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Original Issue

The America's Cup armada

A year before the races, Newport is chockablock with crews and boats

There's an old piece of waterfront wisdom that says: "Men and boats rot in port." It applied in the days when men were men, boats were wood and Newport, R.I. was full of seedy bars and shady women. Now the boats in Newport—the newest America's Cup boats, that is—are aluminum, the men who sail them have a 10 o'clock curfew and Newport itself is virtually rotproof. The old town's wharves are landscaped, its warehouses condo-miniumized and its bars bear names like The Candy Store and The Club at One Pelham East. The action on summer evenings takes place, more often than not, in the living rooms of the big summer houses on the hill above the harbor. There the America's Cup crews, in residence to prepare themselves and their boats for races that are still a year away, drape their tired bodies over chintz slip-covers and watch videotapes of the day's sailing.

Technology, which has already produced Kevlar sails and aluminum hulls, and which, like nature, abhors a vacuum, has now moved in on that damnable human factor in the sailboat racing equation: the crew. Not only are the crews' daily performances being videotaped, but their conditioning is being systematized as well. Physical training instructors are already in residence at some of the syndicate houses in Newport, and by next spring, when the boats and crews return from their winter training quarters for the America's Cup trials, which begin in June, more will have been signed on. Some houses have workout rooms complete with weight machines, still bikes and treadmills. Others have contracted for the use of training facilities at fitness centers in the area. At the British house at 336 Gibbs Avenue, a parcourse is laid out in the garden and every Friday is checkup day. In a small trailer parked in the driveway crew members are weighed and tested for their cardiovascular readiness by a medic permanently attached to the syndicate.

Not surprisingly, the hardest-driving bunch in Newport is Dennis Conner's Freedom syndicate. In 1980 Conner skippered Freedom in defense of the Cup against the challenger, Australia. It was the 25th victory for the U.S. in 25 tries dating back to 1851 when the whole thing began. For the 1983 America's Cup, Conner, who permanently altered Newport's definition of "practice" with his 18-month campaign for the 1980 defense, is working harder than ever. His crew was the first to arrive, in April, and the first in the water, in June. By early September Conner & Co., working with Freedom and two new Twelves, Magic and Spirit of America, had logged 500 hours of sailing. The tone of urgency originates at the top of the Freedom organization and filters down. "Time," says Conner, "is your biggest enemy. There's never enough time. Once an hour's gone you can't get it back."

A few hundred feet down Thames Street from the Freedom dock is the Newport Offshore boatyard, home of Conner's rival for the role of defender spot, the Defender/Courageous group. Unlike the Freedom strategy, which is to choose the best of three boats for the trials, Defender, a new 12-meter designed by David Pedrick, and Courageous, the Sparkman & Stephens Twelve that successfully defended in 1974 and 1977, will both enter the trials. Tom Blackaller, Conner's longtime rival in the Star class, is at the helm of Defender, while Dave Vietor of New York, who owns Courageous, is sailing his own boat.

"We have a cooperative effort," says Max O'Meara, the Defender/Courageous operations manager, who was involved in both earlier Courageous campaigns. "We work out together, we live together, and we mix and match our personnel and so forth. Sometime next spring we'll choose sides and we'll go out and try to hammer the daylights out of one another. Until that time comes, there's no specific identity." Stepping onto the seafoam-green deck of Courageous one recent day, O'Meara said fondly, "It's still a dynamite boat and it could very easily pull it off."

Blackaller, like Conner, is a Californian and twice winner of the world Star championship, but unlike Conner he claims to be a seat-of-the-pants sailor. In July, a few weeks after the launching of Defender, Blackaller told a New York Times reporter, "We are the only people who can beat Dennis. It will be a very competitive trial series and not a repeat of the 42-4 drubbing he gave the other defenders in 1980." Blackaller, helmsman of Clipper in the final days of the 1980 trials, was one of those drubbed.

Even Blackaller, however, doesn't want to beat Conner any more than do the eight foreign challengers who have submitted their résumés to the New York Yacht Club and been deemed worthy. Taking a leaf from Conner's book, the French, with their redesigned 1980 challenger, France 3, the British, with Victory, and the Canadians, with their yet-to-be-launched Canada I, have been working in Newport all summer. The Italians' new boat, Azzurra, was launched in July and has spent the latter part of the summer being tested in the Adriatic.

The Australians, with three syndicates and possibly as many as four new boats, have stayed home this summer. Of the three, the Royal Perth Yacht Club, led by Alan Bond, is the favorite because it has produced the last three challengers, Southern Cross in 1974, and Australia in 1977 and 1980.

Just getting to the starting line of next June's trials requires a minimum outlay of $2 million per syndicate. Not surprisingly, a few efforts have already fallen short. The Swedes, who mounted serious challenges with Sverige in 1977 and 1980, announced early this summer that they will arrive in Newport next spring with a low budget, an old boat and no illusions of becoming the 1983 challenger. The Canadians, with the launching of their new 12-meter delayed and their public subscription campaign sagging, took an extended holiday in early August, leaving a skeleton crew, three trailers and their two older Twelves, Intrepid and Clipper, at the Newport Shipyard. "There are wild rumors in the Canadian press of gloom and doom," says Kevin Singleton, one of those who stayed behind. "But the good Lord willin' and the crick don't rise, we'll be here."

The Italians are secure with 15 major corporations and the Aga Khan behind their challenge, but the French had the shorts until mid-June, when they were bailed out by 43-year-old movie producer Yves Rousset-Rouard, who made his first fortune in 1974 with the soft porn classic Emmanuelle. "We won't have big amounts of money to run 15 cars and 50 persons," says Jean Castenet, the project manager, "but we will have everything we need for the boat."

This year's standard for conspicuous consumption has been set by, of all people, the British. Peter John de Savary, 38, is a self-made tycoon known to his loyal followers as PDS. To most of the rest of Newport, however, he's Unsavory de Savary because of his aggressive approach and the fact that his lavish $8 million operation makes the other syndicates look third-worldish by comparison.

Docked at the Newport Yachting Center, amidst trucks, trailers, vans, cars, motorbikes and a welter of Union Jacks, are the brand-new 12-meter Victory; a used 12-meter, Australia; Kalizma, a 147-foot power yacht that once belonged to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; Lisanola, a 53-foot Magnum with twin 2,500-hp diesels; Revenge, a 43-foot custom-built fishing boat; Charleston, a 35-foot Fairey Swordsman motor cruiser; three Boston Whalers; and the "Rubber Duck," a gray inflatable Avon Searider with a 140-hp engine.

It's the Rubber Duck that has caused the greatest stir in Newport. On de Savary's orders it's taken out every day by a crew of two, a driver and a photographer, to follow and take pictures of the Freedom syndicate boats as they practice. The Americans call this spying and ungentlemanly. The British say it's observing and logical. More likely it's just plain, old-fashioned psych. At first, Conner tried to duck the surveillance by sailing to the far side of Block Island, but the Rubber Duck followed. Then his crew tried trailing nylon fishing line off the stern in hopes it would become entangled in the British propeller. That worked, temporarily. But now the Rubber Duck is largely ignored. "Here come the Brits," said a young hand on Freedom's tender, Fire Three, one day last month. "They're late this morning."

Ungentlemanly or not, the Brits seem to be having more fun than anyone else. Their logo, a grotesque cartoon bulldog in a tricorn hat, is visible all over town. The bar in a discotheque off Thames Street has been named The Victory in their honor, and although their schedule resembles that of the hardest-working syndicates, they have energy left for volleyball and table tennis tournaments as well as dinghy races.

In spite of the lightheartedness, though, the determination of the British to win, if not next year, then soon, is typical of the foreign challengers, of which there are four more than ever before. Some see the light at the end of the 131-year-old tunnel, and they are spending hard to get there first. One day, a Victory team member was showing Bob Bavier, a former America's Cup skipper, around the Victory compound. Bavier, impressed by the display of spending power, said, "You very much want to be the challengers, don't you?" To which the Englishman replied, "No. We very much want to be the defenders."


The Brits practice on Victory, flagship of the de Savary (below) fleet.


The Canadians, like Clipper, are temporarily high and dry.