The breezes off San Diego may have been light last week, but onshore conditions were blustery and tempestuous as an international cast of petulant multimillionaires ranted, raved and rhetorically stuck their tongues out at one another, a sure sign that the America's Cup was in town. And for once, Mr. America's Cup himself, Dennis Conner, was on the outside looking in, too busy mounting an improbable comeback against Bill Koch's $64 million America� syndicate to pay heed to the spite and vitriol being traded by the two challengers. Italy and New Zealand, whose best-of-nine series for the Louis Vuitton Cup stood, as of Sunday, Kiwis 3, Italians 2, annulments 1.
New Zealand, led by financier Sir Michael Fay, is no stranger to America's Cup controversy. In its inaugural challenge, in Fremantle in 1987, the Kiwis were accused by Conner of cheating in the design of their so-called "plastic fantastic" fiberglass yacht. The charge was never substantiated, and it became moot when Conner defeated the Kiwis, four races to one. in the Louis Vuitton challenger finals before winning back the America's Cup from the Aussies.
Then there was the 1988 fiasco, when Fay built an unorthodox 133-foot yacht and challenged the San Diego Yacht Club (SDYC) to defend the Auld Mug with a similar vessel. Instead, the SDYC, with Conner at the helm, defended with a 60-foot catamaran, creating a mismatch—Conner routed the Kiwis in two straight—that ensnarled the oldest trophy in sports in the courts until April 1990, when the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the catamaran defense was legal under the Deed of Gift, the document that sets out the America's Cup rules.
One result of all this nonsense is that in 1989 the old 12-meter America's Cup design was scuttled in favor of the International America's Cup Class (IACC) yacht, which is longer, taller, lighter and faster than the 12 meters and has more sail area. No more aluminum, wood or fiberglass, thank you. The material of choice for the new IACC yachts is carbon fiber from hull to mast to sails. The expense of building these 75-foot monsters—of which the Italians built five, New Zealand and America� four apiece—is, even by yachting standards, outrageous. The boats cost $3 million to $4 million each. Masts are $500,000 a pop. And they do pop, occasionally. Conventional Kevlar mainsails cost about $40,000, unless you're talking about one of the liquid crystal, high-density polymer, carbon-fiber jobs that Koch's Cubens, as they call themselves, sometimes use.
The average budget for this year's eight challenging syndicates—six of which have been eliminated—and two defenders has been about $25 million, ranging from the $15 million for Conner's one-boat Stars & Stripes campaign to the $64 million plus spent by the America� syndicate. That's a combined expenditure of more than a quarter of a billion dollars. All of which gives new relevance to the old chestnut that the best way to make a small fortune in yachting is to start with a large one.
But this is a no-frills America's Cup, devoid of tax dollars, parades, advertising and throngs of visitors. The America's Cup Organizing Committee (ACOC), which is in charge of running the defense for the SDYC, is so strapped for cash that it handed television production over to the Challenge of Record Committee—whose feed has been picked up by TV rights holders around the world—lest the ACOC bankrupt itself. The financial benefits of hosting this regatta, once estimated to be nearly $1 billion, are a windfall that has failed to materialize.
Which might be appropriate, because the wind hasn't materialized either. "The back side of Point Loma is a very strange place to sail," says New Zealand skipper Rod Davis, who grew up in nearby Coronado but married a New Zealander and now holds dual citizenship. "There are a lot of surprises that come up out there that even growing up in the area can't prepare you for."
Surprises like shifting, dying breezes, the mysterious El Ni�o effect, ocean currents, the Catalina Eddy, full moons, swells and drifting kelp, to name but a few. If the Fremantle Cup was a rodeo on the high seas, the San Diego Cup is a chess game in a tidal pool. That plays right into the strengths of the 49-year-old Conner, the San Diego native who has missed only one America's Cup final since 1974, and his underfunded, undermanned Stars & Stripes campaign. Defying his credo that "in sailing, money equals speed," Conner has gone from being a nettlesome thorn in the side of Koch's Cubens to being, well, a shark closing in for the kill. Weather permitting.
After losing her first three races to America� by wide margins in the heavy swells that were prevalent during the full moon, the year-old Stars & Stripes, the oldest, widest hull left in the regatta, sort of ghosted back into the picture. When the wind dropped to the five-to-nine-knot range that .Stars & Stripes prefers and the seas flattened, Conner's boat beat the three-month-old America� in three of the next four races, including two victories last weekend. That narrow weather window is the only one in which Stars & Stripes can match Americans�' straight-line speed. But five to nine knots and flat seas are common conditions off Point Loma.
Without her speed edge, America� was in trouble as she headed into the seventh race on Sunday. Koch, Dave Dellenbaugh and Buddy Melges all took turns at the helm, but none was a match for Conner. In the first seven races, the veteran crew of Stars & Stripes proved far superior in everything from selecting and setting the sails to finding wind shifts. "The only major problem we have is inexperience," said Koch after his one-minute 28-sccond loss to Conner on Sunday made the best-of-13 defender finals 4-3 in favor of America�. "We're getting a baptism by fire out there sailing against Dennis."