Wind taken out of Conner's sails

Stars & Stripes' bid for Cup upset fizzles

January 15, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The America's Cup is over for Team Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes.

The San Francisco Yacht Club's challenger, America True, made sure of that on the waters of the Hauraki Gulf yesterday when in a light air lottery it picked a 90-degree wind shift and ended up 1 minute, 40 seconds ahead after the first of six racing legs.

"We wanted the left," Stars & Stripes skipper Ken Read said, referring to what they thought was the side of the course with the best wind.

"Every guy on the boat wanted left. My wife wanted left. We won the start and went left. The other guys went right. The breeze went right. That was the boat race right there."

Conner's Stars & Stripes never recovered and lost by 1 minute, 32 seconds to America True, which had won only one other time during the 10-race challenger semifinals.

Luck's a fortune, and right around the Auckland waterfront today fortunes are floating away with the tide. Stars & Stripes' $12 million, one-boat campaign is over, but so is America True's $20 million campaign, and the $25 million two-boat campaign of Japan's Nippon, and so on.

The deserted docks are littered with the gleaming corpses of boats that will likely never race again. In the America's Cup, there is room for only one winner, and as Conner has so often observed, there are no prizes for finishing second.

Conner's loss ended a dream run for the underdog boat from San Diego's Cortez Yacht Club.

Had it won, Stars & Stripes would have gone into a sudden-death sail-off against Italy's Prada.

Now the America's Cup challenger finals will be fought between Prada's boat, Luna Rossa, and Paul Cayard's AmericaOne, from San Francisco's St. Francis Yacht Club.

Stars & Stripes' loss immediately prompted the Italians to withdraw their last-minute protest that alleged Stars & Stripes had illegally used a mainsail designed for Young America.

A team of Italian lawyers had amassed a formidable brief and presented it to the International Jury on the eve of yesterday's Stars & Stripes-America True all-important clash.

Designed apparently to upset the Americans, the protest had the desired effect.

Without the benefit of legal counsel, the Stars & Stripes brain trust sat up half the night preparing a detailed rebuttal to what they regarded as a "frivolous claim" and described as "a desperate act" by the Italians.

Bleary-eyed, they got up the next morning and went racing. They lost. The International Jury, whose meeting was set for 6 p.m. yesterday, two hours after the race, was told the Italians would not be proceeding.

The jury chairman, Bryan Willis, was not amused. He issued a statement saying: "The Jury recognizes that the accusations in the protest were serious and that individuals' reputations were brought into question. The Jury is concerned that not proceeding with the hearing would mean that these issues would not be addressed."

The request for withdrawal, however, had the approval of Stars & Stripes, and that was the end of it. Stars & Stripes had no further comment.

Today an eerie calm has descended over the America's Cup compounds. Cayard gave his AmericaOne crew two days off, and many of them took off, happy for an opportunity to escape the hothouse setting of the waterfront. The Italians were nursing hangovers after a night of partying.

In two days, both teams are expected to be back on the water with last-minute testing before the best-of-nine challenger finals begin Jan. 25.

On Jan. 21, challengers AmericaOne and Prada and defender Team New Zealand will publicly lift their security "skirts" and show the world the secrets of their underwater appendages.

At that point the challengers are to be frozen in that particular mode and unable to swap boats.

The defenders, on the other hand, will be able to choose later which of their two boats they will use when the actual America's Cup racing starts Feb. 19. There is an old nautical phrase for this: stacking the deck. It is designed to keep the America's Cup where it is -- bolted to a pedestal in the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in Auckland.

Yesterday's result

America True def. Stars & Stripes by 1: 32

Thursday's results

Stars & Stripes def. AmericaOne by 22 seconds.

Le Defi BTT def. America True by 1: 14.

Prada def. Nippon by 2: 01.

Challenger finals

AmericaOne vs. Prada (Best of nine)

Jan. 25 -- Race 1 Feb. 1* -- Race 6

Jan. 26 -- Race 2 Feb. 2* -- Race 7

Jan. 27 -- Race 3 Feb. 3* -- Race 8

Jan. 29 -- Race 4 Feb. 4* -- Race 9

Jan. 30 -- Race 5 *-If necessary

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