SI Vault
 
A Clean Sweep
E.M. Swift
May 22, 1995
New Zealand's superfast Black Magic dusted off the U.S. defender, skippered by Dennis Conner, 5-0
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 22, 1995

A Clean Sweep

New Zealand's superfast Black Magic dusted off the U.S. defender, skippered by Dennis Conner, 5-0

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2

To ensure that the original design was a good one, Blake hired San Diego resident Doug Peterson to create it with New Zealander Laurie Davidson. Peterson had been a key member of the design team that built America[3], the 1992 Cup winner. Peterson would have preferred working for one of the U.S. syndicates—under the rules he had to take up residency in New Zealand for two years to qualify as Black Magic's designer—but when he phoned Conner's camp to offer his services, he was told they weren't needed.

Blake told Peterson he wanted the sailors to be involved in the design process from the start. Everyone's ideas were welcomed and run through dockside computers supplied by Silicon Graphics. "Everybody participated in decisions," says Peterson, "as opposed to the usual way, which is having a design team over here, and the sailing team over there, and directors telling you what to do. The sailors were told everything."

The Kiwis were a team. They trusted each other completely, and they mistrusted nearly everyone else. They went so far as to bring their own security guards from New Zealand to watch over their Shelter Island compound. And they knew they had something special in their two boats, which weren't built until quarter-scale models had been wind-tunnel tested and tank tested for a year. The first time they took Black Magic on the water, off the boat's home city, Auckland, they discovered they were sitting on a rocket ship. Sailing against New Zealand's 1992 entry, NZL-20, which was one of the better boats from the last generation, the new black boat destroyed it. Recalled Peterson, "That first day [tactician] Brad Butterworth came back and said, 'My god, it's like a different class of boat.' "

Whereas the Aussies won the America's Cup in 1983 because of one technological advance—the winged keel—Black Magic was a breakthrough because of a combination of factors. It has a very stiff mast set farther aft than that on any of the other IACC boats, almost directly above the keel. Its mainsail is flatter, its headsail larger and rounder. The spreaders on the mast are smaller than those of any of the other yachts. All of these factors allowed Black Magic to sail closer to the wind than any other IACC yacht, which meant it had to cover less distance during the three upwind legs. Against Young America the Kiwis' average gain in each of those legs was a staggering 43 seconds.

The American defenders suspected they were lagging behind the challengers all along, but they were too busy making back-room deals, rewriting the rules, protesting each other's actions and generally dragging the reputation of the event through the mire to do anything of substance about that shortcoming. Conner's original boat, Stars and Stripes, was clearly slower than Young America and the third American yacht, Mighty Mary, but his team's superior sailing overcame that obstacle, and Conner semimiraculously earned the right to defend. At that point he exercised what passes these days for Yankee ingenuity. He jettisoned Stars and Stripes, replacing it with Young America—a sleight of hand that proved the final straw for Blake and the Kiwis. "If we are fortunate enough to win this event, we're going to clean it up," Blake vowed on the eve of the first race. "We're going to make an event where people will want their sons and daughters to get involved with sailing because they see they can have a fair sporting chance of winning the America's Cup. We're not going to have rules that are different for one side than the other."

That sentiment alone was reason for many, perhaps most, Americans to root for the Kiwis. DENNIS CONNER WAIVES THE RULES, BUT NEW ZEALAND RULES THE WAVES read a T-shirt that became ubiquitous along the waterfront of Shelter Island. At the America's Cup Ball the cheers for the Kiwi crew were twice as loud as those for Team Dennis Conner. None of that went to the New Zealanders' heads. Mindful of Conner's well-deserved reputation for dragging his great belly off the mat, the Kiwis barely cracked a smile until the fifth race had been won.

In March of 2000 the Kiwis will defend the Cup in Auckland. The New York Yacht Club will be the challenger of record, and Chicago, Osterville, Mass., and San Francisco are considered potential syndicate bases. But San Diego realistically is not. After three Cups marred by a renegade challenge, bankruptcy, boorish behavior and boring races, that city and the Cup have proved to be a bad match.

As Black Magic was being towed to the San Diego Yacht Club so its hands could accept plaudits for their victory, a cacophony of air horns sounded throughout the America's Cup harbor just off Shelter Island. On and on it continued, far into the night, more deafening and insistent than the celebration three years earlier, when the Cup was successfully defended by eccentric billionaire Bill Koch. Everyone, even Conner, seemed to recognize that it was time for a change of venue. "I think the people of New Zealand will breathe some fresh air into the event," the defeated CEO said. Fresh air and fresh faces are two things the Auld Mug could use.

1 2