., with a boat named Australia II and danced away Down Under several months later with the Cup, a prized possession of U.S. yacht racers since 1851.

In the years since 1983, the America's Cup has changed -- some of the changes brought on by guile and legal force, others based as much on common sense as common consent.

Bertrand and the late designer Ben Lexcen started the revolution with Australia II, the 12-meter class, winged-keel wonder that beat the New York Yacht Club and skipper Conner.

Four years later in Fremantle, Australia, Conner and his Stars and Stripes regained the Cup, blowing away a record field of 13 challengers, trouncing the Australian defender and giving the San Diego Yacht Club control of the Cup.

In 1988, New Zealand made a rogue challenge in a 132-foot monohull and, after a lengthy court battle, Conner successfully defended in a 65-foot catamaran.

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