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Until now Conner's Cup campaigns have been dictatorships. He held all the strings, and he kept them short. After winning the Cup in 1980 he demanded and got a no-cut contract, a guarantee from the syndicate backers that he could not be dumped in midcampaign should things go badly. Conner's debut at the helm of a 12-meter rose out of just such a situation. Bob Bavier, skipper of Courageous in 1974, was abruptly and rather cruelly replaced during the August trials by the veteran Hood and the relatively little-known Conner, who handled the starting maneuvers.
This time around Conner has stepped back a bit. After Australia II copped the Cup with a winged keel that was a leap forward in 12-meter design, skippers such as Conner who were contemplating grabbing it back had to face the fact that high technology, very high, had hit the 12-meter game. Technologists, scientists and aerospace experts were the key to the 1987 Cup, and the syndicates needed someone who could speak their language. Conner chose John Marshall.
Marshall, 44, had served as Conner's mainsail trimmer on Liberty in 1983. A biochemist by training, with a degree from Harvard, he did a stint as a research fellow at the Rockefeller Institute in New York and has a background in sailing and sailmaking. He is also president of Hinckley Yachts, of Southwest Harbor, Maine. For the Stars & Stripes syndicate Marshall's assignment was to coordinate the work of the scientists and the naval architects.
"It goes against Dennis's nature to lose any element of direct control," Marshall said last month at the syndicate headquarters in Fremantle. "He's uncomfortable, particularly with technology and having technologists determine his fate. In this game technologists do make mistakes. There have been Olympic gold medalists out there [Marshall waves an arm in the general direction of the Indian Ocean] struggling to stay out of last place because their boats were hopeless. Dennis lived through that in '83, having a piece of equipment that was inferior and then being asked by the world to do a superhuman job. The last thing he wanted was to be back in that position, yet he had to decide to put himself in that position because there's no hope of winning if you don't have very, very strong technology."
Conner has to know people a long time before he trusts them, which is why there are many familiar faces from earlier campaigns around the Stars & Stripes compound. Closest to Conner is Tom Whidden, his tactician. Whidden, 39, has been sailing with Conner since 1979. A tactician is said to be the eyes and ears of the helmsman. He relays information about what is going on on the racecourse and what he thinks the helmsman should do about it. Ideally, the relationship between helmsman and tactician is based on total trust. The tactician says, "Tack," and the helmsman tacks. "In the old days," says Whidden, "I'd say Tack,' and Dennis would say, 'Well, why?' But that doesn't happen anymore. He used to pride himself that he was both tactician and skipper and that the tactician was just back there to pull the running backstay. He realizes that's not in the program's best interest anymore. That's part of the maturing of Dennis Conner on the race course. He's more disciplined. In Newport he would do things sometimes that weren't right just out of being impulsive."
Whidden can kid Conner where others can't, or don't. The day after the Cup was lost in 1983, the Liberty group was packing its belongings, in preparation for leaving Newport, when the phone rang. It was Ronald Reagan calling for Conner. Betsy Whidden, Tom's wife, who had answered the phone, relayed the message to Tom, who yelled out the window to Conner, "Hey, Dennis. The President's on the phone. He wants to tell you you screwed up."
"That was the best thing that came out of all that," says Whidden. "Dennis didn't laugh as hard as we all did, but he laughed. He thought it was funny. I think Dennis likes to be the center of attention, not the cause of it, or however you say that. He likes to be on the front end of the joke, not the other end."
Conner is much better known in Australia than he is in the U.S., having been the engineer of Australia's Cup defeat in 1980 and an agent of the perceived perfidy of the New York Yacht Club in the winged keel controversy of 1983. He was also the star a year ago of a TV commercial on behalf of an Australian state lottery. While some Australians viewed the TV ad as inappropriate, most saw it as a generous and pleasantly self-effacing gesture. The ad began with Conner saying, "Remember me? I was the skipper who lost the America's Cup."
The Conner syndicate has worked hard on its image. Lesleigh Green, a Perth public relations woman who worked for Alan Bond in 1983, was hired to smooth its way with the press, and the citizens of Fremantle were invited to an open house at the syndicate headquarters before racing began. The effort was rewarded with goodwill, friendly headlines and an editorial in a local paper that read, "From an enemy to be hated [Conner] has become already in just a few days someone to be admired."
Most effective of all, however, was an impulsive gesture of Conner's. On a September afternoon, soon after Conner's arrival in Fremantle, 12-year-old Tim Cook, who was hawking newspapers along the waterfront, spotted the Stars & Stripes skipper and asked for an autograph. Conner replied with an invitation for Cook to go sailing, written on the back of a paper beer coaster. A few days later Cook had his sail on Stars & Stripes, the syndicate had a headline to tack on its bulletin board (CONNER MAKES A DREAM COME TRUE FOR A NEWSBOY), and young Cook had this to say: "He's a generous bloke."