Many US yacht clubs seek 1987 America's Cup challenger's role

Don't tell the New York Yacht Club - the tenacious band of sailors that held the America's Cup from 1851 until it was snatched by Australia last year - but a whole country's worth of skippers is secretly delighted. Not that America lost the America's Cup, of course, but that someone else in America will finally get a chance to win it back for Uncle Sam.

Many people don't realize that rules governing the world's oldest and most prestigious international sailing competition stipulate accepting challenges only from foreign countries. Thus, as long as the NYYC held the trophy, no other American club even had a shot at it.

But since the NYYC was bested a little more than a year ago off Newport, Rhode Island, all this has changed. And the result is a giant leap in interest all across America and, indeed, the world. Ten US clubs have already thrown their caps in the cockpit for the next challenge (still more than two years away), as well as fourteen foreign clubs - compared to a total of nine in 1983.

''Let's face it, the America's Cup had become ho hum,'' says Max O'Meara, a member of the NYYC who crewed Ted Turner's yacht Courageous in 1981. ''For 130 years, other nations would send boats over here and we'd routinely drub 'em - it became a non-competition.''

Among the nation's newly delighted skippers are members of the Chicago Yacht Club (CYC), a rich, hardy, and able crew known for its many victories on the Great Lakes. They hope to earn the challenger's role for the cup races off Perth in January, 1987.

First, though, there was a tricky bureaucratic eddy to be navigated: Do the Great Lakes qualify - as America's Cup rules stipulate - as ''an arm of the sea?''

The America's Cup began in 1851 when the NYCC, after its schooner America scored a surprise victory in a British race called the 100 Guinea Cup, offered a challenge trophy for an international race and renamed it America's Cup.

Original rules said competing vessels had to sail to the site. In 1881, to prevent an entry by a boat that was towed through the Erie Canal, a new rule was added that a challenger had to hold its races on the sea or an arm of the sea.

In 1956, however, faced with dwindling challenges and rising expenses, the NYYC modified the terms of the competition. ''At that point the Arm of the Sea limitation became of very little meaning,'' says CYC attorney Lee Hutchinson.

Also, the NYCC agreed in 1975 to accept a challenge from a Canadian club on the Great Lakes, ruling that because of improved shipping and locks the lakes qualified as an arm of the sea for their purposes. And although that challenge never materialized, the ruling provided an important precedent for the CYC bid.

Last year when the Australians left with the Cup, they signed an agreement submitting the question to the jurisdiction of the New York courts - which ruled recently that the CYC is indeed eligible.

And Great Lakes sailing - does it really prepare a crew for competition on the open ocean?

''Any conditions you can find in ocean sailing, you can get on the Great Lakes,'' says O'Meara, who for over 20 years has crewed all sizes of sailboats on both lakes and ocean. In fact, he says, the most severe race he ever competed in was a CYC-sponsored Chicago-to-Mackinac Island race on Lake Michigan in the 1970s. ''There were 60-65 knot winds and huge seas,'' he recalls. ''Open-ocean sailors might have you believe theirs is more difficult, but that's far from the case.''

But perhaps the best arguments for accepting the CYC are gleaned from conversations with yacht club members in various parts of the country:

* The Chicago club has an ideal setting and course conditions for running the races should its members beat the Australians and have to defend the cup, according to Sandy Purdon, Executive administrator for the San Diego Yacht Club's America's Cup Challenge.

* It is one of the most prestigious clubs in the US, says the NYYC's O'Meara, by virtue of the events it holds, including the 330-mile Mackinac Island race featuring over 300 boats and plenty of rough winds.

* The club has produced a number of international champions both in Olympic competition and world sailing championships. Most recently, member Wally Stenhouse became the world's champion at ocean sailing in 1971.

* The club has an outstanding committee. ''It takes very good race committee work to effectively handle any kind of race,'' says one CYC official, ''but particularly the 12 meter (the boat size used in America's Cup races) because there is much spectator interest and knowledge about it. It's like umpiring the World Series - you don't dare slip up.''

San Diego's Purdon, though inclined to view his own club as having the best chance of snagging the Cup, couldn't help remarking: ''It would be fantastic to see 12-meter boats off Chicago's waterfront if the CYC could pull off a win. There's no reason why they couldn't do it.''

The CYC plans computer-model study based on sailing conditions off Perth. With the information gathered, designers will build one boat, sail it in course waters, and incorporate knowledge to build, if needed, a second boat.

Perth sits at the western edge of Australia near a huge desert. The desert heats up by late morning, and the heated air lifts quite dramatically, sucking air across the Indian Ocean. The result is somewhat higher winds - 20 to 25 knots - than off Newport, according to Hutchinson.

According to Thomas Ehman, Executive Director of the United States Yacht Racing Union there will be two pools of boats competing in those faster winds for a place in the final race: all boats from interested countries will sail against each other to choose the international challenger; any Australian boats the Royal Perth Yacht Club deems worthy will compete to choose the Australian defender.

US entries to date along with the CYC, NYYC, and San Diego YC, are St. Francis YC, San Francisco; Sag Harbor YC, Long Island, NY; Yale Corinthian YC, New Haven; Conn.; St. Petersburg YC, Fla.; Spider Lane YC, Marion, Mass.; and Blue Dolphin YC and Newport Harbor YC, both Newport Beach, Calif.

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