Photo by Robert Burroughs
Conner has brought to this corner of the yacht club a work regimen in which the hours are longer.
All is not tranquil at the San Diego Yacht Club. The appearances are deceiving. In the last few weeks, I’ve been frequenting the club and I can report that it often appears to be the most serene spot on earth, an adult Disneyland for people who like their rides in the form of racing yachts and powerboats. All yacht clubs are happy places, but the San Diego Yacht Club is this town’s most idyllic — the biggest; adorned with the greatest expanses of dark, varnished wood; landscaped with the most elaborate floral displays. Here the rich and powerful wear dungarees as often as they wear dinner jackets. People smile at each other often and sincerely.
But all is not carefree here. Off to one side of the main building, behind the Junior Clubhouse, Dennis Conner is preparing to race a sailboat. Conner, you may know, is a San Diego native, a San Diego State grad, a guy so hooked on sailing that he devotes virtually all his time to it, at the expense of the little drapery business he runs near the Sports Arena. The next time I hear some ex-New Yorker talking about how life in San Diego makes everyone lazy and unambitious. I’ll think of Conner and of what he’s doing to win the America’s Cup for the second time in a row.
Conner had grown up in a modest home about a block away from the yacht club.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Conner has brought to this corner of the yacht club a work regimen in which the hours are longer and less relenting than those in any garment district sweatshop; he’s injected a competitiveness that matches that of the most high-powered broker elbowing his way across the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Some have complained that Conner’s impact on the Cup races has been to make them too serious, too intense. For better or for worse, however, nearly everyone agrees that this new era has been ushered in singlehandedly by the San Diego drapery maker. So it was fitting that the first West Coast commissioning of a yacht vying to race for the America’s Cup should take place at Conner’s yacht club.
New Yorkers, or more specifically, members of the New York Yacht Club, were swarming all over the San Diego club for the commissioning, which took place on a Sunday morning about two months ago. It was a warm, sunny day, a break in a week-long storm. Down at the docks at least a dozen yachts were decked out with flags of various colors and each time the wind gusted, flag noise . . . flock, flock, flock . . . rose like the sound of birds taking off. One of the crafts thus festooned was the Liberty, the boat of honor, and one belonging to a class of yachts known as twelve-meters. These are sleek racing boats (roughly sixty-five feet long) which are built for just one race: the America’s Cup. So any twelve-meter christening is a rare and elegant occasion.
David Chatham: “If you like to win, you go with Dennis.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Indeed, on this day the blue jeans were few and far between. This was a day for designer dresses, high heels, and make-up, for dark blue blazers and club insignias. At the climactic moment when the aged mother of one of the biggest financial contributors to Conner’s campaign smashed the champagne bottle against the twelve-meter’s hull, sirens wailed; a fireboat in the nearby channel unleashed a glittering hundred-foot spray of water. Within moments, jacketed waiters were serving rum drinks and champagne as the jazzy opening strains of “New York, New York” issued from a band playing under a huge white tent. The music was sweetly ironic; the tacit significance of having this christening here was a subtle acknowledgment of the end of traditional New York dominance of the America’s Cup.
A significant historical fact explains, in part, how the New York Yacht Club came to play such an overwhelming role in the most important yacht race in the world. The event was first held in 1851 when an Englishman invited America to compete in a race around the Isle of Wight. This country did, and won the gaudy silver prize which eventually became known as the America’s Cup. In 1857 the cup was placed in the keeping of the New York Yacht Club, which has sponsored the twenty-four different races held over the years since then as various foreign countries have tried to wrest the cup to their shores.
Malin Burnham: "Conner was just so eager."
To date, the foreigners have always lost, one of the few things that have remained constant over the 132-year racing history. The two world wars and other disruptions made the scheduling of the races sporadic, although recently they’ve been held every three years. (This year the trials start in June and run through August, with the Cup race itself set to begin September 13.) The early races pitted boats of various sizes and weights (up to 300 tons) against one another, but by 1958 the race organizers had limited the event to the relatively inexpensive twelve-meters, with one challenger and one defender to be selected from however many hopefuls wanted those roles. That attempt to minimize the costs and time involved in mounting a Cup defense was still working reasonably well in 1974, according to Jack Sutphen.
Today Sutphen, who retired in 1979 from a thirty-year career as a New York sailmaker, is the number-two man on Conner’s racing team. In the summer of 1974, however, Sutphen was taking a break from his sailmaking to work as the tactician on a new twelve-meter named Courageous. (A racing tactician determines, while on board a competing boat, the most efficient course the skipper should follow between marker buoys.) Sutphen recalls that Courageous wasn’t even launched until the end of April, allowing for only about six weeks of practice before the mid-June start of the racing trials in Newport, Rhode Island. “And we didn’t even practice against another boat,” Sutphen says. “Our crew just sailed around in circles.”
The newest of Conner's three, Liberty, is now back in a San Diego boat yard.
Coincidentally, that month Dennis Conner also took a place on a twelve-meter crew for the first time in his sailing career. The son of a financially pinched Convair employee, Conner had grown up in a modest home about a block away from the yacht club in Point Loma. Conner lacked the money to buy his own boat until he was twenty-seven years old, but then he almost immediately began to win various national sailing honors. At some of these he had caught the attention of Ted Turner, the blustery Atlanta resident who by 1974 had been selected to skipper a new, radically designed twelve-meter named Mariner. Turner invited Conner to join him as a crew member. By May of that year, Conner thus found himself paying his own way to fly back East several times for weekend practice sessions.
The subsequent racing trails turned into an almost comic game of musical chairs. Eventually, Conner displayed such talent that the manager of Mariner replaced Ted Turner with Conner as skipper. But Mariner was slow, agonizingly slow, and Conner only commanded her helm for six races before the New York Yacht Club’s committee eliminated Mariner from the competition. Although his boat had lost, Conner had sailed so well that the management of the competing Courageous then invited Conner to join its team (which also had seen its share of personnel changes). Ultimately, Courageous sailed to victory that September (with Conner commanding the boat at the starts, and Massachusetts sailmaker Ted Hood in charge during the rest of the race) against an Australian challenger. Before that final victory, however, everyone in Newport had taken note of the performance of yet another San Diegan, a boatbuilder named Gerald Driscoll.
That same summer Driscoll commanded Intrepid, a venerable, seven-year-old, wood-hulled twelve-meter which had twice before won the America’s Cup (in 1967 and 1970). By 1974, however, technology seemed to have passed by the Intrepid; Mariner and Courageous both were made of the much lighter aluminum, and thus should have been much faster.
But Driscoll had done the unprecedented. Instead of waiting for the end of the Rhode Island winter, Driscoll had early in 1974 convened a crew here in San Diego for a January-to-April practice session. And when the races started that summer, the benefit of the extra preparation seemed dramatically evident: Driscoll and his crew not only beat Mariner handily, but also came a whisker away from winning the defender’s title instead of the sleek Courageous.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
It was a lesson that wasn’t lost upon anyone at Newport that summer, although when I asked Conner recently if Driscoll’s example inspired him to undertake the Herculean efforts which Conner subsequently has invested in America’s Cup preparations, Conner denied that. He said he’d already learned in other areas of his life that “hard work and preparation work better.” A tall, pear-shaped man with a boyishly high-pitched voice, Conner tends to answer reporters’ questions with just such unadorned generalities — when he answers them at all. I felt lucky to get ten minutes’ attention from him one morning at the yacht club. Talking to the press is “not very productive,” he states unemotionally, revealing only the faintest repugnance for wasted time and energy. He gives the impression of a man just barely holding his impatience in check.
He revealed more of his thoughts in a 1978 book he wrote on sailing, No Excuse to Lose, published by Norton. In it he confesses to a childhood inferiority complex. In addition to his family’s lack of money, he wrote, “I was not especially good looking and I never really excelled at anything. Although I won a few high school letters in track, cross-country, and basketball, I was certainly not the star of the show.” But sailboat racing was different; Conner’s touch at the helm was gifted, and he was undeterred by the lack of his own boat. He hung around the yacht club “the way some kids | hang around a pool hall," snapping up every possible chance to crew for other people; eventually he even acted as the tactician and skipper on boats whose owners enjoyed the tang of racing but lacked the talent to organize their own efforts. For years, Conner angled for an invitation to crew for a San Diego yachtsman named Ash Bown, one of the very best local racers. Conner wrote, “I would run down to the float and help with [Bown’s boat’s] docking lines and was a pest around the boat all the time.” Finally, when Conner was twenty-one Bown invited him to crew on the 1964 San Diego-to-Acapulco race, an event Conner says marked "the beginning of the big time in ocean racing for me.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Malin Burnham was along on that race. Today Burnham is president of John Burnham and Co., the local mortgage banking firm. He also has been active in Republican politics and civic affairs, but Burnham probably is best distinguished by his sailboat racing prowess. Fifteen years Conner’s senior, Burnham guesses he first met Conner when Conner was seven or eight years old. But that Acapulco race sticks out in Burnham’s memory. “The rest of the crew members and I nicknamed him the SAK, which stood for Smart-Assed Kid. He [Conner] was just so eager, and such a smartass. He was always running around the boat trying to adjust something, asking questions.”
Conner in turn formed a lasting impression of Burnham — namely, that Burnham possessed more natural sailing talent than anyone in town, including Conner. But Conner soon gained an important insight to supplement that knowledge. While drifting through San Diego State, Conner met a carpet store owner named Alan Raffee who sailed the same kind of boat (a nineteen-foot Lightning) on which Conner was crewing at the time. When the two got acquainted, Raffee offered Conner $300 a month to help out in his carpet store. The two men eventually became business partners (until 1974 when Conner sold his interest to devote himself to the America’s Cup effort). They became sailing partners, an alliance which gave Conner a new perspective on racing preparation.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
In No Excuse to Lose, Conner describes evenings spent using a microscope to examine Raffee’s boat’s bottom for pinprick holes which might require filling. “Today we know that wouldn’t make any difference, but in those days we didn’t know what made a boat go through the water, and Alan wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. Whatever it took to make us go the slightest bit faster — we had it. The best sails, the best hardware. If we had to carry a three-and-a-half-pound anchor and our anchor weighed three pounds nine ounces, Alan would take out a file and file off an ounce of galvanizing.” From both Raffee and one other similar Lightning racer, Conner claims he learned ‘ ‘how important it is not only to work hard at something but to work hard at it all the time ... I had thought all along that you could win simply by being a better sailor, but these guys did not have youth or talent or coordination, and they didn’t have a lot of friends who sailed. Yet they tried hard and did well.”
Malin Burnham points out that sailboat racing is like track and field; it includes so many different types of events that it’s hard to say that any one person is the best in the world. Moreover, in the 1960s it was impossible to tell how good Conner was because he didn’t own his own boat — not until 1970, when he finally scraped up $1700 to buy a half share in a thirty-three-foot racing boat. Equipped with it and a series of successors, Conner in the early Seventies unleashed his raging competitiveness, native talent, and mulish capacity for hard work upon a dazzling range of maritime challenges: he won the world championships with Stars (a two-man, twenty-three-foot boat) in 1971 and 1977, and he twice won the Congressional Cup, one of the most prestigious racing series in North America. He took a bronze medal in the 1976 Olympics in the twenty-two-foot Tempest class. At the other end of the yacht racing spectrum, he four times won the top-rated Southern Ocean Racing Circuit, a series of ocean-racing events in which the boats make their way from Boca Raton, Florida to Nassau, Bahamas. The string of triumphs explains how some people today argue emphatically that Conner is the best. Throughout all those other triumphs, however, he had his mind fixed on the America’s Cup.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
In fact, Conner had agreed to sail on Turner’s crew in 1974 as a coldly calculated maneuver to win a seat as an America’s Cup skipper in a subsequent race. ‘‘By being a good number-two man, you can persuade the wealthy people who come back year after year [and] finance these one-and-a-half-million-dollar yachts that you are a good, safe bet as skipper,” Conner wrote. But somehow the ploy failed in 1977. Conner was asked to sail the older Intrepid, but then the financing to support that boat fell apart and Intrepid never made it back to Newport. Another San Diegan, sailmaker Lowell North, was invited to the helm of a twelve-meter that year, a brand-new boat named Enterprise built by a New York-based group. Ironically, North’s performance failed to please the Enterprise's backers, who wound up replacing North with Malin Burnham and inviting Conner to join the team as tactician (under Burnham) late in the summer. Conner apparently sniffed a losing situation, however, and turned down the offer, nursing the hope that a better shot at the cup would materialize later.
He didn’t have to wait long. Although Burnham and the Enterprise lost in 1977 to Ted Turner (who sailed Courageous to victory over Alan Bond’s Australia), the racing syndicate that had built Enterprise wanted to try again in 1980. (This particular racing syndicate is in the form of a tax-exempt foundation run by the maritime college of New York State’s university system. Thus the college, and not any one individual, owned Enterprise and owns the other twelve-meters the foundation has built since Enterprise.) For its second try, the foundation once again reached 3000 miles across the country for a skipper, tapping Conner this time. It didn’t have to exert any pressure.
Conner says it was in July of 1978 — two full years ahead of time — that he began devoting a significant amount of time to preparing for his Cup bid. From the outset, he wanted the foundation to build a second boat, because a second boat would give Enterprise something to practice against and also might prove faster. To build a second boat, of course, meant raising more money (since twelve-meters cost about $400,000 for the hulls alone; one single mainsail can cost $15,000, a fully rigged mast, $50,000). Conner apparently quickly adapted his organizational talents to aiding the nationwide fundraising effort. He also turned his thoughts to a crew. He knew he would need at least twenty-one people besides himself to sail the two twelve-meters, and he wanted to practice with them full-time for a year and a half before the Cup races, during which time no one — including Conner — would be paid anything. (Furthermore, even victory would bring no financial rewards. In fact, a successful defender doesn’t even take possession of the cup itself, which remains in the New York Yacht Club; however, if a foreign challenger should ever win the series, the cup will move to that winner’s country.) Conner is a man who once expressed surprise at the number of sailboat racers who select their crews not for their sailing talents but for their companionship. In contrast, Conner went about the task of assembling his team with the meticulousness of a corporate recruiter. At the New York maritime college he required that interested cadets submit detailed resumes to him. At the same time, he approached complete strangers whose sailing ability he had noted in various waters; one man recalls that Conner presented him with a fifty-page application packet.
By the end of April, 1979, Conner gathered with a small corps of helpers in Newport, Rhode Island to prepare for the launching of the second boat, to be called Freedom. ‘‘It was cold and miserable,” Jack Sutphen recalls. “We didn’t have a tender [to tow the boats out of the harbor]. We’d just sail off the dock.” The group continued sailing on the East Coast until the fall, whereupon Conner loaded the boats on trailers, towed them across country, installed the East Coast crew members in homes of various San Diego Yacht Club members, and continued to sail six hours a day, seven days a week. Sutphen says despite all Conner’s care, sometimes the preparations took a more spontaneous turn. “A lot of times we wouldn’t have enough people to sail, so we’d go down to the Chart House restaurant [on Shelter Island Drive] and get five or six of the waiters. One of them wound up coming back with us to Newport that summer.”
By the time the whole team once again crossed the country, headed for the actual Cup trials, Sutphen figures Conner had worked with eighty to ninety different crew members. Together they’d logged almost 1000 hours of practice time on the water and had worked with almost a hundred different sails. In all, Conner spent about $2.2 million.
But how it paid off! Against challenger Russell Long of New York, Conner lost only three races out of twenty-nine. Against Ted Turner, the man who had invited Conner to America’s Cup racing six years earlier, the San Diegan’s team was nearly invincible. Faced with this onslaught. Turner zinged one quotable barb after another in Conner’s direction. “My men have to work for a living,” Turner snapped to Time. Conner had robbed the fun from yacht racing, Turner carped.
Today Conner retorts, “I wanted to say, ‘Sure, Ted, I’m taking the fun out. It’s no fun to lose eighteen out of nineteen races.’ ” But instead, Conner kept his mouth shut at the time, another calculated ploy. He figured saying anything would only make him look worse, given Turner’s status as a media darling. “He [Turner] was the defending champion. He knew all the press from 1977. Besides, if I had responded to him I would have been meeting him on his own battleground. Turner makes his living with words. He goes on the Mike Douglas show and makes Mike look ridiculous.” Newsweek described Conner, on the other hand, as “a world-class Captain Bligh”; Time called him “a man of few, dull, carefully chosen words.” Sports Illustrated speculated that if anyone beat him two or three races straight, Conner “might come apart.”
But that summer of 1980 no one beat Conner two races in a row. The actual contest for the cup against Alan Bond’s Australia was a little more exciting than Conner’s quest for the right to represent America — but not much. In the best-of-seven series against the Australians, Conner won the first race, but in the second race the winds dropped to a whisper, a blessing for the Australians, whose boat performed magnificently in light airs. By the end of that contest, the Australians crossed the finish line six boat lengths ahead of the American team. It marked the first occasion since 1962 that an America’s Cup series had been tied (one to one, in this case), and Conner requested a day off, hoping that the breezes would stiffen. They did, and in the last two races in the series, Freedom beat Australia by more than three minutes each time — the worst losses in the Australian boat’s history.
Amid the euphoric victory celebrations, Conner sidestepped the question of whether he would try to defend the cup again in 1983. Later, however, he admitted that before the 1980 Cup races were even concluded, the syndicate management began talking about repeating the effort. It didn't take long for Conner to announce a grandiose plan: he wanted the syndicate to sell the Enterprise and build two new twelve-meters, one of which he hoped would be faster than the Freedom. This time Conner would get an even earlier jump on crew drill by working with several of his America’s Cup teammates in a series of ocean races during the summer of 1981. Work on the two new yachts began in the fall of 1981 on the East Coast. Christened the Spirit of America and Magic, both were launched on April 17 last year. Once again Conner began practicing in Newport, Rhode Island (with Freedom and the two new twelve-meters) more than a year before the competition. By early fall of last year, Conner had determined that neither of the new boats had accomplished its goals; Freedom still was faster than both. Unruffled, Conner then persuaded the New York racing syndicate to sell Magic and build yet another new twelve-meter. Construction on it had just begun when Camp San Diego opened once again last October.
The crew members say they can’t believe how much more organized . . . even bureaucratic ... the San Diego training program is this time, compared to the 1980 effort. This time the “Freedom campaign” has a real office in back of the utilitarian Junior Clubhouse at the San Diego Yacht Club. This time a husband-wife team receives a salary from the syndicate in return for running that office and cooking dinner for the crew members five nights a week. About fifteen families from the yacht club once again have taken in out-of-town crew members as guests for the six-month training period here, but beyond that the scope of volunteers both from within the club and the larger San Diego community has expanded. There’s a team of about twenty-five women who divide up the task of making the fifty or sixty sandwiches required by the boats each day. Foodmaker Corporation is storing the lunch meat donated by a Texas yacht racing fan; the Jack Lambert Sports Center on Midway has donated free passes to all of the crew members. The list goes on.
The crew members’ day usually begins at that gym, at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. There they lift weights or play racquetball four days a week. Tuesdays and Saturdays they run a three-mile course from the yacht club around Shelter Island. Attendance is mandatory, and it’s prominently noted on a neatly lettered sign-in sheet in the campaign office. By 7:30, the group reassembles at the yacht club for breakfast, then disperses to various chores.
Some head down the dock to rig the boats for the day’s sailing; others gravitate to the forty-five-foot trailer donated to the campaign by an Oklahoma City businessman. The trailer has been converted into a full-dress workshop where the crew can custom-make almost all of the equipment used on the twelve-meters. ‘‘It just gives us one more advantage,” one crew member explains. “If something breaks during a race, it makes it easier to fix it if we made it in the first place.” And things on these boats break constantly. One stormy day when I rode along on Freedom, a device that helps tug down on the bottom edge of the mainsail suddenly burst from its fitting and hit the deck with a crash. Crew members shrugged: one more post-sailing repair job. Another day an alert crew member looked up and happened to notice a growing crack in the boom (the metal section that runs back horizontally from the mast). By the next morning it was fixed.
To minimize the number and severity of such breakdowns, Conner has devised a maintenance schedule worthy of someone who once spent his evenings looking for pinpricks in his buddy’s boat hull. Consider the winches. Each of the twelve-meters is outfitted with ten of the mechanical drums used to tighten the various ropes and wires on board. “If one of them was to break, someone could lose a finger,” comments Tod Raynor, the young man who’s in charge of all the winches on Freedom. As he talks, winch parts are spread out on a table before him. Raynor is patiently cleaning and applying grease to each one, some forty or fifty parts in all. It’s a routine that he follows with each winch at least once every week.
You can tell what Raynor’s crew position is just by looking at him. Bull-chested and beefy-armed, he’s one of the crew members assigned to the “coffee grinders” which turn the main winches. When Conner asked him to work as a crew member, Raynor, a brand-new graduate of the New York maritime academy, had just been offered a $35,000-per-year job as a maritime engineer with the International Paper Company in upstate New York. He says he considered the paper company job for about a day before turning it down. Sailing in the America’s Cup races “is just something I ’ve wanted to do since I was a little boy,’ ’ he explains. It’s a familiar sentiment among these crew members. Raynor’s would-be employer took the news with equanimity, and told him to check back in the future. “They know if you can work seven days a week for almost two years straight for no pay, getting up at 5:30 in the morning and working until who knows when — they figure you can do just about anything.”
This daily work schedule is one thing that hasn’t changed much since Conner’s first campaign. “When we started this time, Dennis said the crew would get one day a week off,’’ Jack Sutphen says. “But it just hasn’t worked that way,’ ’ he adds mildly. Instead Conner has parceled out rest days only about once every three weeks. As the recent San Diego storms raged in January and February, as the days of rain refused to clear, Conner obstinately prodded the team into the boats. A few times when the ocean was particularly wild, the twelve-meters sailed within the sheltered bay. But they sailed.
In contrast to Conner’s brooding intensity, an air of soothing calm surrounds Sutphen. Even the very faces of Conner and Sutphen seem to reflect the difference in personality between the two men. Conner’s eyes are shot with red; the wind and sun have dried and broken his lips cruelly. In contrast, the elements have worked on Sutphen’s face like a master wood carver, polishing and staining his features to a smooth brown finish. “He’s the human side of this whole thing,’’ one crew member says of Sutphen.
Yet the former sailmaker and Conner appear to complement each other perfectly. After Sutphen helped Conner win the 1980 Cup race, there was never any doubt about Sutphen’s working on the 1983 effort, and that first winter after the race, Conner urged Sutphen and his wife not to return to New York but instead to take an apartment near the San Diego Yacht Club, where Conner got Sutphen a job (organizing boat maintenance and coordinating various racing programs). Within the current campaign Sutphen wears a variety of hats. He skippers whichever boat is sailing against Conner on any given day (except on those occasions when Malin Burnham acts as a guest skipper), and he oversees the crew training. No longer does that involve hustling able-bodied deck hands from the Chart House.
Quite the contrary. For this effort Conner has had more crew members than he can possibly use. More than a dozen came from other parts of the country when the full-time training here started in the fall. In addition, six men who were members of the 1980 team have retained regular jobs elsewhere but have flown in for ten-day to two-week racing sessions every month. And seven different San Diego residents have been working on the team on a full- or part-time basis.
Consequently, everyone is jockeying against everyone else for one of the twenty positions available on either of the two boats that are about to move back to Rhode Island. But even though Conner will use both boats (as practice partners) throughout the entire summer, the most coveted jobs are obviously those on Conner’s “A” boat, the one he will decide to use in the trials. Some people, like Jim Nicholas, already know they won’t get that chance. Nicholas is a native San Diegan who runs Dimitri’s Deli in Seaport Village. When the Freedom defense moved to San Diego last fall, Nicholas, a local sailboat racing veteran, volunteered to crew whenever the team needed an extra hand, an offer which quickly turned into a four- to five-day-a-week commitment. About a month ago Conner invited the deli owner to return to Newport for the trials this summer — as a winch grinder on the “B ” team (since Conner has grinders with more seniority targeted for the “A” team). If some fates are already sealed, however, others are still in the making, a situation which has set up undercurrents of rivalry.
“Dennis is aware of what everyone’s doing — or not doing — every minute,” one A-team aspirant pronounced confidently. By the same token, everyone knows the moment Conner arrives on the yacht club premises: whenever he does, a workman hoists a red flag from the club flagpole. (This year Conner is serving as the club’s vice commodore, a status which is traditionally saluted by the flagraising nicety.) Unlike his crew members, Conner doesn’t report for duty at the yacht club at the crack of dawn. He does rise about five in the morning, but he usually spends the first few hours of the day working at the drapery factory which he started about eight years ago and which now employs a dozen and a half people. All his time devoted to the America’s Cup is volunteered; he receives no pay at all.
Conner was still at his business one recent morning when I arrived at the yacht club. In the Freedom campaign office, Robin Fuger, the hired manager, looked woebegone. He’d been fielding frantic phone calls from a U.S.A. Today reporter desperate to talk to Conner before an impending newspaper deadline. That same reporter in fact had flown out to San Diego from Washington, D.C. in order to interview Conner. Partway into the interview, however, she had made the mistake of asking Conner about the opposition he will sail against this summer. Annoyed, Conner strode away, refusing to accord the woman any more of his attention.
‘‘He doesn’t want to talk about what anyone else is doing,” Fuger warned me darkly. The U.S.A. Today reporter had flown back home, but now she was trying to complete her interview with Conner over the phone. From his office in the drapery factory, Conner had finally stated he would talk to the woman if she would call back still later. “But I don’t think he’s going to talk to her then,” Fuger half moaned, under his breath.
“It’s not that Dennis is anti-press,” one of the other leaders of the Freedom campaign later said to me. “It’s just that he’s so busy.” And the demands on Conner’s time are impressive. He’s married and has two young daughters. His wife is a friendly, high-spirited woman who teaches fourth grade at the Francis Parker School and looks young enough to pass for her thirteen-year-old’s older sister. It’s true, Judy Conner acknowledges, that “we barely see him [Conner],” although she and the girls will accompany Conner to Newport this summer. Conner’s wife adds serenely that the one-sided marriage is an arrangement that works best for her and her husband.
In addition to having a family and sailing the twelve-meters virtually every day, Conner is the person deciding the schedule for what’s to be done with them, what tests should be run when, how the crew should be rotated. Then there are the requests from outsiders wanting to ride along with the crew on the boats, pleas that pour into the Freedom office like suitors besieging a teen queen. Unquestionably, Conner rules with absolute authority on who receives permission to do so.
Understandably, when the big contributors to the campaign show up, Conner embraces them. In fact, the day of the U.S.A. Today reporter’s blitz also happened to be a day when the wealthy Oklahoma trailer-donator had flown into San Diego. And because the twelve-meters were out of the water for maintenance, Conner was fuming with impatience, pushing the crew to get the boats in the water in time to give the Oklahoman a ride. Another morning, I watched Conner show up at the yacht club with San Diego Sockers owner Bob Bell and two soccer cohorts. With the three in tow, Conner moved throughout the facilities and kept up a patter as polished and genial as any harbor tour operator’s spiel. I asked one of the crew members if Bell was a contributor. “I’m sure if he’s coming [aboard], Dennis is trying to get him involved.”
Another day, Conner chatted affably — reminiscing about the Rio de Janeiro yacht club, decrying the American welfare system — with three visiting British journalists. But to their request for a boat ride, Conner was immovable. “I don’t know how they could have thought Dennis would let them aboard, ” Jack Sutphen later muttered to me. Conner takes a dim view indeed of potential sailing spies, British or otherwise.
The concern about espionage extends through America’s Cup preparations as subtly but undeniably as the crew rivalry in the Freedom camp; sometimes it breaks out into the open. During the 1980 campaign, for example, Ted Turner at one point charged that Conner’s entire crew had sneaked aboard one night to measure Courageous, leaving chalk marks in their wake. Freedom crew members scoff, dismissing the charge as typical Turner hyperbole. And these days they also sniff that they’re the leaders, and thus don’t have to spy on their opposition. But Conner, at least, seems to take seriously the possibility of his yachting opponents stealing fresh ideas from San Diego.
At the recent christening of Liberty, no one was allowed to glimpse the innovative underside of the boat. “That kind of thing goes on all the time,” a crew member told me. “One week we’ll have a new sail which is all top secret, and the next week we ’ll have found out that it isn’t that great, so anyone can take a picture of it.” Sutphen says Conner doesn’t want to be rude. “But Dennis kind of has the attitude of why should he tell anyone anything about what we’re doing. . . . After all, four million dollars has been invested in this, and the point is to win.”
Not only are the stakes higher than ever this year, but one can also argue plausibly that the chances of America’s losing the cup never have been better. This year the rules of the competition have been changed to allow the foreigners to use American sails and hardware, something they never were permitted to do in the past and which put them at a distinct disadvantage. Nine different boats from five different countries (Australia, England, France, Canada, and Italy) are preparing to compete in the races this summer, and among them are three separate Australian syndicates which together reportedly are spending $21 million. And Conner faces two formidable opponents in this country: a thirty-one-year-old sail-maker and Olympic champion named John Kolius who’ll be steering the former champion Courageous, and an aggressive San Franciscan named Tom Blackaller who boasts sailboat racing credentials which at least approximate Conner’s. This year nearly everyone is reportedly practicing much more, spurred by Conner’s example.
What all of them are striving for is the achievement of minuscule increases in boat speed. “With these boats, if you can go a hundredth of a knot faster, you’ve got a major breakthrough,” one crew member explains. And breakthroughs attributable to changes in the boat designs are getting harder and harder to achieve. Conner’s experience with the three boats he’s had built in the last year is proof of that: none of the three sailed significantly faster than Freedom. The newest of the three, Liberty, is now back in a San Diego boat yard undergoing modifications the team hopes will make some difference in the last round of pre-trials practice in Rhode Island.
As advances in hull design have grown more and more elusive, sailing technology has shifted to other areas for improvements. Navigators on twelve-meters now uniformly use small on-board computers to analyze everything from the performance of various sails to the torque on the winches. Sail materials like the polymers Mylar and Kevlar which were first used in the 1977 Cup races now have become standard throughout the yachting industry. And sail materials aren’t the only thing one can change on a racing yacht. One can vary the sail shapes in an infinite number of ways; one can tinker with the winches, with the halyards, with dozens of other components. Freedom crew members claim that Conner’s ability to size up a boat and figure out what tiny changes might make a difference is at least as important as his touch at the helm. “Dennis approaches sailing in a very creative way,” one says. “He looks at the boat the way an artist might approach a canvas .... A lot of guys who sail have other hobbies. They’re more social. They’re more interested in sort of being rock stars. Dennis is hard to get to know but I think he’s a really great sailor .... He looks at every little detail and he sees things that other people don’t see because they don’t look.”
Conner backs up those intuitive changes with testing so time-consuming that it’s almost impossible to describe. Say you order a new mainsail. The only way to tell conclusively if the sail is an improvement is to go out into the ocean and rig one boat with it, outfitting a partner boat with another sail which is a known quantity. Then you sail in the same direction for five, ten minutes. You change course, sailing in tandem again. You take the sails down and swap them, hoisting each on the opposite boat. This tells you something, but a complete assessment really demands that the sails be used together under a range of wind and water conditions, which means repeating the tests on different days — and keeping track of all the data.
And that’s the productive work.
Dennis Conner may have come closer to turning yacht racing into a military operation than any other practitioner of the sport. But even he hasn’t managed to avoid the times when the sailboats sit idle, when nothing is being learned.
A sign next to the Freedom campaign office posted the shove-off time as 10:30 on one of the days I rode along in the David Crockett, a fifty-three-foot cabin cruiser which acts as the twelve-meters’ tender. Here in San Diego, the Crockett plays as active a role in the America’s Cup preparations as the twelve-meters themselves. It tows the (motorless) sailboats in and out of the yacht club; and once out in the ocean, it follows them, supplying buoys during race sessions, sails during sail testing. Its owner is a man named David Chatham, a wealthy young San Francisco yachtsman fanatically devoted both to Conner and the Freedom defense. As he did during Conner’s 1980 Cup bid, Chatham last fall moved the Crockett to the San Diego Yacht Club and has lived aboard it for almost six months now. He donates not only the use of the boat but also his own daily services as its pilot. Thus on this particular morning, he and a hired mate go through the motions of fastening Freedom and Liberty to the tender swiftly and surely. Yet it’s still almost a half an hour after 10:30 a.m. before the little flotilla steams out of the inlet leading to the yacht club.
“If you like to win, you go with Dennis,” Chatham declared aggressively, within minutes. “And I like to win, so . . .’’Later I asked if Chatham ever found it frustrating to work in such close proximity to the dashing sailboats, without actually sailing on them. “It’s frustrating every day,” he fired back. “Every single day .... But it’s better than sitting at home, ” he added with a quick, tight-lipped smile.
He seems to draw some solace by pointing out various contributions he’s made to the team. He’ll move on to Newport with the group later this month, and though he won’t transport his cabin cruiser there, he’ll take on different duties. 'They call me a walking computer because I do know exactly where all the sails are at all times.” Chatham also boasts that he thought of the idea of buying a video recorder back in early 1980. “They couldn’t tell how close they were coming to the starting line,” he explains. Now Chatham videotapes the sailboats almost daily during practice racing sessions.
Racing is on the agenda this day. In such sessions the boat crews work to hone their teamwork and familiarity with the boats, trying to duplicate as closely as possible the conditions they’ll face in Newport this summer. Even the sea and weather accommodates them on this particular occasion. The storms temporarily have passed and the wind is blowing about nineteen knots. Team members say one of the only differences between San Diego sailing conditions and those in Rhode Island are the big ground swells that can roll in across the Pacific; this day they’re not particularly bothersome. Despite the brisk breeze, towing is the fastest way to reach the race site, three to four miles offshore. Behind the Crockett, the ninety-foot-tall, undressed masts of the twelve-meters look like glittering needles. Chatham’s maximum speed, thus encumbered, is only about eight and a half to nine knots per hour, so the party of boats doesn’t reach its destination until about quarter to twelve.
Then it’s yet another half hour until the crews have hoisted their sails and the starting countdown elapses and Freedom and Liberty bear through the imaginary line created by a buoy and another yacht club boat. Underway, the twelve-meters are easily distinguished from the crafts one normally sees cruising around San Diego Bay. The Cup contenders ’ sails are gigantic, spread above hulls as lean and functional as canoes. From a distance, the sweeping, simple lines look elegant. But Chatham tails the twelve-meters close enough for everyone on the tender to glimpse the intense action unfolding aboard the sailboats. We can hear the high-pitched groaning of rope being strained by wind. When one of the sailboats tacks, the scene looks like a film suddenly speeded up, with the grinders cranking frantically to tighten up the foresail. From time to time, we can see crew members in bright-yellow rubber boots run pell-mell toward the bow, like men starting a footrace on a very long dining table tipped over at a forty-five-degree angle and drenched with ocean waves.
One reason Chatham follows the sailboats so closely is because this day Conner has asked him to videotape the stem of Liberty. Unlike Freedom, its sister boat. Liberty has a rear end which is sharply elongated. Conner mentions that the crew is wondering if the extra section perhaps is dipping into the water and slowing down the boat. And something obviously is slowing down Liberty this day. Even with the (arguably) best sailor in the world at its helm, she trails dramatically behind Freedom and its helmsman, Malin Burnham, and loses by a considerable margin. The second race, begun in midaftemoon, is more of the same. At one point Conner gets on the short-wave radio and mentions he may want Robin Fuger back at the office to climb in a rubber boat and ferry out some sails for testing. But then he abandons that idea, instead slogging away at the race until late afternoon, when the twelve-meters head for the channel under sail.
On this return journey, the Crockett matches its pace to the sailboats, like a big dog dutifully trotting next to its young masters. But Chatham looks as though he’s itching for some action; he gets on the radio and suggests that Conner board the tender to review the notes taken by him and Sutphen during the racing. When Conner agrees, Chatham skillfully edges his boat up to the Liberty so Conner can move from one vessel to the other.
Already Conner is planning for the next day, and he strides to the radio and calls the yacht club-based office. He’s decided he wants the twelve-meters to sail in a circle while he videotapes them from the air, checking their angle of rotation. So he’s telling his office manager to call Channel 10 and try to borrow the television station’s helicopter. “We’ll see if these people who like to take up so much of our time will help us out,” he says in his boyish timbre. “If the news manager says no, I’ll call the owner, who just happens to be my next door neighbor.”
Next to us, the Liberty slips astern. It will take almost an hour for the twelve-meters to make it back to the yacht club from the race course — more dead time, yet it’s hardly unpleasant. The air has turned misty, and the late afternoon light is soft gold, turning the mouth of the harbor into a fluid, reflectant stage. In the cockpit of the Crockett, images of the racing boats swim on the glass windows. On the decks of Liberty and Freedom, the crews are loafing and joking. But aboard the tender, Chatham and Jack Sutphen have disappeared below deck with Conner, whose voice rises, tired and irritable. From the sound, it’s clear that Conner isn’t watching the scenery.