Publish date:


Until next year, that is, as the New Zealand vs. San Diego squabble awaits a clear verdict

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.

However, if the court decides that San Diego must meet Fay in a monohull, and Sail America exhausts all avenues of legal appeal with no change in that decision, then Sail America will have to produce a big monohull. That means writing off the $3 million or so it has already spent on catamarans and raising that much more for a race it is by no means assured of winning.

Another scenario would be for Sail America and the SDYC to dissolve their contract. If that were to happen, the SDYC might accept one of the offers it has had from others to build and race a defender in its behalf, presuming those offers still hold. Or SDYC might snag a knight-errant, someone like California's wealthy maxi-yachtsman, Jim Kilroy, and ask him to organize a defense. Or, should time allow, the club could start again on its own. The complicating factor is that the leading figures in Sail America, Conner and money man Mal-in Burnham, are also influential members of the SDYC.

For some in the club, being rid of Sail America would be a relief, but they are an intimidated minority. Those members have thought from the beginning that Fay's challenge, however unwelcome, should have been dealt with in the spirit of sport rather than interpreted as a sneak attack comparable to Pearl Harbor, an act of treachery to be avenged at any cost. On the eve of last week's christening, one of the minority members said, "The yacht club and the Cup itself have really been hurt in this business, the club more than the Cup, I think. But the Cup's reputation is easier to salvage. Once it does get back on track and the races start, it's forgotten. But gee, the club has just taken a hell of a pasting. I think that's going to take a long time to heal, and that's a damn shame."

The one unutterable word in San Diego is "forfeit." Lawyers, with nothing personal at stake, may throw it around the courtroom, but for a sailor or a yacht club, the notion of entering the history books as the first to forfeit the America's Cup is a fate too horrible to contemplate. Even Fay, angry and frustrated as he is, wants no part of forcing a forfeit. If anything can persuade the principals in this dispute to stop being "bloody-minded" and "pigheaded"—Kiwi and American words for the same thing—the prospect of a forfeit can. A "mutual consent" clause in the Deed allows the challenger and defender complete freedom to make any arrangements they choose. Poor George Schuyler. The 19th-century yachtsman who wrote the Deed probably thought that clause provided all the leeway civilized sailors would ever need to reach an understanding. The America's Cup has proved him wrong time and again.

The grunts in both camps keep working night and day, as if a September match were a real possibility. At the Stars & Stripes dock the other day, Bill Trenkle, a long-time Conner crewman, led visitors on a walking tour around H-1, which was lying on her side in a specially designed hydraulic cradle. Her twin blue hulls are 60 feet long and are separated by 30 feet. To get from one hull to the other when the boat tacks, the sailors bound across a trampoline made of white nylon webbing. Conner bounds with the best of them, especially now that he has shed at least 40 pounds, reportedly in response to an offer by the Nutri/System, Inc. weight-loss program to contribute to Sail America one pound of carbon fibre, at $1,000 per pound, for every pound Conner loses.

The wing sail on H-1 was designed with the help of Burt Rutan, who also designed Voyager, the lightweight aircraft that made the first nonstop, non refueled round-the-world flight, in December 1986. The sail is 23 feet at its base and tapers to 4 feet at the top, 90 feet above the water. The mast has three vertical elements, one of which looks a bit like Venetian blinds, and all of which can be manipulated independently of one another. Sail America won't say, but H-I could reach speeds of 30 knots or more. The only situation in which Conner's cats are vulnerable is in wind conditions of less than five knots. In those conditions they will barely move. But neither will a 123-foot monohull.

The Stars & Stripes yard is small—the cats don't take up much room. It is bordered by grassy parkland and shade trees. By contrast, the Kiwi compound, half a dozen docks away on San Diego Port District land, is surrounded by acres of gray sheds and working vessels of every description. Like the boat itself, everything about the New Zealand yard is huge. It includes a 12,000-square-foot sail loft, and, to lift New Zealand out of the water each night, a crane that required 13 trucks to transport it in pieces to the compound.

But nothing in the yard is as mind-boggling as New Zealand herself, or "Kiwi Mischief as she was nicknamed in a radio phone-in vote in Auckland last March (the runner-up was "Faytal Attraction"). The spreaders, those projections attached at intervals to the mast for holding the shrouds taut, are the size of old-fashioned surfboards. The numbers on the sails are five feet high. When the boat is out of the water, it rests on a cradle on the deck of a 250-foot barge. A 39-foot steel staircase is needed just to climb from the deck of the barge onto the deck of the yacht. New Zealand's mast is so high, 17 stories, that when a crewman is raised to its top by a rope, his chair has to be secured by an additional line, in part to be certain that the much greater descending weight of some 400 feet of rope doesn't send him soaring off into the Southern California sky.

Everybody wants to see the Kiwi boat these days, and the sailor-hosts are friendly and obliging. The best show in town is a Kiwi tack, when all 40 crew members high-step it through tangled lines scattered over 1,800 square feet of deck (about the size of a modest three-bedroom house). The crew is divided into three teams: the Speed Team of five (once called the Afterguard); the Thrust Team (10 to 15 people who trim, grind and hoist the sails); and the Rail Team (15 to 25 ballast bodies, who, because of the reverse camber of the boat's cantilevered sides, must run downward from one rail and then up again to the other every time the boat tacks).

"I don't care what your politics are on this whole America's Cup thing," says Rod Davis, the New Zealand sailing coach, "you have to admit this is much more fun than sailing 12-meters. Besides, you can get more of your buddies on board this way."

If Fay's original plan had worked out, the 27th America's Cup would have concluded last week. The old silver ewer might now have been on its way to the Mercury Bay Boating Club in Whitianga, New Zealand, where members would have had to build a clubhouse to display it, because all they have now is a 1956 Ford Zephyr, in which the racing secretary sometimes stores her signal flags. Or the Cup might now have been put back in its glass case at the SDYC, awaiting the 1991 yachting spectacle that San Diego boosters had in mind before those pesky Kiwis torpedoed their party.

Further, if the SDYC had not, by way of the "mutual consent" clause, shut out of the competition other countries who were once interested in racing the big boats—Australia, Japan and England—a grand new era in Cup racing might now be underway. Watching New Zealand head out onto San Diego Bay these early summer days, one can't help thinking that, at least for now, a wonderful opportunity has been missed.



The mammoth New Zealand (above) necessitates a crew of 40; Sail America's controversial catamaran is a five-man operation.



The rigid sail of H-1 is radical in itself, but the key question is whether the courts will let Conner (left) race his cat against a monohull.



[See caption above.]



Lawyers for New Zealand (top) and the SDYC have taken the race out of the water...



...and into the court of Judge Ciparick, whose next ruling will likely be appealed.



Fay's big baby, 90-feet at the waterline, is the largest to be built for the Cup in 50 years.