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The man who lost the America's Cup in 1983 strolled out of his dockside office on Monday morning with a Diet Coke in his hand and white zinc cream smeared around his mouth. He responded politely but absently to the good wishes of the 200-odd syndicate people who had come to see him off, then stepped aboard Stars & Stripes, and while the Bose speakers on the syndicate tender, Betsy, shattered the peace of an Australian summer morning with Danger Zone from Top Gun, the smoky-blue boat from the San Diego Yacht Club slid out of her pen, headed for the Indian Ocean and Race 5 of the Louis Vuitton Cup final against New Zealand.
Before the sun had set behind Rottnest Island, Stars & Stripes was the 1987 America's Cup challenger and Dennis Conner was at the brink of a vindication for which he has waited 3½ years. On Jan. 31, when the America's Cup final begins at last, he will face the Australian defender, which at this writing seems sure to be Kookaburra III (she increased her lead over Australia IV to 4-0 in their best-of-nine series as Conner clinched). If Stars & Stripes does to Kooka what she did to New Zealand, Conner can retire from the 12-meter game a happy man, the skipper who lost the Cup, then won it back.
Although the Kiwis bowed to Conner 4-1 in the best-of-seven challenger final, they went down fighting. The fifth and deciding race was sailed in 28 howling knots of breeze and roller-coaster seas that caused a Kevlar jib on Stars & Stripes to explode on the second beat, and so confounded the Kiwis during a spinnaker change on the second reaching leg that they finally gave up and sailed the balance of the leg with no headsail at all.
The 25-year-old skipper of New Zealand, Chris Dickson, vying to become the youngest helmsman ever in the Cup finale, showed his lack of experience in the pressure cooker at the last leeward mark Monday, when the Kiwis were only eight seconds behind. Dickson cut the corner too close and New Zealand's hull grazed the orange buoy. When a mark is touched it must be rerounded. By the time the Kiwis were able to set off after Stars & Stripes again they were a hopeless 39 seconds behind. The gap at the finish was 1:29.
New Zealand's was a carefully orchestrated, clearly thought-out and masterfully executed first-time challenge. It rallied the support of the nation to its cause, and when Dickson and his crew were down 3-1 and backed to the wall, New Zealanders, instead of turning to more profitable pursuits, swamped the challenge office in Fremantle with messages of encouragement. Peter Debreceny, the syndicate spokesman, said on the morning of the last race, "We've got half a million signatures [15% of the nation's population]. We're into our sixth kilometer of fax paper."
The outcome of the series was fore-told on Jan. 13, opening day of the Vuitton Cup final. It was a "bottle day," in the language of Western Australian weathermen, the kind you would like to trap in a bottle and keep forever. The crowds that perched like sea gulls on the yellow limestone jetties that encircle Fremantle's new Challenger Harbour each morning to watch the parade of 12-meters head out to sea, had swelled to 5,000 or more. On the race course, where the afternoon sea breeze was already blowing 20 knots, 10 helicopters hovered like dragonflies over the starting line, and a hundred or more spectator craft, ranging from inflatables to the ocean liner Achille Lauro, stirred the rising seas into a boiling confusion.
The Kiwis had by far the better win-loss record (37-1 to Stars & Stripes's 31-7), their current winning streak was up to 28 and they had beaten the American boat two of the three times they met in the round-robins. The New Zealanders were the Cinderella team whose midnight had not yet struck. They were blessed with youth, talent and Kiwi "magic," an eerie blend of Maori myth, mass marketing and true grit, but they were also first timers matched against the wiliest skipper and most experienced afterguard in the 12-meter game.
Stars & Stripes and New Zealand were quite different boats, but ostensibly they were well matched. Stars & Stripes was thought to have an edge in straight-line speed in a strong breeze and heavy seas, while the fiberglass-hulled New Zealand, supposedly a more maneuver-able boat, and able to get back up to speed quicker after a tack, was an all-around design with a possible edge over the San Diego boat in light-to-moderate conditions.
Way back in September, before the Cup trials began, Conner questioned the legality of the Kiwis' unique fiberglass hull. He believed, and said as much, that the only reason one would build a fiberglass boat was if one wanted to cheat. Twelve-meter designers around the world have studied the use of fiberglass, but until the Kiwis did so, no one had figured how to make it more attractive than aluminum in meeting the requirements for certification by Lloyd's Register of Shipping. Conner created a squall that eventually led to a resurvey of New Zealand, which she passed with flying colors. Even before that, however, many knowledgeable observers were going on record as saying the Kiwi boat was nothing more than a very good boat that happened to be built of fiberglass, with fiberglass accounting for 5% or less of her overall effectiveness.
New Zealand's versatility was ideally suited to the early round-robin format. She could beat all comers in all weather, while Stars & Stripes had a struggle on her hands when she faced a lighter-air opponent on a light-air day.