Trouble-tossed race for Conner, Toshiba On heels of hard luck, his dedication questioned

Whitbread 1997-1998

May 01, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

When Toshiba finished the last leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race, the syndicate's chairman, Dennis Conner, waved triumphantly to the crowd as he sailed into Baltimore. After that, he spoke bluntly about the shortcomings of one of his rivals. Later, he packed Toshiba with corporate sponsors and set out to show off his boat.

In typical Conner fashion, he acted like a winner.

But in reality, his hard-luck boat was in the midst of some of its worst times yet. The day Conner arrived in Baltimore, his team was seventh overall in the nine-boat fleet. It was hardly a ranking the team would have envisioned at the start of the race, when heavily favored Toshiba was pegged to win the whole, 31,600-nautical-mile race.

"We've had 30 million tough breaks," said crew member Sean Clarkson.

This week, the team was bumped to last place in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-to-Baltimore leg after rival EF Education won a protest alleging Toshiba threatened a collision at sea. A few days earlier, navigator Andrew Cape, citing "personal reasons," unexpectedly quit the team with only about 15 days of sailing remaining in the race.

The list of problems goes on -- including the huffy departure of star skipper Chris Dickson after Leg 1 and the disqualification of the team from Leg 5 after it used its engine to clear weed from its propeller.

But if Conner, a four-time America's Cup winner and Olympic medalist, is in a funk over these troubles, he certainly isn't showing it. While winning is always nice, Conner believes success also is defined by making the sponsor happy and getting his team's name out.

"How do you measure success?" said Conner, 55. "If you measure it by column inches [in the print media], we've had as much as anyone."

The boat does have some success to its name -- it finished second in Leg 4 to Auckland, New Zealand, and third in Leg 2 to Fremantle, Australia.

Many, including Conner, argue the leadership shake-up badly hurt the team. The "rock star" Dickson left with a day's notice and was replaced by crew member Paul Standbridge, a respected offshore racer and Whitbread veteran who had never been a skipper in this race.

But to some, the answer is not so simple. The leadership shake-up aside, some Whitbread competitors wonder if Conner is as intense about winning as other skippers in the race seem to be.

"I'm not sure how focused he is on the sailing end now," said Curt Oetking, a crew member on first-place boat EF Language. "He's a really good businessman. He's really well-known with corporate America. But I'm not sure he can really focus on the race as much as other people."

Conner calls such critics "ignorant," arguing that he continues to sail competitively in races around the world. Indeed, his competitive juices were clearly flowing when he beat Chessie Racing into Chessie's home port by 10 seconds and then called that boat "slow."

Nevertheless, even Conner allows that the Whitbread is partly a means to an end for him. The America's Cup is his first love, he says, and the Whitbread helps provide the money to keep that ambition alive.

"From a business standpoint, the Whitbread is very important," he said. "If all I had was the America's Cup, I wouldn't have the dTC revenue to keep [the shore crew employed] and to keep the company together."

Without Conner, Standbridge calls the shots at sea. On land, Conner steps back in. Conner said there are no conflicts -- he says he is the leader and the team stays true to his vision. But such a leadership structure has not always been so easy to navigate.

Gordon Maguire, a watch captain on Britain's Silk Cut, sailed on Winston, Conner's boat in the last Whitbread four years ago. Maguire said having a skipper on the boat and Conner ashore was tough, and made for some awkward moments during crew disagreements.

As for the Toshiba crew, they are not thinking about past performances. Instead, they are focused on the future.

"We were all really, really soul-searching," said crew member Nick Moloney. "But we haven't given up. We're definitely out to win."

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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