Conner hits his first bump

His Stars & Stripes still on course, after 1st loss


January 08, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- After three straight wins in the America's Cup challenger semifinals, Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes was the only undefeated competitor of the six surviving syndicates, and his American crew had emerged as a hot favorite for one of the two berths in the finals.

But with six more races in this series, Conner's U.S. boat from San Diego is by no means a shoo-in.

After giving up its first-place standing today to Paul Cayard's AmericaOne yacht, when it lost to the St. Francis Yacht Club's entry by 2 minutes, 43 seconds, Stars & Stripes (3-1) now finds itself in a tie for second with three points with Prada (3-2). The Italians turned back Japan entry Nippon (2-3) today by 1: 33 for their third victory.

Conner's crew is now in a boat race overall, but it still has an advantage of a race at hand over Prada. And with only one loss, the surprising blue-hulled racer from the Cortez Yacht Club still has a good shot to advance to the challenger finals.

Conner's shore crew had been working around the clock the past two days to repair damage to Stars & Stripes' port quarter, smashed by the bow of French boat Le Defi BTT in its race on Wednesday. With just one boat and minimal assets, tactician Tom Whidden says Team Dennis Conner is "heavily into risk management."

"Most of the racing boats in Auckland are very lightly built," he said, "with everything right on the edge of being just strong enough. Because we had a short program and minimal assets, we built our boat a little more hefty than some of the other boats. Dennis and Bill Trenkle, the general manager, had the foresight to make that call. That was smart.

"We pay a penalty in being over-engineered in some areas, but that's a necessary insurance policy in a one-boat program like ours."

Whidden tried to look objectively at both sides of the ledger in assessing Stars & Stripes' strengths and weaknesses.

"The depth of experience is certainly one of our great strengths, and we're fortunate to have that advantage," said Whidden, who is also president of North Sails. "This game is about adding up the strengths and the weaknesses and hopefully coming up with a positive number.

"Top of the ledger on the positive side is literally the strength of the boat," Whidden said. "The design is not way out on one edge. It's just the best all-round boat the designers [John Reichel and Jim Pugh] could come up with without a long and expensive research and development, analysis and testing program ahead of time.

"We didn't take a lot of risks, so maybe we didn't make some of the gains that some of the other guys got. But what we did get was a boat that when sailed well can keep us in any race. It's a good safe boat from both a design and durability standpoint.

"The second thing is that we have a very good sail program. We didn't build very many compared to the other teams. We've got just enough mains, jibs and spinnakers to get by."

Whidden says that while the boat has good spars, it could use another mainsail, another four or five jibs and three spinnakers.

"That's another $250,000, so if there's a sponsor back home who'd like to come aboard, here's your big chance!

"I like our team. It's a nice combination of youth and experience."

The new players aboard Stars & Stripes, such as helmsman Ken Read and co-tactician Peter Holmberg, bring enthusiasm, Whidden said, and the more experienced Peter Isler and Bill Trenkle have been through the America's Cup mill so many times before, they give Conner's effort a major benefit.

"The rest of the team is awfully strong and not least because we've got Dennis. Imagine having a guy with his ability every step of the way with you? That's one of our greatest strengths. Of course he misses the sailing [Conner has not sailed himself in the semifinals], but I see him very relaxed and enjoying the whole campaign.

"Dennis and I have been part of the same team for a lot of years," Whidden said, "and I'm on board this boat because of him. Most of the guys here would walk over hot coals for DC. I'm one of them."

Whidden does acknowledge the team's weaknesses, though.

"The obvious weakness," he said, "is that we have just one boat, which was designed quite late. As a team we didn't sail together until the racing started. Our assets and resources are to say the least minimal. We have a mast, but we don't have a spare `A' mast. We certainly don't have a spare boat. We don't have back-ups for our best sails."

So what is it going to take to secure a berth in the finals?

"Originally, I figured [a record of] 8-2 would be a lock, while 7-3 would probably do it," Whidden said. "That's pretty daunting, especially since it's such tricky sailing out there. Pure boat speed is not the be-all and end-all."

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