If you can imagine, for a moment, how Dennis Conner must have felt two and a half years ago, it will help you to understand one of the greatest ironies in sporting history. On September 26, 1983, Conner led a team that lost the America's Cup to a sailboat crew from Australia, and by all accounts this must have been for Conner something very much like dying. By then, the cup had become more than simply the most prestigious award in international yacht racing. Conner's loss ended a 132-year American winning streak.
The loss was the stuff of legend; it was supposed to have resulted in Conner's head being mounted on the wall above the spot in the New York Yacht Club where for so many years the cup had rested. The most easygoing of men would have been depressed by such a loss.
And Conner was a man obsessed by the cup, a man who long ago devoted his life — indeed who seemed to have sold his very soul — for the glory of defending the cup.
He had successfully defended it in 1980, and that campaign, and the one that followed, had elevated the San Diego drapery maker to the pinnacle of international high society. Those campaigns had demanded, and received, from Conner more discipline and hard work and tenacity than most humans can conceive of. When he lost the America’s Cup, this big, hard man wept openly.
Later he could not bear to attend the ceremony in which the cup was formally handed over to the Australians but instead flew home wrapped in grief.
The colossal irony is this: had Conner known then the consequences of his loss of the America’s Cup, he might have danced a sailor’s jig for joy.
Conner couldn’t have known this (nobody did), but when America lost the America’s Cup, the traditional event — a rich man’s diversion primarily of interest to boating enthusiasts — died. In its ashes, however, were planted the seeds of a monster event. Today eighteen teams from seven different countries are training to compete in the America’s Cup races to be held off western Australia next January.
More amazing than the number of contenders is the amount of money they’re spending. Whereas Conner’s team spent about four million dollars the last time, this time all six of the American groups in contention have budgets ranging from seven to sixteen million dollars apiece. All told, Americans will probably spend at least $60 million trying to win back the trophy, more money than this country has spent fighting some wars.
In the minds of the contenders and in the promotional material of their fundraisers, this is war, patriotic war, a national crusade. And who should be leading the charge for the San Diego Yacht Club’s effort, one of the biggest, most expensive, most ambitious efforts in the nation, the one currently ranked most likely to wrest back the cup? Who but Dennis Conner, risen phoenix-like.
Conner has never publicly described how he felt after his defeat, but then, he is not given to baring his soul in public. He is a guarded man, a complicated man, capable of warming people with a boyish charm and equally good at freezing out strangers, rudely, ruthlessly. Commonly described in press reports as despotic and aloof, Conner at the same time has been married for many years to a vivacious, down-to-earth schoolteacher with whom he has two teen-age daughters. He has confessed to a lifelong inferiority complex — yet he also proved himself a master at chumming with the clubbiest of the clubby, those members of the New York Yacht Club who ran the America’s Cup races through the 1983 defeat.
Two weeks ago Conner was looking bronzed and fit when he appeared before a standing-room-only crowd at the San Diego Yacht Club. He had flown in from Hawaii, where he and his team have been sailing a number of boats almost daily since October. They chose to train in Hawaii because certain waters around the islands are as turbulent and ferociously wind-blown as the Indian Ocean off Perth, where the next America’s Cup races will be held. (The competition will begin with all of the non-Australian teams participating in a series of races to decide who will be the official challenger for the cup, while the Australians race against each other to select the official defender. Finally, the one challenger will race against the Australian defender in the match beginning next January 31.)
“It’s a lot tougher in those big (Hawaiian] waves and strong winds than we expected,” Conner said. Learning how to keep crew members from being swept overboard, deciding what to do when they suffer serious injuries, was all part of the training. “The rules say you have to finish the race with the same number of people that you start with,” Conner said. “So even if a guy breaks his arm, you can’t get rid of him; you’ve got to carry him around for the rest of the race.” Many people in the audience tittered. Conner’s voice is high-pitched, and at times he projects an air of such wholesomeness that he seems like an overgrown choir boy. To hear him talk so utterly dispassionately, so callously, about his unwillingness to let his men’s serious injuries get in the way of victory sounded to some of his listeners like a joke.
Others weren’t so sure. This is, after all, a man who has made much out of the fact that his personal motto is “Give yourself no excuse to lose.” Yet in 1983 he lost. He lost to a white boat from Perth called Australia II. Rumors about this boat had circulated long before the elimination races for the cup began in the summer of 1983. Much of that scuttlebutt had concentrated on the Australian boat’s keel; instead of the graceful fin traditionally incorporated by the twelve-meter boats that sail in America’s Cup races, the Australian twelve-meter’s keel sprouted a pair of airplane-style wings at its bottommost edge.
At first no one, including Dennis Conner, worried much about this. Radical new ideas in boat design can backfire in a big way, and Conner has been close to several such explosions. Most dramatic was the example of Mariner, a contender in the 1974 America’s Cup races, which was designed with the aid of computers and extensively tested in a model tank. All that fancy design work yielded an ugly-looking boat with an extremely oddshaped stern. The tests said this shape would make her go faster, yet in actual competition Mariner was slow. In his 1978 book Conner wrote, “I have always felt that people think too much about breakthroughs in sailboats. They should be thinking about doing the very best they can with the same boats and gear that everyone else has.”
That belief didn’t completely stop Conner from thinking about boat design as he prepared for the 1983 races. In fact Conner’s group spent at least : $600,000 building two radically new boats for that campaign, Magic and Spirit of America. Although their lines were unconventional, both of those boats were designed by traditional methods, essentially by having a designer sit down with pen and paper and call upon his experience and knowledge of hydrodynamics to decide what the shape of the boat should be. (The choices are somewhat limited by rules that govern the twelve-meters’ measurements.) And both Spirit and Magic were failures; sailed against the 1980 winner Freedom, they were much slower. Conner finally wound up commissioning a third new twelve-meter christened Liberty, which differed very little in design from Freedom.
So no one worried much about the Australians, until Australia II began clobbering the six other foreign crews who had made their way in 1983 to Newport, Rhode Island. By the time Australia II was selected as the official challenger, concern about the Aussies’ secret weapon had provoked the New York Yacht Club members into all but rewriting the rules on the spot to find some way to disqualify the increasingly frightening foreign menace. More judicious heads finally prevailed, and when Conner faced off against a young skipper from Melbourne named John Bertrand in the best-of-seven series, the menace became reality. Conner’s boat took three of the races, but Australia II won four.
At the press conference after the last race, Conner, barely in control, reaffirmed his personal motto. “Today, Australia II was just a better boat. And they beat us. And we have no excuses,” he declared. In the eyes of the press, however, in the eyes of the world, Conner — America — had one whopper of an excuse, an excuse that has lived past the defeat of 1983 to animate all the millions of dollars frantically being spent in 1986. That excuse, in short, is that the Australians’ design was a technological breakthrough. This was an excuse Americans could love; it saved face. If the world had judged that the America’s Cup was lost because the home team was lazy or ill trained, how many people would contribute money to win the cup back the next time around? But if the foxy Australians had beaten us at our own game — a technology race! — why, those were fighting words, words that struck a resonant emotional chord.
And was it true? Did the Australians defeat Conner and his crew because Australia II gave them an unbeatable edge? Immediately, it should be said this is a difficult question to answer. To state with certainty why one sailboat on any given day sails faster than another is not, say, like discerning why one swimmer beat another in a heat. The winning swimmer might have trained longer, or might have taken drugs, or might have better refined his technique. But the winning sailboat might attribute its win to a half-dozen terribly complex factors: better crew work, better sails, better tactical decisions, a superior boat, more favorable weather conditions, a better skipper.
Some say that Dennis Conner lost the America’s Cup for reasons besides his opponent’s boat. One who says so is Tom Blackaller, the aggressive, outspoken San Franciscan who skippered Defender and lost out to Conner in a bid to defend the cup in 1983. Writing in Sports Illustrated magazine six months after Conner’s defeat, Blackaller conceded that “the U.S. was outdesigned by [the Australians]. No doubt about it, Australia II was the better boat.” But Blackaller also laid blame on other important factors, including the New York Yacht Club’s America’s Cup Committee (for blatantly favoring Conner and thus reducing the competitiveness that might have better served the defense effort) and on Conner for refusing to practice by sailing against the other two American teams vying for the chance to defend the cup. (Australia II, in contrast, sailed exhaustively against its Australian rival, Challenge 12.) Blackaller complained, “Conner sat there, thinking he knew everything, that he had all the knowledge and we [the San Francisco team] had none, and that all that would happen if we raced was that we would learn from him, thereby improving our chances of beating him and decreasing his of beating us.... Some people... guard all their little secrets, but I think it’s wrong, dead wrong.”
A still more stinging analysis surfaced from Conner’s Australian counterpart, skipper John Bertrand, in his rousing book published last year. Born to Win. Although Bertrand and his crew members during the races had actively encouraged the view that they were winning because theirs was a “Superboat,” Bertrand in the book asserts this was a deliberate ploy intended to psych out the opposition, to psych out Conner. “I believe Dennis had all kinds of hang-ups,” Bertrand wrote. “He is just about as sensitive as anyone to those twin allies of the match racers — boatspeed and bullshit.... Can you imagine what a man like that must have thought as he read daily in the papers that Australia II was the fastest 12-meter in history and that she had a keel that he not only was unable to match but also was unable even to see?” (The Australians zealously hid their keel from public view.)
Bertrand concedes that his boat was faster than Conner’s Liberty, about ten percent faster by his estimate. “Half of this ten percent involved our often superior sails and our ability to know when to use them. The other half of our ten percent involved the keel, but a large part of that was its mystique, its capacity to torment the Americans.” What counted as much as the keel or the sails, Bertrand contends, was the level of teamwork and spirit achieved by him and his men. “We outworked them and we outsailed them. Our morale was better, our team spirit was better.... I think Dennis, being essentially an autocrat, did not get the same help and feedback that I received from my boys.... Dennis places himself above other men, and many of the Liberty crew’s decisions were made on his whim.... All through that summer, Dennis, as always, stayed apart from his crew socially, and I believe that hurt him. My boys would have died for me, but I do not think his would have done so for him.”
Malin Burnham knows the Australian skipper, has read his account of the 1983 race, and his opinion of the book is that of an insider. Burnham has been heavily involved with America’s Cup racing since 1977, when he skippered the boat Enterprise in the trials, and in both 1980 and 1983, Burnham teamed up with Conner as Conner’s back-up skipper. This year Burnham is president of the Sail America Foundation for International Understanding, the San Diego-based, nonprofit corporation set up to support Conner’s campaign to win back the cup. (Burnham wears the business hat as comfortably as the sailing cap; president of John Burnham and Co., a local real estate, mortgage brokerage,and insurance firm, he is also very active in Republican politics and civic affairs.) Burnham thinks the Australian skipper’s book is excellent, but the contention that Australia II was not much faster than Liberty was “hogwash,” Burnham says bluntly. “I think John [Bertrand] gave himself a little more credit than maybe he individually deserved. And he gave the boat consequently less credit than we think the boat deserves. And that’s only natural for somebody writing an autobiography.” But the proof that the Australian’s boat design was superior, Burnham says, leaps forth in the fact that “every twelve-meter that has been designed since the ’83 cup race has the Australian-type keel. Now, if that is not a faster concept, why is everybody, not most, but every single twelve-meter design since then, gone to that style keel? Obviously it’s faster, obviously it was a breakthrough, and obviously it was an advantage.”
Burnham says when Conner had recovered enough from the trauma of losing the cup to begin thinking forward to 1987, Conner’s opinion of boat design had forever changed. One of Conner’s most widely acknowledged strengths is his ability to learn from others, to adopt their innovations and subsequently go them one better. Nowhere can you see this more clearly than in the current design effort of Conner’s group. The basic premise is this: the reason the Australians were able to design a significantly faster boat is because they developed better tools to do that job. People had tried to use computers and model boat testing before (and sometimes failed, as with Mariner). But the Aussies had made the tools work. And the basic premise of Conner’s team has been that it could then use those improved tools and, indeed, could make them much better still.
To coordinate this effort, Conner tapped the talents of no fewer than three major naval architects, asking them to work together as a team, an unusual move in the history of America’s Cup yachts. One reason such a team design is rare is illustrated by what happened when Conner tried it once before with the design of Liberty in 1983; that effort was tom apart by jealous rivalry. This time, however, the San Diego designer on Conner’s team. Point Loma-based Bruce Nelson, says right from the start he and the other two designers were able to work together harmoniously because they shared similar concepts. Nelson asserts that a group effort also made sense because the design program Conner wanted to undertake was so extensive.
When Conner agreed at the beginning of 1984 to head up a San Diego-based effort to win back the America’s Cup, he couldn’t just waltz down to the nearest software store and pick up a computer program for twelve-meter design. Such a program would have to be developed. At first Conner and Burnham assumed that Sail America’s three naval architects together would shoulder the brunt of that task, but that vision quickly expanded when Conner and Burnham talked to Robert Beyster, president of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), the La Jolla-based high-tech research and development Defense Department contractor. Beyster is an avid yachtsman, so he cared about winning back the America’s Cup, and he convinced Conner and Burnham that a broad-based effort involving experts beyond just the naval architects would be necessary to do justice to the task at hand. Beyster eventually agreed to put his think tank’s resources at the Sail America Foundation’s disposal, with the San Diego syndicate paying for part of the services and receiving others as a donation.
Beyster’s proposal came at the beginning of 1984, and since then SAIC has had one scientist working full time, plus another six or seven SAIC staff members contributing part of their time to helping Conner’s three naval architects build a faster sailboat. They have been joined by aerodynamicists at Grumman Aerospace in New York. The design process evolved by this team has included a number of phases. First the SAIC scientists refined certain existing computer programs, adapting them to analyze the resistance forces the boat bodies encounter when moving through the water. At the same time, the Grumman scientists developed programs for analyzing the winged keels. Then, as the naval architects began to come up with specific designs, both the SAIC and Grumman scientists subjected those designs to the computer analysis tools and reported back to the naval architects with suggestions for improvement. Conner’s team was lacking this type of tool in the 1983 campaign, and Malin Burnham says they could only look at four or five basic design alternatives — because “looking at” one meant building the boat, taking it out on the water, and sailing it against a comparable boat. But with the computer, Burnham says, “We have probably looked at [about] 200 different design alternatives. This was physically impossible to do before. Now we have had more choices. It doesn’t guarantee that we’ll pick the right one, but we certainly have a better chance of doing so.”
As promising alternatives began to emerge, part of the design work moved in another direction: testing physical models of the most promising hull and keel shapes. This work has occurred at a nondescript facility in Escondido called the Offshore Technology Corporation (OTC). Founded in 1968 to test structures for the offshore oil industry, the company in the last two years has become involved with America’s Cup racing in a big way. The second largest model ship testing facility in the nation, the Escondido firm noted with interest the fact that a model of Australia II was tested extensively in Holland while that design was undergoing development. By comparison, none of the three American syndicates vying to defend the America’s Cup in 1983 did any significant model testing. So after the cup was lost, OTC sent out letters to all of the American yacht designers who might be involved with designing the next America’s Cup contenders. As a result, the two Canadian syndicates and four of the six American syndicates that would like to win the cup in 1987 have been actively testing models of their boat designs here.
Andy Dovell, an engaging young man with a master’s degree in naval architecture and offshore engineering, has been directing the testing for OTC. One day recently Dovell led the way to the OTC “basin,” where all the twelve-meter tests have been done. Little different in appearance from a huge swimming pool, one 300 feet long, fifty feet wide, and fifteen feet deep, the basin is enclosed by a warehouse, and Dovell says when one of the super-secret twelve-meter models is being tested, all the doors are closed. Only he and two technicians witness the testing, and they all sign “confidentiality agreements” vowing they will disclose nothing about one syndicate to any other. “All the rigid security measures have been a pain in the tail for us,” Dovell says frankly. “But of course we’re willing to take the steps. We hide their [model] boats.... They’re under wraps when we move them around.”
Dovell is talking about quite a bit of wrapping; these models aren’t the type of thing one might see floating in the reflecting pond in Balboa Park. They’re built to one-third scale, and since twelve-meter yachts are roughly sixty-five feet long, that means the models measure about twenty-two feet, bigger than many of the vessels owned by small-boat sailors. Of course, the models are merely empty wooden shells. “You’re only reproducing the geometry,” Dovell explains. They have to be built as big as they are to get accurate test results. In fact, Dovell says a big reason Mariner was such a failure in 1974 was that the model of it that underwent testing was only one-thirteenth scale, a size too small to experience certain hydrodynamic effects. “And they scaled it up not really thinking about the problems of [those effects],” Dovell says. “The accuracy goes up with the scale, so as you get closer to full size, your results get better and better, mostly because you get closer to the way the viscosity of the water behaves.” It turns out that “the extrapolation from one-third scale to full scale is very simple, very well understood. There’s not a lot of ground for making mistakes.”
To test a twelve-meter design, the wooden boat model of it is bolted onto the center of a metal “carriage” that spans the width of the basin. The two ends of this carriage slide along metal tracks that run the length of both sides of the basin; the boat model can thus be hauled the length of the facility at up to twenty feet per second (a speed that extrapolates to about twelve knots, faster than any twelve-meter actually sails). A full evaluation of a model typically would involve about eighty runs down the basin, some with the boat upright, others with the boat heeled over and moving through the water at various angles. Throughout all the runs, gauges attached to the model are measuring and recording all the various forces being experienced by the structure. “Whatever the boat wants to do, we’re sensing it through the gauges,” Dovell says.
Dovell points out that the basin is equipped with a wave-generating machine that can reproduce with great accuracy the sea conditions to be found off Perth, both the swells and chop. Despite that capacity, however, most of the model testing is done in still water, he says. “People always get in here and say, ‘Geez, can we make it go in waves sort of the way it’s going to go upwind at Perth?’ But that’s really not what we want to do. [The designer] needs to know what are the drag properties of the boat, what are the lift properties of the boat. What are the numbers? Why is it fast?” Otherwise, Dovell says, “You could have a really good keel design where you were getting tremendous lift off of it, and a horrible canoe body, and test it in waves and come up with velocity predictions that say the boat is absolutely mediocre. But in fact you’ve got a real good keel on your hands. All you have to do is change the body. But to find that out you have to play the game in flat water.”
As the final major step in the design process, Conner’s naval architects have been feeding the mathematical information yielded by the model tests into a “velocity prediction program.” At a level of sophistication never achieved before, this program has been able to foretell how fast various twelve-meter designs will sail through the water. Such velocity prediction programs aren’t new, but early, crude versions of them exaggerated some forces and weren’t sensitive enough to others — a problem that could result in a yacht behaving in a way quite unlike what the computer said it would do. The trick is to come up with the right formulas and equations to enable the computer to analyze the forces accurately. For the Sail America design effort, the SAIC scientists developed an improved program, one that foretells not only how fast the various twelve-meter designs sail through calm water but also in a wide range of wave and wind conditions.
After about nine months of all of this design work, Sail America ordered its first new yacht of the campaign in the spring of last year. It was christened Stars and Stripes ’85 last August 17. Conner began sailing the boat against Liberty off Hawaii in October, and he quickly received the most impressive confirmation of the power of the new design tools to that date. The new boat was so clearly superior to Liberty (the boat that lost to the Australians) that the comparison tests were canceled within days, sending Liberty into retirement.
Sail America’s high-tech boat development program hasn’t stopped there. Working on the assumption that more time and effort could yield even more improvement. Sail America launched a second new twelve-meter, Stars and Stripes '86 this past January 3. That boat reportedly tested so well that Conner seriously considered not building any other boats. He apparently changed his mind when his team came up with yet another design the boat designers have predicted will be up to two minutes faster than anything else they have. Construction on it is proceeding in New York at breakneck speed, and it should be finished by June.
By that point, the Sail America Foundation will have already spent a staggering quantity of money. “The winged keel just opened up a Pandora’s box in the technology area,” says Sandy Purdon, the local foundation’s chief administrator. All that computer time, all the labor of those high-priced scientists, all the model building and tank testing involve several orders of magnitude more money than did the old-fashioned yacht designer with his pencil and paper. To build just one of those one-third-scale-model twelve-meters costs between $15,000 and $20,000; to rent the Escondido tank for twelve hours (the time typically required to test a model thoroughly) costs another $12,000. And the San Diego syndicate has tank-tested about nine different model configurations so far. To put the escalation of costs in perspective. Purdon points out that the design of Freedom, the boat with which Dennis Conner successfully defended the America’s Cup in 1980, cost $125,000. By the time Stars and Stripes ’87 slides into the water this summer, the San Diego syndicate will have already spent about three million dollars on the design effort alone. The bill for building and outfitting all the new boats is expected to come to another five million dollars or so.
The boats themselves constitute the biggest part of the syndicates’ budgets, but the 1987 America’s Cup racing also is going to be a lot more expensive simply because of its location in Perth. “The economics of scale just go through the roof when you go halfway around the world,” Purdon says. The San Diego group has budgeted another three million dollars for operations — the costs of acquiring crew support facilities in Hawaii and Perth, of sweeping them for electronic bugs, of moving all the boats and people around, and so forth. (One thing that doesn’t cost much is the crew — they get seventy-five dollars per week along with room and board, and Conner is not paid at all.) To raise those millions of dollars in itself costs a great deal of money — more than three million dollars, by the San Diego group’s calculations.
“When Dennis and Malin and I sat down two years ago, we knew we’d have to go into a whole different arena to raise that kind of money,” Purdon says. A neighbor of Conner’s and an active member of the yacht club, Purdon effectively shut down his Del Mar real estate business in order to join the 1987 campaign staff as its fall-time administrator. He says for the 1983 races, when the whole campaign cost about four million dollars, the majority of that money came from individuals. “Now, with a budget of about $15 million dollars, we figure we’re probably only going to get about four million dollars from individuals.” The rest is coming from a spectrum of sources that might make an earlier, less commercial, generation of sailors blush.
Headquarters for the San Diego group’s ftindraising is the First National Bank Building downtown at Columbia and A, adorned by the largest private flag ever flown in San Diego (a version of the Stars and Stripes team’s private insignia). A staff of seven full-time employees works in the comfortable sixth-floor offices — and they boast enthusiastically that their electronic “telemail” network every day delivers messages to about thirty other staff members of the Sail America team spread around the globe (everyone from the boat designers to the group’s attorney to the far-flung scientists). An almost palpable spirit of excitement crackles in these quarters, fanned by the kinds of donations coming in daily. One day recently, for example, PSA called and informed the organization that through next February the airline would provide free tickets anywhere within the PSA system. Boxes of donated Apple computers are stacked high. The staff talks over a long-distance telephone service donated by Starnet.
What a change this slick, bustling organization is from the scene three, years ago at the San Diego Yacht Club. Conner’s entire organization was based at the club then, and at the time veteran team members marveled at how organized, even bureaucratic, the 1983 campaign seemed (compared to the 1980 races, when back-up crew members sometimes were rounded up from the ranks of the waiters at the Chart House restaurant on Shelter Island Drive). But three years ago a single office manager, working out of cramped quarters in the club’s junior clubhouse, frantically juggled everything from reporter’s calls to making sure enough sandwiches had been prepared by volunteers to feed the crew members daily. One of the syndicate’s leaders handled the part-time job of fundraising, and “he did it on the back of his hand,” says Purdon.
This time around,the Sail America staff can lead reporters to a top-of-the-line (donated) video player and pop in a tape that reports on Conner and his team in Hawaii. This is no home movie; it plays a bit like a commercial for a network television miniseries, fast paced, orchestrated with driving, pulsing music. Its announcer tells in an urgent voice how Conner’s crew members sleep on mats in unfurnished rooms and dine outdoors on picnic tables; how they’re up for 6:00 a.m. aerobics, then on to weightlifting in a room with no pictures, no air conditioning, no music, no fun. (“Just the weights and our hurting,” one of the young sailors says grimly, proudly, “so that when the competition comes, we can hurt in the competition”) The sophistication of the video matches a full-color, twelve-page brochure that is fancier than all but the most opulent corporate annual reports. It would have cost $70,000 to print 10,000 copies of that brochure — but the printing was donated by another Conner supporter.
The contents of the brochure clearly express the strategy Conner’s group has chosen to raise the kind of money it needs. “The America’s Cup is more than just a yacht race,” the booklet states. “It is an international battlefield where a nation’s reputation is put on the line.” This “showdown of the century ... requires nearly the same financial and logistical support of a military invasion force.” Charles Ward, Sail America’s marketing and public relations director, expands on this. “Our whole concept is that this is a case of American patriotism. It is: ‘America Can Win With America’s Best.’ The sailing community is important to our marketing, but in order to generate the interest and to generate the financial backing, the event must be for every man ... and we find that people who are not sailors are just as mad when they watch commercials about ‘their’ America’s Cup being Down Under.” The broad strategy is to sell patriotism, but Sail America’s specific tactics include just about everything in the fat book of modern promotional tricks. The fundraisers have concocted ten different categories with ascending benefits for individual contributors. Give between thirty-five and a hundred dollars and you’re a ‘‘Stars & Stripes Team Member” who gets a decal, a bumper sticker, a newsletter, and your name inscribed in “the official Stars & Stripes logbook.” Kick in between $500 and $1000 and you get all of the above plus a pin/tie tack and a “certificate of appreciation.” This goes on up all the way to “Stars & Stripes Honorary Skippers” ($350,000 contributors), whose special benefits include travel and accommodations for two people to both Hawaii and Australia, “idea exchange meetings” with Conner and his crew, and “special dinners” with the team (several people have contributed at this level so far).
“This is the first America’s Cup campaign with MasterCard and Visa,” PR director Ward says happily. The donations also are being solicited with direct-mail flyers and special events and national ads (which publications like Fortune have been running for free). In a joint venture with Atlas Travel of San Diego, Sail America has the biggest program of travel arrangements being sold in the United States to people who want to visit Australia during the cup races. Atlas has reserved the airplane seats and put deposits on the hotel rooms, and Sail America is getting a small piece of the action on each of them sold. “We both retail [the tickets and hotel rooms] and wholesale ’em,” Ward says.
Working with another San Diego firm whose main business is licensing the Hang Ten sporting goods logo around the world, Sail America also is signing up a head-spinning array of manufacturers whose products will be bearing the local syndicate’s registered trademark. We will see “America’s Cup Challenge ’87" T-shirts, sweaters, sunglasses, cups, binoculars, knives, beverage insulators, tote bags, posters, model boats, coins, wines — even house plants. Marketing experts call this “cause-related” marketing, which operates on the theory that by tapping the emotions of the consumer with a humanistic cause, the seller adds an almost moralistic benefit to the product and thus can sell more. The various manufacturers pay the San Diego licensing company six percent of the wholesale cost of all products shipped, and the licensing company turns around and gives half to Sail America. It may not bring in the big bucks, but “any licensing program also does a great deal for your awareness,” Purdon says.
The really big money comes from the corporate “sponsors,” by far the most important funding source for all the syndicates vying to bring the cup back home. Already, Sail America has won contributions from dozens of different corporations, including more than half a million dollars each from Ford Motor, Allied/Signal, and Atlas Hotels. To help woo such companies, the local organization hired Westport Marketing Group of Connecticut, the firm that raised the first $100 million to renovate the Statue of Liberty. Ward explains, “They have experts in making a corporation’s sponsorship become a marketing advantage for the company. In other words, you may put up a million, but you get a million back.”
Tlo get the cup back, Americans are racing on the water, racing for money, and, very important. Ward says, racing for a certain public image — the image of the winner. It’s very simple. The business contributors will earn more if they back the winner. So the question of who will actually win the America’s Cup next February becomes crucial.
At the moment there are eighteen possibilities. They break down into three major groups: the Australians, the Americans, and the other foreign challengers. After its win last time, Australia exploded both with national pride and newly created economic opportunities; an estimated half of the country’s sixteen million people have seen the trophy, which currently rests within a specially built room in the Royal Perth Yacht Club. Not surprising, then, is the fact that some four separate Australian syndicates have set their sights on defending the cup, and at least two of the four are judged to be formidable. (Businessman Alan Bond’s syndicate, which won the cup last time, has developed a new boat, Australia III, which conclusively walloped fourteen twelve-meters — ineluding Australia I — in the world championship twelve-meter races this past February in Perth.)
The non-Australian countries set to show up in Perth for elimination trials beginning this fall are Canada, France, Italy, Great Britain, New Zealand, and the U.S. While close observers say several extremely fast boats will be sailed by them — most particularly by the New Zealanders — the American competitors currently are considered the likeliest candidates to win the challenger’s role. Among the six American syndicates, three are considered long shots: the “Courageous” syndicate, sponsored by the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club and funded primarily by aviation engineer and multimillionaire Leonard Greene; the “Eagle Challenge,” sponsored by the Newport (California) Harbor Yacht Club, which just christened its first new boat April 6; and a “Heart of America” team sponsored by the Chicago Yacht Club. (To enter, the Midwesterners first had to win a ruling from the New York State Supreme Court that Lake Michigan is an “arm of the sea”)
That leaves three remaining American groups, each using the talents of one of the three American skippers who sailed in 1983. San Francisco’s effort boasts the same sort of high-tech wizardry Conner has been able to command, plus good success at rounding up such corporate sponsors as Coca-Cola and Pacific Telesis. Yet the “St. Francis Golden Gate Challenge” to date has launched only one boat, and it reportedly has been beset by troubles. The other American syndicate besides Conner’s is the one sponsored by the New York Yacht Club, and in the public relations wars, this group was the early leader.
It was the first (non-Australian) yacht club to journey to Perth (in March of 1984, two months ahead of Sandy Purdon’s arrival there to scout real estate for the San Diego group). The New Yorkers thus got the first choice of waterfront facilities and had a newly designed twelve-meter on its way to practice there just one year after the final gun had boomed to signal the Australians’ victory. (Conner’s first new boat wasn’t christened for an additional ten months.) The New Yorkers were the first to corral such corporate giants as General Motors, Amway, and Newsweek. And among the individual heavies lending their moral support to this “America II” syndicate were people like Alexander Haig, Jr., William F. Buckley, Jr., and Walter Cronkite.
They were number one while “we were very low-key,” says Sail America’s Purdon. Only this past September did the San Diego group begin to work aggressively at changing that image. Settled into his base in Hawaii, Conner graciously courted journalists. Just as the reporters began to hear of the San Diego group’s impressive accomplishments, a sour note sounded in the New York camp. John Kolius, the syndicate’s fair-haired young captain (who had impressed the international news media when he skippered Courageous in 1983) suddenly announced his resignation, citing “syndicate politics.” Although Kolius reversed his decision twenty-four days later and rejoined the New Yorkers’ team, the episode hinted at the kind of internal dissension that doesn’t bode well for a sport where teamwork is crucial. A more recent blow to the New Yorkers’ standing was delivered in February, when America II finished only third in the world twelve-meter championships. (Conner didn’t compete in that event, arguing that going to and from it would take too much time from his training schedule and would “show everyone what our cards were” with few benefits.)
In the battle for media attention, “we’ve come from being number two to being number one,” Purdon says. That judgment now is widespread. Perhaps one of the most impressive pieces of evidence supporting it appeared in this month’s Yachting. The magazine reported the results of a panel that met in Melbourne late in January to set the odds of winning the cup for each of the eighteen syndicates. The panel, which was dominated by Australians (including former Australia II skipper John Bertrand), judged each syndicate on eight factors ranging from computer analysis and tuning facilities to motivation. Alan Bond’s Australia III came out on top with 70.8 points — but the San Diego Yacht Club’s Stars and Stripes came in just four-tenths of a point behind (with 70.4). The New York Yacht Club’s America II, in third place overall, got only 66.8 points, and this judging took place before the New Zealanders beat the New Yorkers in the world championships in February.
So it seems as if Dennis Conner stands not just a chance, but a very good chance, of carrying the heavy Victorian silver mug back to San Diego next February. If he wins, the America’s Cup will become the property of the San Diego Yacht Club, where it could remain for another 132 years. And even if other American skippers from other cities successfully defended it in future years, the America’s Cup would stay here (just as it stayed in New York when Conner won the 1980 races representing the New York Yacht Club).
Sail America’s Charles Ward says that San Diego would undoubtedly benefit economically from the cup’s presence here. It would become a big tourist attraction, “and we may rotate it around. For example, we might have it at the zoo for a while, then move it somewhere else. Then there’s the whole promotional end of it. It’s going to be a multimillion-dollar business doing the films alone!”
Ward is talking about how the cup will benefit this city even if the America’s Cup races aren’t held off San Diego. And they may not be, the Sail America group is careful to say. In fact, Malin Burnham points out at least one factor that would seem to argue strongly against holding the cup races here: the fact that San Diego has more docile, less challenging sailing conditions than do other places. “In San Diego year round, the wind is in the lower range. The other thing is that maybe ninety percent of the time, the wind blows out of exactly the same direction, from the west to the east. Now, if you have steady conditions and you have light air, those two things say that you don’t leave much to chance. In Newport, Rhode Island, the wind will change direction hourly, and you have to compensate for that. San Diego winds never change hourly.”
This drawback to San Diego sailing could lead to other pressures against holding the races here, Burnham continues. “For instance if CBS came up to us and said, ‘If you will hold this defense back in Newport, Rhode Island, where we have all the tradition, or in San Francisco Bay where you could have people lining the hills, we will give you $30 million for the sponsorship rights. But if you hold it in San Diego, where we don’t have those things and have more docile wind and water conditions, we’ll give you $100,000,’ we’d have to think on that: $30 million, which would help with material to keep the cup in this country, versus $100,000 to pay for stamps?”
Somehow it’s still hard to imagine: native San Diegans Dennis Connor and Malin Burnham sitting down with members of the San Diego Yacht Club and the Sail America Foundation and deciding not to bring to San Diego an event that traditionally has attracted some of the most colorful and glamorous people on earth, both as spectators (Prince Andrew of Great Britain and Australian publisher Rupert Murdoch were among those in Newport in 1983) and participants (the wealthy Aga Khan, ruler of 15 million Arabs, backed one of the Italian boats in 1983 and is doing so again this time around). The glamour pales, however, beside the money that should flow into the community hosting the races. It could be more than a billion dollars, according to a Chapman College study commissioned by the Newport, California, syndicate.
For the moment, though, Conner says his only concern is winning the cup. And if he weathers all the pressures of training and fundraising and battling against ruthless competitors on the broiling Indian Ocean, and he wins not only the cup but a place in history enjoyed by no other sailor in history, the pressure of deciding where to stage the show the next time may indeed seem like kid stuff.