Publish date:



WITH DRY eyes, or half-closed ones drowsy with boredom, San
Diegans waved goodbye last Saturday afternoon to the most
prestigious prize in yachting, probably -- let's hope, anyway --
for good. Big bad Dennis Conner had been beaten in the
America's Cup for the second time in 12 years, this time by the
Kiwis. Conner is the only American skipper in 144 years to have
lost the oldest trophy in sports, and now he has done it twice.

At least in 1983, when Liberty was edged 4-3 by Australia II,
Conner went down fighting. This time the man whose credo was
once ``no excuse to lose'' went down fund-raising. ``Never give
up while they've still got green in their wallets!'' seems to be
Conner's new credo. Other athletes go to Disneyland after they
win. Conner accompanied sponsors to the Magic Kingdom on May 10,
a lay day, despite trailing the Kiwis' extraordinary yacht,
Black Magic, three races to none. Meanwhile, back in the Team
DC compound his crew was desperately taking apart the mast,
testing new sails, doing everything it could think of to make
its rented boat, Young America -- which Conner had leased from
rival syndicate PACT 95 for a reported $300,000 six days before
the first race of the America's Cup -- go faster.

One would think Mr. America's Cup himself would have wanted to
be there to lend a hand. Not that the crew was surprised that
he didn't. During the first lay day, when his team trailed 1-0
and had a new shipment of sails to test, the 52-year-old Conner
went golfing with sponsors while helmsman Paul Cayard and the
rest of the crew took Young America out on the water. The fact
of the matter is that Conner was little more than a spectator on
his own boat all spring. Cayard, tactician Tom Whidden and a
top-notch crew handled the racing. America's greatest sailor had
become an overweight CEO.

No matter. With New Zealand's win the Auld Mug is headed for
bluer waters and better hands. The Kiwis, who first challenged
for the Cup in 1987, built a 42-1 record on the water beginning
in January and crowned their achievement by drubbing Young
America in Conner's own backyard, five races to none. Did we say
races? These shellackings were more like two-boat parades. At
every rounding mark on the 18.5-mile course, Black Magic led
like a float carrying the grand marshal, while Conner and crew
chugged along behind as if sweeping up kelp and confetti.

The closest the U.S. team came to the Kiwis in any race was in
the clincher on Saturday, when Young America finished 1:50
behind, a distance of roughly two fifths of a mile. The most
lopsided loss came in the second race, on May 8, when the
finest International America's Cup Class (IACC) boat the U.S.
could design finished some 42 boat lengths, or 4:14, in arrears
of Black Magic. It was the worst defeat suffered by a defender
since 1871, when the British yacht Livonia defeated the American
boat Columbia by 15:10.

In Auckland, where 92% of the televisions were tuned in, the
America's Cup became known as the Slaughter on the Water. In the
U.S. it was the San Diego Yacht Club's version of the Maginot
Line defense. Cayard admitted he had never been in a match race
in which the yachts were so badly mismatched. ``I'm not to the
point of crying, but I've never been in a race where I felt I
had so little control over the outcome,'' Cayard said after
Young America fell behind four-zip. ``I basically feel I'm
delivering the boat around the race course.'' Delivering it as
if he were paid by the hour.

The debacle was an eye-opener for everyone. The three U.S.
syndicates, which had spent some $55 million in the defense
effort and were backed by such industrial powerhouses as Boeing,
Cray Research, Ford and Hewlett- Packard, had built three boats
that were roughly equal in speed. Equally slow. That tiny New
Zealand (pop. 3.5 million) could build a boat that sailed rings
around America's best was mind-boggling. The America's Cup is,
after all, a design-driven competition. The fastest boat -- as
opposed to the best sailors -- nearly always wins. ``We never
guessed the entire defense effort was so far off the pace,''
Whidden said last week. ``We can't even engage these guys in a

From the very beginning the Kiwis did everything right. Led by
47-year-old Peter Blake, who is probably the most accomplished
blue-water yachtsman in the world, Team New Zealand offered a
case study in how to run a winning America's Cup campaign. You
start with a leader who's universally respected. Blake has
sailed in five Whitbread Round the World races, and he utterly
dominated the 1989-90 event, winning every leg. In '94 he took
four days off the record for circumnavigation of the globe,
accomplishing the feat in a 92-foot catamaran, Enza New
Zealand, in just under 75 days. Yet aboard Black Magic, Blake,
who had put up the $75,000 America's Cup entry fee out of his
own savings, served as the mainsheet traveler: A bona fide
national hero and the syndicate boss, Blake assumed the role of
a grinder of winches.

That set the tone. There were no hidden agendas among the Kiwis,
no superstars and no frills. Their budget was between $14
million and $15 million -- less than that of each of the three
U.S. syndicates. Little marketing was done for Team New Zealand
until the last couple of weeks, when a half-million dollars was
raised from the sale back home of 100,000 pairs of the lucky red
socks Blake wore during races. ``The 1992 [Kiwi] campaign got
into the selling of clothing, and we saw that as a
distraction,'' says Blake. ``Plus we didn't have the money to
get into retailing.'' Conner, by contrast, raised more than a
million dollars from his two souvenir stores, selling, among
other things, hundreds of watercolors that Mr. America's Cup
himself had painted.

When it came to making the boat go fast, the New Zealanders cut
no corners. One of Blake's earliest and best decisions was to
build two nearly identical boats -- the maximum allowed under
current America's Cup rules. The Kiwis were the only syndicate
to do so. ``We knew we wanted two boats, even when we couldn't
afford them,'' Blake says. It enabled the New Zealand team to
test rigging configurations, keels, sails and rudders and learn
exactly how much faster or slower each change made the boats go.
``We learned nothing about boat speed from the trials --
zero,'' said Blake, ``and everything from the two-boat program.''

To ensure that the original design was a good one, Blake hired
San Diego resident Doug Peterson to create it with New Zealander
Laurie Davidson. Peterson had been a key member of the design
team that built America, the 1992 Cup winner. Peterson would
have preferred working for one of the U.S. syndicates -- under
the rules he had to take up residency in New Zealand for two
years to qualify as Black Magic's designer -- but when he phoned
Conner's camp to offer his services, he was told they weren't

Blake told Peterson he wanted the sailors to be involved in the
design process from the start. Everyone's ideas were welcomed
and run through dockside computers supplied by Silicon Graphics.
``Everybody participated in decisions,'' says Peterson, ``as
opposed to the usual way, which is having a design team over
here, and the sailing team over there, and directors telling you
what to do. The sailors were told everything.''

The Kiwis were a team. They trusted each other completely, and
they mistrusted nearly everyone else. They went so far as to
bring their own security guards from New Zealand to watch over
their Shelter Island compound. And they knew they had something
special in their two boats, which weren't built until
quarter-scale models had been wind-tunnel tested and tank tested
for a year. The first time they took Black Magic on the water,
off the boat's home city, Auckland, they discovered they were
sitting on a rocket ship. Sailing against New Zealand's 1992
entry, NZL-20, which was one of the better boats from the last
generation, the new black boat destroyed it. Recalled Peterson,
``That first day [tactician] Brad Butterworth came back and
said, `My god, it's like a different class of boat.' ''

Whereas the Aussies won the America's Cup in 1983 because of one
technological advance -- the winged keel -- Black Magic was a
breakthrough because of a combination of factors. It has a very
stiff mast set farther aft than that on any of the other IACC
boats, almost directly above the keel. Its mainsail is flatter,
its headsail larger and rounder. The spreaders on the mast are
smaller than those of any of the other yachts. All of these
factors allowed Black Magic to sail closer to the wind than any
other IACC yacht, which meant it had to cover less distance
during the three upwind legs. Against Young America the Kiwis'
average gain in each of those legs was a staggering 43 seconds.

The American defenders suspected they were lagging behind the
challengers all along, but they were too busy making back-room
deals, rewriting the rules, protesting each other's actions and
generally dragging the reputation of the event through the mire
to do anything of substance about that shortcoming. Conner's
original boat, Stars and Stripes, was clearly slower than Young
America and the third American yacht, Mighty Mary, but his
team's superior sailing overcame that obstacle, and Conner
semimiraculously earned the right to defend. At that point he
exercised what passes these days for Yankee ingenuity. He
jettisoned Stars and Stripes, replacing it with Young America --
a sleight of hand that proved the final straw for Blake and the
Kiwis. ``If we are fortunate enough to win this event, we're
going to clean it up,'' Blake vowed on the eve of the first
race. ``We're going to make an event where people will want
their sons and daughters to get involved with sailing because
they see they can have a fair sporting chance of winning the
America's Cup. We're not going to have rules that are different
for one side than the other.''

That sentiment alone was reason for many, perhaps most,
Americans to root for the Kiwis. DENNIS CONNER WAIVES THE RULES,
BUT NEW ZEALAND RULES THE WAVES read a T-shirt that became
ubiquitous along the waterfront of Shelter Island. At the
America's Cup Ball the cheers for the Kiwi crew were twice as
loud as those for Team Dennis Conner. None of that went to the
New Zealanders' heads. Mindful of Conner's well-deserved
reputation for dragging his great belly off the mat, the Kiwis
barely cracked a smile until the fifth race had been won.

In March of 2000 the Kiwis will defend the Cup in Auckland. The
New York Yacht Club will be the challenger of record, and
Chicago, Osterville, Mass., and San Francisco are considered
potential syndicate bases. But San Diego realistically is not.
After three Cups marred by a renegade challenge, bankruptcy,
boorish behavior and boring races, that city and the Cup have
proved to be a bad match.

As Black Magic was being towed to the San Diego Yacht Club so
its hands could accept plaudits for their victory, a cacophony
of air horns sounded throughout the America's Cup harbor just
off Shelter Island. On and on it continued, far into the night,
more deafening and insistent than the celebration three years
earlier, when the Cup was successfully defended by eccentric
billionaire Bill Koch. Everyone, even Conner, seemed to
recognize that it was time for a change of venue. ``I think the
people of New Zealand will breathe some fresh air into the
event,'' the defeated CEO said. Fresh air and fresh faces are
two things the Auld Mug could use.

COLOR PHOTO: DAN NERNEY/DOT PICTURES [New Zealand Kiwi team members aboard their yacht, Black Magic]

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER At every rounding mark in every race, Black Magic (bottom) left Conner's Young America in its wake. [Dennis Conner's yacht Young America following New Zealand Kiwi's yacht Black Magic during America's Cup race]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: GUY GURNEY The Kiwis celebrated victory with typical team unity, while Conner looked very much the used-up CEO. [New Zealand Kiwi team members emptying bottles of champagne onto heads of other Kiwi team members; Dennis Conner]