Is It Still America's Cup?


Somehow the America's Cup competition always boils down to being about Dennis Conner.

Whether you think Mr. Conner is the obnoxious Ty Cobb of sailing, as one commentator put it, or the loveable Babe Ruth of the sport, as a rival described him, the best-known U.S. skipper is front and center once again as the 29th contest for the most cherished trophy in sailboat match racing begins today.

Twice in the competition to defend the cup against foreign challengers, Mr. Conner was counted out. His Stars & Stripes lost out to two other U.S. boats in the semi-finals, but in a back-room deal he was permitted to compete in the finals with a handicap.

In the tie-breaking last race of the finals, his boat was trailing by an impossible margin when the rival Mighty Mary, with its almost all-women crew, was becalmed. Stars & Stripes narrowly won by successfully gambling on a wind shift. Finally, Mr. Conner shattered all precedents by picking one of his rival boats, Young America, to sail against New Zealand, which won the right to challenge the U.S. entry over six other foreign boats.

Both Mr. Conner and the America's Cup competition have mellowed. He is no longer the brash youth whose ego dwarfed his skills. The competing syndicates, with a cap on expenditures for the first time, sought no dramatic technological breakthroughs but relied instead on subtle design elements and the sailing expertise of their crews. The result was a tight competition for the right to defend the cup for the U.S., won by the slowest boat with the most experienced crew, and a #F runaway contest among the foreign challengers. New Zealand's Black Magic won all but one of its 38 races in gaining the right to compete for the cup.

Make no mistake about it, the best-of-nine series in the choppy waters and fluky winds off San Diego will be a grudge match. Mr. Conner may be the most detested foreigner in New Zealand because of past insults and the bitter dispute over the Kiwi challenge in 1988 which wound up in the courts.

It's not clear who has the faster boat, but the U.S. crew is far more experienced than the novice challengers. In the defender preliminaries, the dominant elements were skill, luck and guile. The taciturn Kiwi skipper, Russell Coutts, wasn't really tested in the challenge round. He'll lose the contest of the post-race sound bites to Mr. Conner, but the gods of wind and water will have a lot to say about who brandishes the cup at week's end.

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