Dennis Conner was in Annapolis on Wednesday evening to give something back to yachting, the sport that has carried him from training sessions in a lapstrake dinghy to world-class competitions such as the Whitbread Round the World Race and the America's Cup.
While on the deck of the Annapolis Yacht Club, where later he would preside over a program to benefit the club's junior sailing program, Conner recounted something of his beginnings in sailing, his triumphs and failures and his expectations for the America's Cup trials that begin next January.
"The main purpose for being here is for Cadillac Club Night," said Conner, whose appearance was arranged by General Motors Corp., which is a major sponsor of his America's Cup campaign.
"The secondary reason is I always kind of like to help the young kids, because I appreciate all that yachting did for me, and I look forward to having a little seminar with the juniors."
Junior sailing is the grass roots of yachting, Conner said, adding that today's novice sailors have opportunities that were only the stuff of dreams when Conner was a kid in San Diego.
"They have fabulous opportunities," Conner said. "There is just no comparison. When I first started out at the San Diego Yacht Club -- which now has the most successful junior program in the world, with 400 or 450 kids every summer -- there was no junior program at all.
"There wasn't even a junior instructor. Parents would kind of pinch hit on the weekends."
These days, for example, there are 20,000 kids sailing Optimists in Japan, there are numbers of junior sailing programs in Baltimore and Annapolis, and St. Mary's College in southern Maryland has a sailing team with 80 members -- nearly as many as Notre Dame dresses for home football games.
"It is night and day the way that the junior programs have gone," Conner said. "But you know 50 years is a long time and there have been a lot of changes."
And Conner is partly responsible for many of the changes over the last 20 years since he was a junior sailing a 9-foot dinghy.
Conner won a bronze medal in the 1976 Olympics, two world championships in the Star Class, two Congressional Cups and four Southern Ocean Racing Conference titles.
The setting of Conner's best known triumphs and failures has been the America's Cup, which he won in 1974 and 1980, lost to Australia in 1983, regained in 1987 and successfully defended in the catamaran-giant monohull series of 1988.
In the last America's Cup trials, Conner's Stars and Stripes lost the defender berth to Bill Koch's America3 by one close race. Koch admits to having spent $65 million on his campaign, but Conner said the real figure was probably closer to $80 million, some three times what Conner's group spent.
This time around, Koch has formed an all-women defense syndicate but has not announced he will build a new boat for them to race.
Conner, on the other hand, already has signed three major sponsors -- GMC-Cadillac, Citizens Watch and Sears, each reportedly to the tune of $3 million -- and is close to signing other major sponsors and will begin construction of a new boat in June. The new Stars and Stripes is expected to be launched around Thanksgiving.
A third U.S. group, PACT '95, also intends to compete in the defender trials.
Through the 1987 Cup series, the races were sailed in the 12-meter class, in which Conner and other American sailors were generally acknowledged to have the leading edge of technology.
"Or we thought so, until Ben Lexcen showed us otherwise," Conner said, recalling Australia II, the only non-U.S. boat ever to have won the America's Cup. "We lost in 1983, so we were no longer the leaders in technology by then, and in 1987 [when Conner regained the Cup during races in Fremantle, Australia] we were the guys who had a longer waterline and smaller sail area.
4 "That turned out to be the winning combination."
After the catamaran-monster multihull match of 1988, the International America's Cup Class racing yacht was created and all the competing syndicates were forced to start from scratch.
"And the guys who had the most money to spend had a huge advantage," Conner said, recalling that the economic recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s made it difficult to raise funds. "It was no coincidence that the two efforts who spent the most money [Koch and Il Moro de Venezia] got to the finals."
But where last time around Koch was able to build a handful of boats, for this America's Cup defense and challenge syndicates will be limited to building two boats. Sail inventories also have been limited and the course has been changed to a new, six-leg format.
The result of the changes may be that one cannot buy one's way through the trials and into the America's Cup series.
The most startling change for the coming Cup is the all-women team, which has not been tried in these trials before. Conner welcomes the competition and said that with the technology base Koch built last time around the women's team will be a strong opponent.
"There is no reason that they shouldn't do a good job. There are some real talented sailors there," Conner said, adding that if the women will have a disadvantage it is because they lack experience in 75-foot racing yachts such as those of the IAAC. "But I didn't hear [Koch] say that he was building them a new boat."
Although Koch's group has several hulls and untested keels still available from the last Cup, it might seem that Conner is in the catbird's seat for the defender role. Conner isn't buying that notion.
FTC "Without the women it definitely would not be the best for Dennis," Conner said. "I think that Koch coming here adds something for everyone. Creating an opportunity for the women is a breakthrough.
"It is great for yachting. It is great for women. It is a boon for the America's Cup, and the San Diego Yacht Club should be kissing the ground he walks on."
Without the women's defense syndicate, Conner said, there is the possibility that the SDYC, which runs the defense trials and the Cup match itself, would not have a legitimate competition from which to select a defender.
"At this point there certainly are no guarantees that I have seen so far that the other group [PACT '95] is going to show up. . ." Conner said. "It gives me a team to sail against, and if I am going to be successful in this, anything I can do to raise the level of my sailing expertise is good.
"It is certainly better to have Bill Koch involved with a group of all-star women than to have nothing."
Overall, Conner said, the defender and challenger fields are weaker than they were for the 1992 Cup. At this stage of preparation for the last Cup, for example, America3 had two boats training in San Diego and a crew of 90 people in place.
"Just the fact that Koch is not spending as much time and effort will make the whole defense weaker," Conner said. "Dennis is stronger, yes. But I am just part of the equation."
EARLY CHALLENGER FAVORITES
Dennis Conner, four-time winner of the America's Cup, was asked to assess which teams of challengers seem to be strongest at this stage of preparations for the trials that begin next January in San Diego.
John Bertrand's team figures to be the favorite because he has the designers -- John Reichel and Jim Pugh -- who were responsible for America3's successful defense in 1992, the input of Rod Davis, who is familiar with the New Zealand boat designed by Bruce Farr and Associates of Annapolis for the last Cup and the help of Iain Murray, an America's Cup veteran with much experience in twin keels. "Twin keels wouldn't surprise anyone," Conner said. "Bertrand has enough money to do a first-class program, and certainly they have the expertise to sail it well. From Bertrand down through the campaign, I think that on paper they look to be the strongest."
The Japanese team has the potential to put together another fast boat and this time will build two boats. "They never stopped and they had a fast boat last time that they probably didn't get the most out of," Conner said. "They are in San Diego practicing as we speak. Those two [with Australia] should be potentially the best, depending if [Bill] Campbell can get the most out of the crew." Campbell was with America3 in the last Cup.
The Kiwis have two syndicates, one run by Russell Coutts and the other by Chris Dickson. Coutts and Dickson have Cup experience, but Conner said Dickson may have an edge because Farr is his designer. "Coutts will sail the New Zealand boat well," Conner said, "but we don't know how that design will be because they don't have Farr. If Dickson can raise the money -- and we don't know where it is coming from yet -- he will keep those guys honest because he has Farr."
Conner said Paul Cayard, who was the challenging skipper in the last Cup, will add some punch to the Italian group, "but it is not going to be a tremendous syndicate because they started late." . . . Marc Pajot's French group is experiencing money problems, Conner said, and may not develop. . . . Spain again expects to have a team, but probably will not build a new boat. "The Europeans will just have to be the underdogs," Conner said.