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A New Tack

The International America's Cup Class made a splashy debut in San Diego

What a strange party it was, this International America's Cup Class (IACC) World Championship that was held last week in San Diego. Iain Murray of Australia sent his regrets but showed up anyway to get fat on gossip and take photographs of everybody in their finery—from a helicopter, no less. The U.S.'s Dennis Conner ate half the hors d'oeuvres, then left before the main course, saying he didn't have a thing to wear. The Japanese debutante let her hair down too early, but came back with a $450,000 coif and almost danced the last dance.

And then there was the American millionaire Bill Koch, having more fun than anyone even while observing that the party was too expensive and was planned by idiots and if they didn't do something about it, somebody was going to get hurt.

They had said all along it wasn't a real world championship, only a sort of pretend one—a run-through, a rehearsal, a mock turtle soup of yacht racing. The real thing is the America's Cup itself, and that doesn't get started till January next, when the Challenger and Defender selection series commence off San Diego's Point Loma. Last week's competition was a chance to get acquainted with the new 75-foot IACC sloops (replacing the traditional 12-meter yachts) and the eight-leg, 22.6-mile course, with its Z-lap reaches, buttonhook turn and downwind finishing leg (replacing the old six-leg, 24.6-mile, upwind finishing course).

"It's a great little step toward the Cup," is how Paul Cayard sized up the Worlds last Saturday, "but we know we've got a lot of work to do in the next nine months."

That, if Paul was too quick for you, was his victory speech. Cayard, a San Francisco native, skippered Italy's Il Moro di Venezia to a passionless victory over New Zealand in the final match on Saturday afternoon. But he seemed pleased. As pleased—no more, no less—as Rod Davis, co-skipper of the runner-up Kiwis, who said, "It's been really good for us to get together and slam the boats around a little bit."

This, obviously, was not the regatta of the century. Even so, it was a major letdown when Team Dennis Conner withdrew from the nine-boat event on May 8, after qualifying for the match-racing semis with a third-place finish in the five-day fleet-racing phase of the Worlds. Eyebrows were raised at Conner's excuse: insufficient sails and fear that his boat, Stars & Stripes, would be damaged by the stress of match racing.

"I think he should race, personally," said a skeptical Cayard. Said Davis: "We're disappointed." The other defender syndicate, which was headed by Koch and had two boats entered in the event, America[3] and Jayhawk, had even offered to lend yachting's biggest star the sails he said he needed.

Conner declined, of course. Who goes to a ball in hand-me-downs? Instead, he flew to New York last Thursday to meet with potential sponsors—to keep appointments he had made before the Worlds started.

This novel approach to the Worlds—keeping your hull dry—wasn't unique to Stars & Stripes. Australia's Murray, who lost to Conner in the 1987 America's Cup, in Fremantle, Australia, arrived in San Diego boatless but fitted out with binoculars, telephoto lenses and a helicopter. "We can pick up a lot by watching," said Murray, whose Spirit of Australia won't be ready till September.

A second Australian syndicate and syndicates from Great Britain, Sweden and the Soviet Union joined Murray as spectators, confirming the observation by one of Stars & Stripes's designers, Bruce Nelson, that "buying a couple of airline tickets, some pencils and a notebook and watching the Worlds might be more cost-effective than building a boat."

Frankly, practically anything is more cost-effective than building a multimillion-dollar IACC yacht. The new boats—longer, lighter, with 40% more sail area than the 12-meters—were designed for San Diego's usually light breezes and tend to break up in anything stronger. The Pre-Worlds, a three-race warmup for the main event held on May 1 and 2, was mostly a slapstick chase around the course with foresails ripping, hardware flying and crews scrambling to repair the damage. The French entry, Ville de Paris, even broke its main sheet block.

When 18-knot winds met the fleet on May 4, the first day of for-real racing, it was no longer funny. The Spanish boat, Spain '92, had to retire early when its steering pedestal cracked. A crewman aboard Ville de Paris lost a tooth when a spinnaker pole snapped in his face. And then a real calamity: Nippon's 110-foot mast broke a few feet above the deck ("the loudest noise I've ever heard," said Stars & Stripes's tactician, Tom Whidden) and toppled into the ocean—a $450,000 swizzle stick.

"I think the guys who made the rule for the design of these boats are idiots," said Koch, whose factory-fresh Jayhawk, with himself at the helm, had to retire from the race when her jib track came loose. "I think these boats are incredibly dangerous, very expensive and foolish," he said. "I think someone is going to get hurt out here. I fear in a collision the deck could collapse."

Chris Dickson, the 29-year-old New Zealander at the helm of Nippon, Japan's first-ever Cup entry, disagreed: "These boats...are exactly what the America's Cup is all about. But they are not a boat that the average sailor will feel happy in."

"Yes, that was a shot at me," said Koch, after Dickson's remark was relayed to him. Koch has been sailing big boats for less than a decade. "I knew someone would call me on my credentials," he said. "I'm an anomaly. I'm not a hired gun."

Once the wind had died down—and you can take that however you want—everyone remembered that the Worlds were meant to test the boats' limits, to help the designers find a workable compromise between speed and durability. Few, if any, of the craft racing last week will still be racing in next year's America's Cup. They are prototypes.

"The next generation of boats will improve quite a bit," said Whidden. "I think if we were doing it in 12-meters or boats we know better, there wouldn't be the excitement and the learning curve and the intellectual challenge."

By agreeing to race in the new IACC boats, the challengers and defenders hope to confine the intellectual challenge to the waves and keep the America's Cup out of the courtroom, where it languished after the bizarre 1988 Cup series between Sir Michael Fay's monohull, New Zealand, and Conner's catamaran, Stars & Stripes. (Stars & Stripes won on the sea and in the courts.) The IACC class is also supposed to add speed and excitement to the matches. The 12-meter yachts in use from 1958 to '87 were increasingly seen as heavy, unmaneuverable and too predictable. The fastest boat almost always won.

"I shouldn't have called the designers idiots," Koch conceded later in the week. "But these boats are so bloody expensive. They could eventually go the way of the J boats [the dinosaurs in use in America's Cup competition before World War II]."

The new course, like the boats, got mixed reviews. America[3] co-skipper Gary Jobson bemoaned the lack of passing opportunities on the reaches, but most everyone else welcomed the Z-course turns, which force more sail changes and reward good crew work. The spectator appeal of the downwind finish was underscored on May 6, when Jayhawk caught a wind change on the final run and breezed past New Zealand to win a fleet race.

The larger course—the course the various syndicates are taking toward the America's Cup—was harder to assess. The good performances by Italy and New Zealand were expected; they've been in the water for months, and both sailed second-generation boats in the finals. The Italians, once derided as Team Gucci, looked especially deep—as deep as the pockets of syndicate chairman Raul Gardini, who rode across the finish line last Saturday in the guest slot of Cayard's afterguard. A second Italian boat, also named Il Moro di Venezia, took third in the Worlds with John Kolius of the U.S. at the helm.

The New Zealanders, winners of the five-race fleet-racing phase of the Worlds, seemed as well drilled as the Italians. In last Friday's semis, they had a huge lead on Nippon on the last windward leg when a loud bang belowdecks announced a broken chain plate (a vital piece of hardware anchoring the port shroud, which in turn supports the mast). As Davis kept New Zealand on starboard tack to lessen the load on the mast, co-skipper David Barnes and several crew members leaped to action, replacing the shroud with half a dozen lines and halyards tied to anything that looked solid.

"It was no big deal," said crewman Dean Phipps, who carried the makeshift lines up the mast to the second spreader. Actually, it was a very big deal; it saved the Kiwis a mast and the race.

If the two finalists declared themselves front-runners for next year's Cup, the other challengers found the going rougher. Spain sailed at the edge of respectability but broke down too often and finished last. The French finished seventh and said they would like to buy back America[3], the boat they had sold to Koch's syndicate to train with. The Japanese—well, Dickson is a great match racer, but he must lose something in translation. On Saturday, he lost the consolation race to Kolius when a torn spinnaker got wrapped around the Nippon keel.

The Soviets, meanwhile, are still looking for a place to park. Last week, the U.S. State Department opened militarily sensitive San Diego Harbor and 11 other ports to six former Eastern bloc countries but not to the Soviets, who are being asked to berth their America's Cup yacht, Red Star, in nearby Mission Bay. The Soviets claim that tony Mission Bay is too expensive, although several other syndicates (including France and Japan) are based there. The Soviets briefly considered trying to get around the State Department by registering their yacht with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the bureau that licenses local boats as well as cars and trucks. Instead, the Soviets simply stayed away.

On the defender side, America[3] was an also-ran in the fleet races, but both Stars & Stripes and Jayhawk showed flashes of speed. Conner left everyone in his wake on a couple of windward legs, but he sailed the reaches with old, borrowed sails, which was like running the 100 meters in galoshes. A race on May 7—a hobbyhorse competition in winds as low as three knots—found Stars & Stripes in first place a half mile from the finish line, but the race was canceled when none of the boats in the fleet completed the course within the required four-hour-and-45-minute time limit.

"We all have to respect Dennis Conner and his abilities," said Cayard, "but I'd say at this point the challengers are advantaged."

Koch, meanwhile, gave every indication that he will mount a vigorous and colorful Cup campaign. A tall, freckled fellow with a gentle voice and plush-toy hair, Koch seems guileless enough to host a children's TV show, but his pronouncements arc like the air off Point Loma—light in delivery, heavy in effect.

"I found out early on in this game that if you bring on a lot of hotshot sailors, you end up last," Koch said, explaining how he will pick a skipper from among himself, Cup veterans Jobson, Buddy Melges and Olympic Soling class silver medalist Jon Kostecki. "And yet, you can bring on some mediocre sailors, work as a team, and you can win."

Jobson's wry response: "Thank you, Bill."

Of course, Koch was right about the need for teamwork. The Italians and Kiwis proved that off Point Loma, and something else besides: Given patience, study and practice, the new IACC boats are sailable.

Still, the absence of a U.S. boat at the end robbed the two finalists of complete satisfaction. Said Cayard, "It would have been nice for the World Championships to be something other than the Challenger Derby."



On the third day, America[3] dueled with Il Moro di Venezia, sister craft of the eventual champ.



With Conner at the helm, Stars & Stripes fared well before bidding farewell to the Worlds.



Japan's challenger Nippon (top) lost a mast, and Italy's Il Moro di Venezia, skippered by Cayard (at wheel, right), sailed to a world championship.