SAN DIEGO -- A dispute that threatened to knock Dennis Conner out of the America's Cup trials dissolved yesterday around the smallest of technicalities. By agreeing to add a mere quarter-inch to the bottom of Stars & Stripes' 13-foot keel, Conner will be allowed to race another day.
An international yachting jury ruled yesterday morning that a discrepancy in keel length violated rules for the cup defense trials.
But it was an easy fix for Stars & Stripes, a job so simple that adding any length at all, even a screw, to the bottom of the keel would give the team the extra length it needed to comply. The five-man jury sat for more than 20 hours to come to that conclusion.
"Technically, we were out of compliance, even though we had a valid measurement certificate," said Jerry La Dow, executive director of Conner's syndicate. "We've done nothing wrong."
The jury, however, imposed a penalty on Stars & Stripes. The yachting officials ruled that Conner's crucial victory over Bill Koch's boat, Mighty Mary, in a race last Tuesday has to be resailed today. That leaves Stars & Stripes with 2 points to Mighty Mary's 3 points so far in the semifinals.
"They had to cancel the race because, technically, we were out of compliance," La Dow said. "But the difference didn't affect our boat speed at all."
John Doerr, chairman of the International Jury, said yesterday that the other two races sailed by Stars & Stripes with its illegal keel were not a concern. "Stars & Stripes lost those two races, and the results stand," Doerr said.
Conner was also a loser on the water yesterday, and is one defeat away from the earliest elimination in his long America's Cup career. Stars & Stripes lost its third straight race yesterday, a 52-second defeat by the speedy Young America.
Conner is down 3-2 to America3, and must beat Mighty Mary in two straight races to clinch the spot opposite Young America in the Citizen Cup finals for defenders.
If Mighty Mary wins today, it advances. If Conner wins, he'll force a one-race sailoff tomorrow.
For two days, Mighty Mary and its crew of 15 women and one man faced elimination. Now it's Conner, a three-time America's Cup winner, who is on the brink.
The keel debate became an issue after Conner began repair work last Sunday to replace a damaged keel on Stars & Stripes. The yacht nearly sank earlier that day as water started pouring through a leak around the keel structure. Stars & Stripes was placed back in racing on Tuesday, but Koch's America3 syndicate, which campaigns Mighty Mary, already had started questioning the switch.
The dispute turned acrimonious Wednesday when the America's Cup '95 Defense Committee, a racing arm of the San Diego Yacht Club, prevented the jury from hearing a protest by Koch. Preparations by Koch to seek an injunction against the committee's actions appeared to have its affect on the stalemate. On Wednesday, defense officials agreed to a jury hearing, and Koch removed his threat.
Koch was not available for comment early yesterday. His advisers said he was preparing a comment.
Koch has been critical of what he has charged as behind-the-scenes maneuvers by the San Diego Yacht Club in support of Conner, who is from San Diego. But club officials said it had followed procedures called for in the defense rules.
On Thursday, PACT 95's Young America had joined the fray in support of America3 by flying a red protest flag during its race against Stars & Stripes.
The international challengers, meanwhile, appear to be relishing the infighting among the defenders.
"From our perspective, it's good to see them having a good whack at one another on the eve of the finals," said Alan Sefton, a manager for Team New Zealand. "The last time, in 1992, it was Italy coming at us, and it was pretty fierce."
New Zealand's Black Magic 1 and oneAustralia are scheduled to race in the challengers' finals, which begin April 11.
Citizen Cup for Defenders
Young America, John Kostecki, def. Stars & Stripes, Dennis Conner, by 52 seconds.
x-Young America, 8 points; Mighty Mary, 3; Stars & Stripes, 2.
Note: Victories are worth one point. Young America began round with two bonus points and Stars & Stripes with one.
Louis Vuitton Cup
x-Team New Zealand, 9 points; x-oneAustralia, 7; NZL-39, 6; Nippon Challenge, 0; x-Clinched spot in the finals.
Mighty Mary vs. Stars & Stripes.
Layday: Young America.
Louis Vuitton Cup
& Finals begin April 11.