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A Big Splash By The Kiwis
Sarah Ballard
November 24, 1986
Upstart little New Zealand, its boat near perfect in America's Cup trials, is giving its challenger rivals something to worry about
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November 24, 1986

A Big Splash By The Kiwis

Upstart little New Zealand, its boat near perfect in America's Cup trials, is giving its challenger rivals something to worry about

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A meeting of the challengers was called, and when the syndicate representatives voted down the Conner proposal, the issue subsided. Nonetheless, no one who remembers the Australia II keel controversy of 1983 thinks the matter is dead for all time. Conner, whom the Western Australian newspapers took to calling Big Bad Dennis, doesn't mind donning a black hat where winning sailboat races is concerned.

The Glassgate affair has had the same electrifying effect in New Zealand that Keelgate had in Australia in 1983. Conner has knocked a chip off the national shoulder, and the Kiwis, all 3.3 million of them, are calling for his head. The brewers of New Zealand's best-selling beer, who had already promised the syndicate three cents for every can of Steinlager sold, added fuel to their campaign with a newspaper ad that read "For every can you buy, three cents gets right up Conner's nose." Subtlety, it would appear, is not a Kiwi trait.

Stars & Stripes' November slide to third place began the first day of the series when she was beaten by USA, Blackaller's revolutionary double-ruddered 12-meter from the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco. USA had been giving Blackaller trouble during the first series—a matter, he said, of learning her eccentricities. Having beaten his old California rival, Conner, Blackaller was, as the Aussies say, over the moon. "This is a very remarkable boat," he said. "It has a huge burst of speed and we're just beginning to learn to harness it." The learning process continued through the series, however, and USA, 7-4, finished tied with Britain's White Crusader for fifth at 43 points.

The second day of racing began in 25 knots of wind from the northwest that drove squall after squall across the course. The weather, which should have been a gift from heaven for Conner and his heavy-weather Stars & Stripes, was instead a 25th birthday present for New Zealand's Dickson. Soon after the start the wind backed 100 degrees to the southwest, turning a beat into a spinnaker reach. At the erstwhile windward mark, Dickson led by eight seconds in spite of having blown out two spinnakers getting there. By the second weather mark his lead was up to 15 seconds. Conner gained a few seconds on the first reaching leg, but lost them at the mark when his spinnaker flew out of control, nearly causing the boat to broach. Then a wave, crashing across the foredeck, swept a jib overboard, and it dragged through the sea like an anchor for a time. Conner had one last shot at the Kiwis two-thirds of the way up the final beat when New Zealand's mainsail tore away from the mast and slithered down into the cockpit. However, the young Kiwi crew, in a masterly show of seamanship, got the sail back up in record time while Dickson, equally unflappable, continued driving the boat toward the finish line. Not only did New Zealand not lose the race because of her gear failure, she actually gained 28 seconds on that final leg.

After further losses in light air to Cud-more, the wily Irishman who skippers the British entry, White Crusader, and to first-time Cup skipper Terry Neilson on Canada II in a moderate breeze that died, Conner reclaimed his reputation for invincibility, a reputation that persists despite his 1983 loss of the Cup to Australia II. On a day when a frontal system brought steady 24-knot winds and terrifically rough seas, Conner pulled off a convincing 1-minute, 31-second win over America II.

"We were having a little difficulty matching up jibs in front of our main," said Kolius. "We thought we were going pretty good up the first beat, but we tried a different combination up the second beat and if you look at the time difference [48 seconds behind at the first windward mark, 1:57 at the second] it doesn't take a Phi Beta Kappa to tell that we won't have the particular combination up again."

Decisions in the heat of a race are made at the back of the boat, in the cockpit, where the helmsman, the tactician and the navigator are in constant communication with each other and with the mainsail trimmer and sometimes the port and starboard tailers. The styles of communication in a crisis differ from cockpit to cockpit according to the personality of the helmsman. Cudmore, for instance, is known for the stream of obscenities with which he guides White Crusader through her prestart maneuvers. America II is, ordinarily, a quiet, controlled boat. "Seldom does the back of our boat get excited," said Kolius the day after his loss to Stars & Stripes. "For three or four minutes at the beginning of the third leg we did, and it wasn't a good idea."

Almost overlooked amid the excitement brought on by New Zealand's astonishing success and Stars & Stripes' early losses was the generally steady performance of America II. Unlike Stars & Stripes, America II was designed to be readily modified for a variety of conditions. In the light airs of October America II was 11-1, losing only to New Zealand. In the mixed conditions of November she was 9-2, losing to Stars & Stripes and a second time to the Kiwis. In spite of the horrendous gap between winner and loser in the Kiwi race (12 minutes, 32 seconds) it really could have gone either way. The race was sailed on an afternoon during which a leftover land breeze fought a slow-building sea breeze to a standstill. Caught, literally, in the middle, Kolius and his crew rounded the first leeward mark, set sail for a southwesterly shift that never arrived and then sat and watched as New Zealand sailed away on the last gasp of the dying easterly. "Hold your noses, men," said Kolius, the wisecracking Texan. "We're in deep——."

America II seems sure to reach the four-boat semifinals in late December, along with New Zealand and Stars & Stripes. The fourth spot is up for grabs. French Kiss, the straight-line speedster from the Société des Régates Rochelaises now in fourth place, will have to hold off White Crusader, USA, Canada II, an improved Italia, and possibly even Eagle from the Newport Harbor (Calif.) Yacht Club to make it to the semis. Heart of America from Chicago, Azzurra, the Aga Khan's poor little rich girl, and the hapless Challenge France from Marseilles, will be home for Christmas. The semis will be run on a best-of-seven basis, with the leader on points facing the No. 4 boat and No. 2 against No. 3; the best-of-seven final to produce the challenger is scheduled to begin Jan. 14, and the Cup defense itself will start Jan. 31.

For the next two weeks every challenger with even a straw to cling to will be working to optimize its boat for December's 12-point round-robin. Changes will be made, some based on careful study, some born of desperation, but every change will be a gamble. As South Australia's Sir James Hardy said early in the defender trials, "It's a bit like stoking a steam engine—you never know which piece of coal will make the whistle blow."

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