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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
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May 22, 1995

A Clean Sweep

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

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With dry eyes, or half-closed ones drowsy with boredom, San Diegans waved goodbye last Saturday afternoon to the most prestigious prize in yachting, probably—let's hope, anyway—for good. Big bad Dennis Conner had been beaten in the America's Cup for the second time in 12 years, this time by the Kiwis. Conner is the only American skipper in 144 years to have lost the oldest trophy in sports, and now he has done it twice.

At least in 1983, when Liberty was edged 4-3 by Australia II, Conner went down fighting. This time the man whose credo was once "no excuse to lose" went down fund-raising. "Never give up while they've still got green in their wallets!" seems to be Conner's new credo. Other athletes go to Disneyland after they win. Conner accompanied sponsors to the Magic Kingdom on May 10, a lay day, despite trailing the Kiwis' extraordinary yacht, Black Magic, three races to none. Meanwhile, back in the Team DC compound his crew was desperately taking apart the mast, testing new sails, doing everything it could think of to make its rented boat, Young America—which Conner had leased from rival syndicate PACT 95 for a reported $300,000 six days before the first race of the America's Cup—go faster.

One would think Mr. America's Cup himself would have wanted to be there to lend a hand. Not that the crew was surprised that he didn't. During the first lay day, when his team trailed 1-0 and had a new shipment of sails to test, the 52-year-old Conner went golfing with sponsors while helmsman Paul Cayard and the rest of the crew took Young America out on the water. The fact of the matter is that Conner was little more than a spectator on his own boat all spring. Cayard, tactician Tom Whidden and a top-notch crew handled the racing. America's greatest sailor had become an overweight CEO.

No matter. With New Zealand's win the Auld Mug is headed for bluer waters and better hands. The Kiwis, who first challenged for the Cup in 1987, built a 42-1 record on the water beginning in January and crowned their achievement by drubbing Young America in Conner's own backyard, five races to none. Did we say races? These shellackings were more like two-boat parades. At every rounding mark on the 18.5-mile course, Black Magic led like a float carrying the grand marshal, while Conner and crew chugged along behind as if sweeping up kelp and confetti.

The closest the U.S. team came to the Kiwis in any race was in the clincher on Saturday, when Young America finished 1:50 behind, a distance of roughly two fifths of a mile. The most lopsided loss came in the second race, on May 8, when the finest International America's Cup Class (IACC) boat the U.S. could design finished some 42 boat lengths, or 4:14, in arrears of Black Magic. It was the worst defeat suffered by a defender since 1871, when the British yacht Livonia defeated the American boat Columbia by 15:10.

In Auckland, where 92% of the televisions were tuned in, the America's Cup became known as the Slaughter on the Water. In the U.S. it was the San Diego Yacht Club's version of the Maginot Line defense. Cayard admitted he had never been in a match race in which the yachts were so badly mismatched. "I'm not to the point of crying, but I've never been in a race where I felt I had so little control over the outcome," Cayard said after Young America fell behind four-zip. "I basically feel I'm delivering the boat around the race course." Delivering it as if he were paid by the hour.

The debacle was an eye-opener for everyone. The three U.S. syndicates, which had spent some $55 million in the defense effort and were backed by such industrial powerhouses as Boeing, Cray Research, Ford and Hewlett-Packard, had built three boats that were roughly equal in speed. Equally slow. That tiny New Zealand (pop. 3.5 million) could build a boat that sailed rings around America's best was mind-boggling. The America's Cup is, after all, a design-driven competition. The fastest boat—as opposed to the best sailors—nearly always wins. "We never guessed the entire defense effort was so far off the pace," Whidden said last week. "We can't even engage these guys in a race."

From the very beginning the Kiwis did everything right. Led by 47-year-old Peter Blake, who is probably the most accomplished blue-water yachtsman in the world, Team New Zealand offered a case study in how to run a winning America's Cup campaign. You start with a leader who's universally respected. Blake has sailed in five Whitbread Round the World races, and he utterly dominated the 1989-90 event, winning every leg. In '94 he took four days off the record for circumnavigation of the globe, accomplishing the feat in a 92-foot catamaran, Enza New Zealand, in just under 75 days. Yet aboard Black Magic, Blake, who had put up the $75,000 America's Cup entry fee out of his own savings, served as the mainsheet traveler: A bona fide national hero and the syndicate boss, Blake assumed the role of a grinder of winches.

That set the tone. There were no hidden agendas among the Kiwis, no superstars and no frills. Their budget was between $14 million and $15 million—less than that of each of the three U.S. syndicates. Little marketing was done for Team New Zealand until the last couple of weeks, when a half-million dollars was raised from the sale back home of 100,000 pairs of the lucky red socks Blake wore during races. "The 1992 [Kiwi] campaign got into the selling of clothing, and we saw that as a distraction," says Blake. "Plus we didn't have the money to get into retailing." Conner, by contrast, raised more than a million dollars from his two souvenir stores, selling, among other things, hundreds of watercolors that Mr. America's Cup himself had painted.

When it came to making the boat go fast, the New Zealanders cut no corners. One of Blake's earliest and best decisions was to build two nearly identical boats—the maximum allowed under current America's Cup rules. The Kiwis were the only syndicate to do so. "We knew we wanted two boats, even when we couldn't afford them," Blake says. It enabled the New Zealand team to test rigging configurations, keels, sails and rudders and learn exactly how much faster or slower each change made the boats go. "We learned nothing about boat speed from the trials—zero," said Blake, "and everything from the two-boat program."

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