Fears of Kiwi boat might explain Conner's invite to defender finals

OUTDOORS

April 09, 1995|By PETER BAKER

Reports out of San Diego last week made much of the "old boy" influence on the unprecedented rules changes that allowed Team Dennis Conner to advance to the finals of the America's Cup defender trials.

Sponsors, it was said by Cup organizers, deserve the exposure the televised finals will bring.

The competitors -- meaning second-place America3 and third-place Team Dennis Conner -- deserve "fair sailing conditions" after a slew of technical protests against a mid-round keel change on Conner's boat forced a do-or-die sailoff that Conner lost to America3.

The U.S. defense of the Cup needed to be strengthened.

"Translated, what all that means is that the defense is scared to death of the Kiwis," said a well-placed Cup official who requested anonymity. "None of the three defenders is certain they can beat them."

In fact, Team New Zealand has not lost a race on the water since challenger and defender eliminations began in January.

On the eve of the final series of 12 races to determine the U.S. entrant in the America's Cup match starting May 6, the three defense syndicates find themselves in interesting positions.

Conner, who has sailed in each America's Cup over the past 21 years and won it more times than any man alive, has found that all that experience can't overcome what has proven to be a slow boat.

America3, which started this regatta as an all-women's team and for the past few weeks has had Dave Dellenbaugh on board as starting helmsman and tactician, seems to be the fastest of the ** defenders upwind and at times the fastest downwind. The trouble is that Mighty Mary's crew lacks experience.

PACT '95, with first-time Cup skipper Kevin Mahaney and a talented afterguard and crew, has sailed well through the Citizen Cup defender eliminations. Their boat, Young America, seems especially fast downwind compared to Conner's Stars and Stripes and America3's Mighty Mary. But Mahaney and company, while they can count a couple of dozen major championships among them, are making their debut in America's Cup competition.

In an attempt to make the best of an awkward situation, the three defense syndicates and the America's Cup '95 Defense Committee agreed two hours before Tuesday's "final" race between Mighty Mary and Stars and Stripes to change the traditional two-boat final series to a round-robin competition "to promote the strongest possible defense and fair sailing."

But promoting fair sailing probably is the least of these teams' concerns. The real business at hand is successfully defending the Cup.

"We want to be pushed as hard as possible," Mahaney said earlier in the trials. "We want to be the defender, but if we fail to win, we also want to have pushed Dennis Conner and America3 to a level where they would be able to successfully defend."

The competition in the challenger eliminations for this America's Cup appears to be as strong as any since 1983, when Australia II and John Bertrand beat Conner and took the Cup to Perth, Australia.

Conner, the only American to lose the Cup since 1851, in 1987 became the first to win it back. He successfully defended it in 1988.

In 1992, Bill Koch, a millionaire Kansas oilman, spent more than $70 million to beat Conner and defend the Cup against Italy's Il Moro syndicate in the new International America's Cup Class boats.

Immediately afterward, Koch initiated rules changes that would limit spending and hopefully heighten competition. Syndicates were limited to two new boats each, numbers of sails were limited, counter-syndicate espionage was eliminated, and the race course was changed to include only windward and leeward legs.

Theoretically, the changes meant that the fastest boat rather than the fattest wallet should stand the best chance of winning the America's Cup match, which begins May 6.

But with defender finals opening tomorrow, the question now is which is the fastest boat -- and the answer may well be challenger Team New Zealand.

Team New Zealand lost one race after oneAustralia, the other syndicate in the challenger finals, which open Tuesday, won a technical protest. Team New Zealand also forfeited several races after qualifying for the finals.

But on the water, the Black Beast has been absolutely beautiful.

Team New Zealand has had the same afterguard -- led by world-class match racer Russell Coutts -- since it began practice sessions a year and a half ago in New Zealand. The syndicate's head is Peter Blake, a round-the-world racer who banks heavily on experience.

And while other defense and challenge syndicates have cracked their hulls, lost masts and blown out sails, Team New Zealand has sailed along virtually unscathed. The team is so strong that it has been able to switch back and forth between two apparently equally matched racers without losing a step.

oneAustralia enters the challenger finals at a disadvantage after its best International America's Cup Class yacht broke in half and sank early last month. Neither of its boats had been able to keep up with Team New Zealand earlier in the trials.

"Overall, the American defense could be stronger because of these moves," said Annapolis sailor and ESPN sailing analyst Gary Jobson.

The question is whether eight more races for each of the defenders can bring them to a level equal to Team New Zealand.

Under the seeding system for the defender finals, Young America will start the competition with two points, Mighty Mary will open with one point and Conner will start with none. The teams will race until two have been mathematically eliminated.

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