Battle to decide America's Cup challenger a study in contrasts. New Zealand's nimble boat sails against straight-line US entry
In this week's down under ``Spar Wars,'' all eyes are on Dennis Conner, the San Diego skipper who lost the America's Cup to the Australians three years ago in Newport, R.I., and today is the United States' only hope of ``yanking'' the ``Auld Mug'' back home. Stars & Stripes, the sleek new yacht skippered by Conner, recognized as the world's most experienced 12-meter yacht helmsman, has already outperformed all but one other prospective challenger in reaching the finals of the Luis Vuitton Cup elimination series. The competition, which has lasted three months, is taking place in a treacherous patch of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Perth, in Western Australia.Skip to next paragraph
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Now it has reached the showdown stage, with Stars & Stripes, representing the San Diego Yacht Club, going against New Zealand, skippered by young Chris Dickson of Auckland's Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Dickson, the best rookie helmsman in America's Cup history, sails a revolutionary and speedy fiberglass boat nicknamed the ``Plastic Fantastic.'' But it was Conner who got the first jump, winning Tuesday's opener of the best-of-seven series that will determine the challenger for the actual cup races against Australia beginning Jan. 31.
Meanwhile, the Australian yacht defending the cup for the Royal Perth Yacht Club is being decided in the best-of-nine Sir Thomas Lipton Cup series. Kookaburra III, skippered by Iain Murray and owned by Perth department store magnate Kevin Parry, sails the 24.1-mile, eight-leg America's Cup course against Australia IV, skippered by Colin Beashel and owned by Alan Bond, the boisterous millionaire whose Australia II, the ``Wonder From Down Under,'' wrenched the ``Auld Mug'' from Conner during the Newport races in 1983.
The America's Cup races which began here in early October have attracted the fastest 12-meter fleet in yachting history, a field of 19 challenging yachts from six nations. Among the competitors were six American boats representing yacht clubs from San Francisco to Chicago, New York to Newport, Calif. America II, the flagship of a two-year, $20 million campaign by the New York Yacht Club, which until 1983 had successfully defended the cup for 132 years - the longest winning streak in sports history - was surprisingly bumped out in December, failing even to reach the semifinals.
That Conner has come this far startles no one. The big news of the series, however, has been the astounding success of New Zealand, a dark-horse yacht marking that country's first appearance in America's Cup competition.
The Kiwis chalked up a 37-1 record in the elimination trials (they lost once in October to Stars & Stripes, but defeated Conner on two other occasions). Then in the semifinals New Zealand ground French Kiss (one of France's two entries) into fine p^at'e. In America's Cup timing, two minutes is an eternity, and New Zealand shut out the French by winning four straight races with better than two-minute margins in all but the final race.