America's Cup sailing isn't entirely on the water

Take Dennis Connor off the helm of the fastest US yacht in the America's Cup this year, take him away from the longest effort yet to win sailing's most coveted prize, take him out of the Gatsby and Topsider culture of Newport, and you find a man whose secret love is playing . . . Space Invaders.m

To win this electronic video game, the equivalent of a pinball Star Wars, takes almost the same skill as the water dances of America's Cup racing.

In betwen races leading up to the Sept. 16 challenge by either France of Australia for the international sailing trophy, the San Diego drapery manufacturer has dropped many a quarter in the Space Invaders machine at Handy's Lunch, on Newport's historic Thames Street.

"He's been coming in here for months, scoring higher than anybody else I know ," says Handy's owner, Gary Hooks.

With similar skill in sinking the hopes of his opponents on water, Connor has skippered his blue-hulled Freedom yacht to victory after victory over Ted Turner's Courageous and Russell Long's Clipper.

It would be easy to say that mechanical failures -- cracked booms and crumpled masts -- have caused Turner, the popular cup winner from 1977, to limp around this year's US elimination trials and lose the chance to defend the silver goblet that America has held since 1851.

But that would be like saying Captain Ahab went down with Moby Dick because he got his foor caught in a harpoon line. turner just got consumed by a better-prepared competitor and by his other interests, such as his all-news cable-TV network.

Every cup contest takes sailing into new dimensions, and Connor has led the way for 1980. Next to Ted Turner, Connor is considered the nation's best amateur big-boat sailor. But this year, it's all professional.

"Nobody is an amateur anymore in the America's Cup," says Thomas A. Whidden, head of Sobstad sailmakers and a tailer on board Freedom. "People who take it seriously have to approach it as a business."

Almost two years of planning and practice with two 12-Meter yachts and an early jump on the best sailmaking talent in the United States have given Connor the edge over his competitors -- and most likely over his foreign challengers.

Most cup contenders use only a handful of mainsails and a couple dozen genoas and spinnakers. Not Dennis Connor. Even up to the start of the best-of-seven racing finals in September, the boat's "Freedom fighters" crew plans to test new sails -- on computers as well as aboard the boat. So far, Freedom's inventory includes 80 sails, with 25 active ones.

There is a reason for so many sails, however. Normal Dacron sails can become distorted in high winds, making a boat drive like a car with a flat tire (flap, flap, flap). That has been all but eliminated by this year's use og light Du Pont polyesters known as Kevlar and Mylar.

Material strength and resistance to stretch make these new sails fly like iron curtains in Newport's variable breezes.

Cup spectators this year will notice the absence of traditional pure-white and soft genoas, replaced by the new two-tone or shiny synthetic sails. Mylar also rips easily if the man on the foredeck gets careless. And stitches have been known to come loose.

Another Freedom advantage may be the freedom given to noted 12-Meter designer Oiln Stephens in shaping the hull. Father of the two-time cup-winning boat Intrepid, Mr. Stephens shortened Freedom's water-to-deck distance, known as freeboard, to help cut wind resistance. To Connor, the design is fast. To the crew, it is wet.

But hull shape and sail choice have not made all the difference.

Andy MacGowan, a former crew member on a cup contender and owner of Newport Offshore Unlimited Ltd., where most of the 12- Meters dock says, "There's nothing magic about Freedom -- nothing Vince Lombardi wouldn't understand. Dennis does plenty of practice, testing, and logistics.

"Dennis Connor has doubled the sailing hours of any previous cup attempt. No single invention on the 12-Meters can outweigh the importance of time put into practice."

After all that time, is skippering a cup contender a breeze? "If you had to be out there on the starting line, you wouldn't think it was a breeze," says Dennis.

But ever since his boyhood days hanging around the San Diego Yacht Club, Connor has considered winning races "a way of life."

He did not own a boat until he was 27, however, and until 1974, the America's Cup was just something "I had only read about in Yachting magazine." But he says that he felt important around good sailors and knew that his competitiveness was a matter of overcoming doubts about himself.

He found that consistency in sailing pays off and that working hard means working hard all the time. "You cannot turn moral fiber on and off like a light ," he said in his biography, "No Excuse to Lose." He spent college summers sewing cringles into sails at the famous loft of Lowell North's in San Diego. He crewed with the kind of skipper who inspects his hulls with a microscope to find pinpricks that would slow a boat down.

Pleasure sailing to him is like Mario Andretti driving down to the grocery store after an Indianapolis 500 race.

"He puts in 100 percent," says Handy's Lunch owner, "even when he's playing Space Invaders." Outside the lunch establishment, just a few blocks up the wharf from Connor's boat, hangs a large banner: "Let Freedom Reign."

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