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Like old soldiers. Star-class sailors never die. Unlike old soldiers, Star sailors do not even fade away convincingly. A skipper may swear off the game and sell his boat, pressed by the need to get to know his family better, or to prop up his sagging financial affairs, or for some other drab reason. Whatever the motive and however firm his resolve to quit forever, sooner or later he will show up on a Star-class starting line somewhere, if need be in a borrowed or stolen boat. The top-ranked skippers of the Stars are often wooed away from their own class to seek a greater or lesser grail in another kind of craft on a different part of the sea. But however great the temptation, be it the command of a stripped-out Southern Ocean racing hull that costs 10 times more than a Star or the helm of an America's Cup defender that costs 100 times more, Star sailors usually return to their own class.
There are no supernovas among the Stars—never a sailor come suddenly from nowhere to shine brilliantly in one series and as suddenly sputter out. The best of them are a constant and long-lived lot. In his first Star world championship off Portugal in 1952, 19-year-old James (Ding) Schoonmaker of Miami placed seventh in a fleet of 29. In 1975 on Lake Michigan, at the age of 42, Schoonmaker finally realized his almost impossible dream, beating a field of 73 that included Walter von Hutschler, a German-Brazilian who won his first world title in 1938.
In this age of computerized design and supersynthetics, the Star class is a contradiction and an anachronism. The boat itself is an old, hard-chined design conceived in 1911, in the dark ages of wood, cotton and sisal. The design is so highly restricted that innovation is well nigh impossible. Elite skippers like Ding Schoonmaker have so monopolized the action in recent years that for a novice who has spent a mere decade in the class, first place in a major regatta is about as accessible as the ingots in Fort Knox. But despite its age and the monopolistic ways of its sailors, the Star remains the most competitive and popular keel-boat class the world around. It is sailed on the sweet waters of Paw Paw Lake in Michigan and on the wine-dark Mediterranean. Swedes race Stars on the Kattegat, and Australians in Sydney Harbor where, on a crowded race weekend, any craft smaller than a ferryboat is imperiled. Curiously, on western Long Island Sound, where it was born, the Star is almost an endangered species, but 3,000 miles west, from San Diego to Seattle, it is thriving. And although Star is constantly exporting talent to other classes it does not seem to suffer from the drain.
Many world-class sailors have jumped from one kind of boat to another, but few have distinguished themselves by doing so. Without a doubt the most famous boat jumper is Paul Elvstrom, the great Dane from Hellerup. In the past 30 years he has won Olympic and/or world titles in seven different classes, but even Elvstrom, on his ventures into ocean racing, has been strictly middle-of-the-fleet.
When it comes to hippity hopping with spectacular success (and seeming abandon) across the whole spectrum of sailing, from small boats to big boats and back, there is no one with a record to equal that achieved in the past seven years by Dennis Conner, a Star sailor from San Diego. A nutshell accounting of Conner's accomplishments in the past seven years runs like this: In 1971, when only 29 years old—a fledgling by Star-class standards—he won the world championship of the class. In 1972 he took the Star North American title and sailed a Cal 40 to second place in the Congressional Cup, the world's most testing match race series. In 1973 he won the Congressional Cup in an Ericson 39. In 1974 he was starting helmsman and tactician on the 12-meter Courageous when she defended the America's Cup. In 1975 he won the Southern Ocean racing circuit in a One Tonner called Stinger and the Congressional Cup in a Cal 40. In 1976, nine months after he first set foot in a Tempest, he took the U.S. Olympic Trials in that class and subsequently sailed off with the bronze medal on Lake Ontario. In 1977 he won his Southern Ocean racing class in a 46-foot sloop called High Roler.
Then, as if to prove beyond doubt that Star sailors never die, after a three-year absence he went back to the class. Early last August he won the Star North American title against a small but good fleet. Two weeks later in the world championship off Kiel, West Germany, he really rang the bell. Sailing against a record field of 86 from 19 countries, he took his second world title with a perfect score of five firsts—a feat neither he nor anyone else is apt to duplicate between now and Judgment Day. Moreover, this past winter, hopping into a big boat again, a 46-foot sloop called Williwaw, the sixth so named and campaigned by Seymore Sinett, an old Star-boat sailor from North Jersey, Conner won the new boat division of the SORC.
When Conner starts rummaging through his past, sorting through his triumphs, his near misses and occasional drubbings, he reveals part of his essential genius. His memory of crucial moments in major events is near perfect. Reviewing a single leg of a big regatta where all the money was on the line, he can recall without hesitation where he was on the course, where his important rivals were and how the subtle wind shifts affected the fortunes of them all. The less important the regatta, the less perfect his memory. For example, if you ask Conner how he did in a local Star series—one of those small Southern California affairs that attract only three or four former world champions—after staring vacantly like a schoolboy who cannot remember whether he left his half-eaten Popsicle in his gym locker or on the bus, he will reply, "Were we in the regatta? Yes, and we did lousy." If pressed as to how poorly he did, he will reply indifferently, "Oh, we won it, but we sailed lousy. A couple of thirds ruined our score."
Third place is anathema to Conner. So is second place—and all other places except first. His brief incursion into the Tempest class is testimony to that. An Olympic class since 1932, the Star was replaced in 1976 by the Tempest, a new and promising keel boat that, like the Star, is a two-man craft. In the summer of 1975, on his way to the Admiral's Cup in England, Conner stopped at Kingston, Ontario to look in on the pre-Olympic regatta. There he found old Star rivals messing around in Tempests. His interest kindled, Conner straightway contracted to buy two, although he did not have enough ready scratch to pay for half of one.
In mid-September, two weeks after first boarding a Tempest, Conner took second in the North American championships, abetted by a temporary crewman, Dave McComb, who was experienced in the class. During the winter Conner tuned and tested his Tempest on the West Coast but did not sail competitively again until a pre-Olympic regatta off St. Petersburg, Fla. in March. By then he had lined up, as permanent crew, Conn Findlay, a 45-year-old, 6'6" San Franciscan, who had a unique asset. However they fared in their Olympic quest, Findlay was not apt to suffer from big-time jitters because he had won two gold medals and a bronze as an oarsman in previous Games. After they took third in the series at St. Petersburg, such is Conner's stature that a rumor spread on the docks that the Conner- Findlay team had been holding back in order not to give away their true boat speed. Faced with the charge today, Conner laughs. "No way we were holding back," he says. "We were incompetent." There is bald evidence to support his claim. They capsized twice at St. Petersburg, and twice Findlay's trapeze wire parted. There are less obvious ways of sandbagging in a sailboat race than dropping a two-time Olympic champion in the water.
After winning their regional Olympic eliminations—a modest achievement because there were less than a dozen Tempests seriously active on the West Coast—Conner and Findlay set off to test their mettle against the best of Europe. In no time at all they found their mettle was worth about two cents on the foreign market. As Conner recalls, "We got slaughtered. We would cross the starting line near boats we thought might win, and five minutes later we couldn't read the numbers on their sails." In their first foreign regatta they finished 24th in a field of 35. In the next they were 21st out of 48. Although in the European championship they climbed to 13th in a fleet of 54, they seemingly had made almost no headway in their Olympic quest. The 12 skippers who finished ahead of them came from eight different countries, and seven of them showed up on the Olympic starting line on Lake Ontario.