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The Christening of Dennis Conner's second catamaran named Stars & Stripes went ahead on schedule last week in San Diego. But 30,000 red, white and blue balloons and a brass band could not disguise the fact that this party was at least half wake. The America's Cup is at an impasse, and the September match for which the catamaran was built has been sunk.
Since last July, war has raged between New Zealand's Michael Fay and Sail America, Conner's syndicate, which is handling the current defense on behalf of the San Diego Yacht Club. Now the battle—over what sort of boat will be sailed in the Cup match and when the match will take place—has degenerated into trench warfare. The troops are still lobbing verbal grenades at each other, but no territory is changing hands.
Fay's challenge envisioned an event using boats bigger than any built for the America's Cup in the last 50 years. He announced that the length of his boat would be the maximum allowed—90 feet on the load waterline—and he logically assumed that, to be competitive, the defender, and any challengers who might join in, would build boats of similar dimensions. He reasoned that the size of the boats would provide the drama that would otherwise be missing from a series of races held in San Diego's light winds, and he claimed that the short notice he had given the defender—10 months instead of the customary three or four years—was a partial solution to the high cost of America's Cup campaigning.
San Diego was stunned. Sail America and the San Diego Yacht Club had been planning a Cup extravaganza for 1991 in 12-meter vessels, the boat of choice for Cup competitors since 1958. Assuming they had the right by custom, if not by law, to name the time, the place and the boat size, Sail America and the SDYC ignored Fay's challenge. So Fay went to the New York Supreme Court to force the issue. The court decided in Fay's favor. Like it or not, said Judge Carmen Beau-champ Ciparick, the SDYC was required by a strict reading of the America's Cup Deed of Gift to meet the New Zealand challenge on the water or forfeit the Cup.
Faced with that ultimatum, Sail America set about designing a boat it felt quite sure would beat Fay's monster monohull, that boat being a catamaran. Therein lies the current stalemate. On May 5, Fay appealed to Ciparick, whom the Kiwis call "the lady judge." contending that a monohull versus a catamaran is not the match the challenger is entitled to, that instead it is a mismatch that subverts the intention expressed in the Deed.
Fay has a point. Catamarans are faster than monohulls, which is why they rarely meet in races. Still, Sail America replied in court—and has continued to insist publicly—that its catamarans are not mismatched against a high-tech monohull the size of Fay's New Zealand. But anyone who witnessed the May 25 test of Conner's first cat, dubbed H-l by the syndicate and bearing a radically different rigid wing sail, could see otherwise: The boat was clocked doing a stunning 17 knots in an 8-knot breeze.
More to the legal point, Sail America contends that because the only operative restriction spelled out in the Deed of Gift is a maximum waterline length of 90 feet, it can defend with any kind of boat it chooses as long as it does not exceed that limit. If that tactic seems less than sporting, well, they say, Fay asked for it. "Fay wanted a change," said Joe Jessop Sr., a SDYC member, at the christening. "And he's going to get it."
Whatever the court decides, one thing is certain: The loser will appeal, and that puts a September match out of reach. The next likely date for the start of the 27th America's Cup is May 1989. Indeed the New Zealanders have already made preparations to spend the winter in San Diego. The crew of 40 and backup personnel are housed in an apartment complex across the bay on the Coronado peninsula. When all the wives, children and girlfriends have arrived, the Kiwi contingent in San Diego will number about 90.
"Before there's another America's Cup, this one must finish," Fay said last week in his makeshift office at San Diego's 10th Avenue ship terminal. "I don't go home until it's over, and they don't have another America's Cup until I go home. And I've got a ton of patience." As if to demonstrate to all of San Diego his intentions, Fay bought himself a new white Cadillac, the first American car he has ever owned. "I'll be the white one on the wrong side of the road," he said jokingly.
Sail America isn't as concerned about the delay as it is about being allowed to race in a catamaran. In fact, any delay favors Sail America because it gives Skipper Conner and his four-man crew extra months to learn to sail the tricky cats and to improve on their design, if necessary.