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Why, it's the U.S. maxi yacht that dominated the worlds

Paul Cayard, the mustachioed 31-year-old American helmsman of the Italian maxi boat Passage to Venice, screamed to be heard by his crew above howling 25-knot winds and crashing eight-foot seas: "Ammainare lo spi!" Jumping to action, Passage's 23-member team executed a perfect spinnaker drop while Cayard glanced over his shoulder to get a fix on his nearest threats, Matador² of the U.S. and Longobarda of Italy. Both were a comfortable four boat lengths behind Passage. With only two races to go in the 21-race 1990 Maxi World Championship series, Passage and Matador² were deadlocked in the point standings. A win on this December day would put Passage in the catbird seat.

As Cayard's 80-foot, 40-ton maxi gracefully rounded the inflatable orange marker and headed to windward off St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, disaster struck. An experimental carbon-fiber-headboard car—a device that secures the mainsail to the top of the mast—shattered. The light brown Kevlar main fluttered to the deck. Passage had lost her engine.

Stefano Maida scrambled up the mast to repair the damage. As he swayed violently atop the 120-foot metronome, Matador² and Longobarda passed the limping Passage. By the time the mainsail was fixed, Matador² had won. The next day, Matador² squeezed past Passage again to win a 75-mile distance race and clinch the world championship.

"To break down, especially when you're winning," said Cayard, "is like Ayrton Senna being 10 laps up and blowing out a tire. You might be the best driver out there, but there's nothing you can do about it." Passage's mishap was worth a possible swing of five points: She ended up losing the world title to Matador² by a mere 4.25 points.

Maxis are the largest, fastest and most powerful offshore racing sailboats. The class consistently attracts elite sailors from around the globe. Behind every wheel, or within spitting distance of the cockpit, was an America's Cup veteran: Dennis Conner and Rives Potts led the French yacht Emeraude; John Bertrand, Tom Whidden, John Marshall and Jon Wright sailed Longobarda; John Kolius and Peter Stalkus piloted Vanitas, another Italian entry; Dave Vietor was aboard the U.S. maxi Congere; and Cayard and Adam Ostenfeld sailed Passage.

Sadly absent was Kialoa V and her owner, Jim Kilroy. Friends said Kilroy had exchanged his racing sails for cruising rags. "Jim started this whole maxi game over a decade ago," said a sailor who has crewed for Kilroy nearly as long. "When it began to accelerate and change, he decided to sit back and watch."

The world championship was sailed in three separate regattas, each consisting of seven races. The series started in Newport last September, moved to Miami in late October and, as noted, concluded in St. Thomas. The regatta was the last chance for America's Cup skippers, crews, designers and syndicate heavies to butt heads before dedicating the next 17 months exclusively to preparations for the 1992 Cup races in San Diego.

The consensus after St. Thomas was that Bill Koch's Matador¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢¬ß is, as FBI agent Dale Cooper might say, one damn fine maxi. She showed blazing speed both upwind and down, whether it was blowing eight knots or 28. Koch's whopping $7 million investment—the boat itself cost approximately $2 million, the rest went into research and development, which will be amortized over Koch's upcoming America's Cup campaign—has apparently paid off.

Koch, sailing an earlier Matador, had been a bridesmaid in the last four world championships. The 1990 world championship was the newest version's maiden regatta, and she won impressively. "The boat is major league fast," said Vanitas navigator Stalkus, a two-time America's Cup veteran. In Newport, Matador² placed lower than first only once. It wasn't long, however, before the other six maxis realized that to have a chance at winning, they would have to gang up on Matador².

"The racing got harder for us after Newport," said Gary Jobson, tactician and part-time helmsman for Matador². "We didn't have too many friends out there. Before every start, two boats would circle us while a third waited nearby to come in for the kill."

Unfair? "Hey, it's yacht racing," said Stalkus. "The idea is to beat the other boat." Even with the gang-up tactics, though, Matador² had three wins in both Miami and St. Thomas.

Despite Matador²'s victory in the worlds, some were critical of the boat's handling and felt she could have performed even better. "If you put Dennis Conner or a crew like Passage's on Matador², she would be unstoppable," said one member of a rival afterguard. "The boat is not being sailed as well as she should be."

While Matador¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢¬ß and Passage were busy slam-dunking each other, John Bertrand, driving Longobarda, slipped by to win the St. Thomas regatta and spoil Matador¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢¬ß's chance to sweep the three events. Bertrand sailed a consistently brilliant series. Except for some bad luck during the Newport regatta—a ripped mainsail forced Longobarda out of one race, a dismasting finished her in another—the boat never finished worse than third. Bertrand won three races and placed second nine times.

Conversely, Conner was consistently lackluster aboard Emeraude, finishing ahead of only perpetual caboose Congere. Despite that minor embarrassment, Congere's owner, Beven Koeppel, had much to be thankful for. In 1990 in a race from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro, his previous maxi, also named Congere, had run aground during the night off the coast of Brazil. All 30 crew members were forced to swim ashore and the yacht broke up in the surf. The crew was picked up the next day.

If the world championship was a sneak preview of the '92 America's Cup, we can expect a knock-down, drag-out match in San Diego between Koch's America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• and Raul Gardini's Il Moro di Venezia (The Moor of Venice, i.e., Othello). Gardini, 57, also owns Passage.

Gardini's racing record and his business rèsumè make it clear that he's not a man to be trifled with. His industrial-chemical conglomerate, Montedison, had $13.5 billion in sales in 1989 and employs more than 50,000 people worldwide. In Italy last year, Montedison ranked second only to Fiat in sales. Gardini is also the head of the holding company Ferruzzi Finanziaria, which owns Montedison and had a gross income of $30 billion in 1989.

As a sailor, Gardini has spent a lifetime on the water, campaigning a succession of maxis, all named Il Moro di Venezia (Passage to Venice was originally an Australian boat named Windward Passage; Gardini bought it and changed the name to combine something old and something new). Il Moro III, now renamed Vanitas, won the 1988 world championship.

If Gardini had been counseling a young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, his advice would have been "carbon fiber," not "plastics." Gardini is betting heavily that the miracle synthetic—stronger than steel and a fraction the weight—will soon be used in everything from commercial aircraft fuselages to picnic tables. He has commissioned an experimental 180-foot carbon-fiber cruising ketch, 48 feet longer than Michael Fay's America's Cup challenger New Zealand; when it's completed, in 1992, Gardini's will be the largest carbon-fiber boat ever built. Clearly maxi boats, and now the America's Cup, are only a small part of Gardini's much larger carbon-fiber business strategy.

"We were all very sad to lose the world championship," said Gabriele Rafanelli, Gardini's general for sailing affairs, "but this regatta was used by us as a training ground for the America's Cup. Now we've seen that we can compete with anybody. We are tough. We may not look it. We are Italians. We laugh, we joke. But we will be in San Diego to win the America's Cup. And Mr. Gardini is a very determined person."

So, too, is Matador²'s Mr. Koch.

Duncan Brantley's most recent sailing story for SI appeared in the Nov. 26, 1990, issue.



Matador² led Italy's Longobarda around a Newport buoy.



Passage's shot at the championship fell along with her mainsail in St. Thomas.



Looking beyond the America's Cup, Gardini is also building a 180-foot, carbon-fiber ketch.