Conner says race is still wide-open America's Cup winner says next leg will give boats chance to show legs

December 12, 1997|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FREMANTLE, Australia -- In the world of international big boat racing, there is no bigger name than that of Dennis Conner. Fourtimes an America's Cup winner, Conner is instantly recognized wherever he goes.

Which is why media members from around the world, gathered here for the start tomorrow of the critical Leg 3 of the Whitbread Round the World Race, sat up and took notice when Conner, the mastermind behind the multimillion-dollar Toshiba campaign, spoke about the event yesterday.

As far as Conner is concerned, the race is still wide-open.

"Truth is," he said, "no one knows what's going to happen because the boats have never really lined up against each other in very many conditions for very long. The weather routing has taken them so far apart they've been sailing around in different winds, and the result is that no one really knows who's fast or not.

"I don't have any idea. That's one of the most interesting things about this next leg. For the first time in the race, we may have some idea of who has legs.

"The third leg from Fremantle to Sydney is only 2,250 nautical miles, so we are not going to see the huge separation that we saw on the first two legs. They have to turn left at Cape Leeuwin just after they leave Fremantle and go right across the Great Australian Bight before they turn left again just after they pass Melbourne.

"The dynamics of the coastal geography means they get corralled in Bass Strait several hundred miles before the finish."

Conner says the Toshiba crew has the feeling that it is pretty good, but, he said, all the top crews probably feel the same way.

"It will be interesting to see what the various boats do around Cape Leeuwin," he said. "Will they simply bear away for Sydney or sneak farther south in the hope of hooking into those big westerlies? We'll have to wait and see."

Conner says any one of the top six boats could win the race.

"I suspect they're going to be sailing a little more conservatively and not getting hung out. It was easy for the guy [Swedish Match] who was eighth to go hit a corner at the start of the second leg because he needed a win. But now, there are six boats that can still win this race."

"I don't think you're going to see the winner decided until sometime in North America, maybe on the Chesapeake," Conner said.

Under those circumstances, what advice did he have for the Toshiba crew?

"I can't tell them anything," he said. "Maybe I'll know a little more [today] when we get our weather report. Then I'll be able to say how much confidence I have."

Conner also says he believes there is "a certain degree of luck" in a race like this.

"It wasn't a question of luck when I was steering US 55 [1987 America's Cup challenger, Stars & Stripes] in a 22-knot southwesterly off 'Freo,' " he said. "But there certainly is a higher degree of luck involved in this."

Asked if he might step aboard as a Whitbread sailor, Conner said he was "leaving his options open."

"My number one priority," he said, "is to make sure the boat gets around the world safely and does as well as possible. I have to sell a whole lot of product for Toshiba. If I can accomplish all that and go for a sail with the boys, that would be dessert for Dennis. At this point, I have no plans to go."

Conner, meanwhile, said having George Collins aboard Chessie Racing will certainly boost spirits on the Maryland boat.

"George is very well-liked by the Chessie crew," he said. "And the addition of sail trimmer Mike Toppa and tactician John Kostecki will also give them a chance to lift their performance.

"I think it'll be very interesting to see if the arrival of two high-quality sailors can change the mix enough to come up with a good placing. While they might be disappointed with their placings so far, they certainly do have the potential to do better," Conner said. "It wouldn't surprise me to see them come into Sydney in a good place after this next leg."

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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