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Thriller at Newport

The Rolex International Women's Keelboat Championship was a down-to-the-wire affair

While the America's Cup continues to blast away at its own foot—until a recent ruling by Cup trustees allowing the challengers an extra month to name their boats, the challengers had threatened to boycott next year's event—an obscure all-female regatta held in September in Newport might restore credibility to sailboat racing. The Rolex International Women's Keelboat Championship (RIWKC) has the ingredients of a great regatta:

•Prestige. After the Olympics, the RIWKC is the premier women's sailing event. It used to be the top regatta, because until the '88 Games, the Olympics didn't have a women's sailing event.

•Danger. During Race 7 'at this year's RIWKC, as the fleet left a crowded starting line and scrambled for open air, Australia's Cookie Monster and Gangster from Rye, N.Y., inadvertently lined up on a head-on collision course. Sharon Pledge ran to the bow of Cookie Monster in an attempt to fend off the approaching vessel, but her leg got caught between the two 3,100-pound boats, each traveling at eight knots. She succeeded in preventing any significant damage to either boat. Unfortunately, her right foot was fractured and is still in a cast after several months.

•Suspense. After five days and seven races, this year's championship was won in a come-from-behind performance on the last leg of the last race.

•International flavor. Unlike the so-called World Series, the RIWKC draws talent from around the globe. This year, 46 boats from nine countries competed: one each from Holland, the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; two each from New Zealand, Australia and Canada; five from Japan; and three Soviet boats. Or were they Russian boats?

"I really don't know," said U.S.S.R. Yacht Racing Federation vice-president Valentina Kouptsova. "We keep getting new information every day."

The Russians quickly became the darlings of the regatta, thanks largely to an outpouring of postcoup compassion. "If the coup had continued, our trip to the United States would have been impossible," said coach Viktor Kovalenko.

Even though the Russians made it to Newport, they weren't fully prepared for the championship. Heidi Backus-Riddle of Vermilion, Ohio, lent them a spinnaker. Other competitors donated foul-weather gear. And when a reporter asked to interview the top Soviet skipper, Larisa Moskalenko, Coach Kovalenko agreed, but on one condition—that the reporter give Kovalenko and four of his sailors a lift back to the crew's house, seven miles away. It seems the Russians hadn't rented enough cars.

Before this year's RIWKC, the Russians had little experience with keel-boats—much less J/24s—and this team had never sailed in international competition, period. In fact, until the Rolex Women's series was born in 1985, there was no regatta anywhere for women sailors to compete on a world-class level in anything bigger than a dinghy. The women who organized the RIWKC wanted to use a boat that would be taken seriously.

Their answer was the popular J/24, a highly maneuverable 24-foot racer that features all the string-pulling challenge of a big boat at a fraction of the cost. With 4,800 J's afloat, accessibility to the boats was no problem; it is the largest one-design keelboat on the planet. The J has a stationary lead keel instead of the retractable wooden or metal center-board found on dinghies. And because almost every America's Cup skipper is a closet J/24 sailor, the choice instantly gave the RIWKC respect.

"We keep getting more and more top-notch skippers," says Betsy Alison, the winner of the first RIWKC. "People take it seriously now."

So seriously that crews start training for the following year's RIWKC soon after the current regatta ends. Three such highly disciplined teams held sway over this year's fleet. One was led by defending RIWKC champion Jody Swanson of Buffalo, N.Y.; another by Susan Milnes-Wallace of East Nor-walk, Conn.; and the third by hometown favorite Alison. Only once during the entire regatta did any of these teams fall to lower than fourth place in the 46-boat fleet.

Surprisingly, J.J. Isler of La Jolla, Calif., was out of the hunt after just three races. In 1987 Isler won both the Rolex Women's Regatta and the Yachtswoman of the Year award (given by the membership of U.S. Sailing); she is also ranked No. 1 on the U.S. sailing team.

Isler had an inkling that she might be jinxed in this year's RIWKC when before racing started, she drew bow No. 13. Next, she was penalized a whopping 47 points—the rule is that the boat with the lowest score wins the series—after committing a starting-line foul in Race 1. Then, in Race 3, Isler squeezed between Alison and a leeward turning mark when there was no room to maneuver. Alison raised a red flag and the protest committee threw Isler out of the race.

"My husband [former America's Cup navigator and ESPN commentator Peter Isler] and I broke a chain letter a week ago," said J.J. after the regatta. "Four days later this enormous branch fell out of a tree and dented our car."

By the final race, which was held on Friday the 13th, Isler was still lamenting the turn of events. "We've been really fast all week," she said. "If we hadn't gotten thrown out, our score would be 1-2-2-5-6. We'd be winning the regatta."

Then Isler's luck changed. While there was no way she could win the RIWKC, revenge was at hand. Alison, who had a 1.5-point lead going into the final day, needed to finish ahead of Swanson and in at least eighth place in the last race. As the fleet rounded the final mark and headed for the finish, Alison was ninth, one place away from the title. The boat ahead of her, with a solid 43-second lead, was J.J. Isler's.

"I told my crew that it was a new race, and we had to sail the best leg of our lives," said Alison. Remarkably, she caught Isler and won the title by five seconds. "It's just too thrilling, particularly when it comes down to the last 100 yards," said Alison.

After the race, Isler brushed off any suggestion that she should have camped on Alison's wind, thus denying her rival the championship. After all, Alison had been responsible for Isler's being ejected from Race 3. "Yes, we were aware of the situation, but we definitely weren't trying to play the spoiler," Isler said. She knew that attacking Alison would have had a negligible effect on her own overall standing, so she left her alone. "We sail against these same people all the time," added Isler's crewmate, Margie Fetter. "In the long run, it just doesn't pay to pick on somebody on the last leg of the last race."

Alison is quickly becoming the Dennis Conner of women's sailing. She's a hardworking perfectionist, consistent and highly intuitive, which could explain why she won the 1985 RIWKC without having ever before skippered a J/24.

She started sailing Sunfish when she was seven years old. At 18, she was a FACES IN THE CROWD selection (SI Dec. 11, 1978) as a Tufts University sophomore. Now a sailmaker at Shore Sails in Newport, Alison has been Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year a record three times, in 1981, '82 and '84. And she could win the title again this year. Two weeks after the RIWKC, Alison traveled to San Francisco and finished first in six of nine Soling races to win the Adam's Cup, another major women's regatta.

What are the differences between an all-male and an all-female regatta? Well, at an all-male event it's doubtful you would see boat names like Smokin' Wenches, Twisted Sisters or PMS. And there are more pink spinnakers at a women's event.

"But out on the race course," said Isler, "I don't see any difference between a men's regatta and a women's regatta. Except maybe the screaming is a little more high-pitched."

Chris Evert, when she was at the top of her game, said that she couldn't even beat her brother, a middling college player. In sailing, mixed competition is much more competitive. The sport emphasizes tactics and experience, areas in which neither sex has the edge.

So then, are there any real differences between men and women in sailing? Yes, strength. When the wind kicks up, the women fall back. They can't muscle the boats as well as the men.

Does that mean the men are faster? For now, maybe, or at least until Betsy Alison starts lifting weights.



"Playtime," skippered by Alison, (below) won out over 46 yachts from nine countries.



[See caption above.]



Among the pink-spinnakered racers was Milnes-Wallace's "Sugar Plum."

Duncan Brantley has written several stories about sailing for Sports Illustrated.