Win over Kiwis puts Conner in America's Cup final

``What goes down must come up. The Stars & Stripes wants America's Cup.

There ain't no doubt about it,

We won't leave Perth without it.''

(Theme song for Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes yacht).

A flotilla of rubber rafts, hovering helicopters, hundreds of screaming fans, a warbling Kate Smith rendition of ``God Bless America,'' and enough star spangled bunting to paper Madison Square Garden. They were all waiting to greet Dennis Conner Monday as he and his gunsmoke blue yacht Stars & Stripes returned victorious from the America's Cup challenger elimination races in this treacherous stretch of Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia.

Conner had just beaten New Zealand's revolutionary fiberglass 12-meter yacht Kiwi Magic to clinch the Louis Vuitton Cup, the four-month-long regatta to select a boat to challenge Australia starting Jan. 31 for the America's Cup, the world's oldest and most coveted yachting prize.

In 1983 Conner, sailing Liberty for the New York Yacht Club, lost the cup to the Australians. Now he is attempting to become the Muhammad Ali of yachting, the only man to have lost and regained the ``heavyweight'' title of boating.

After Conner and his 10-man crew trounced New Zealand in the fifth and decisive race Monday to win the best-of-seven series 4-1, they were welcomed into port like conquering heroes. Stars & Stripes was surrounded by sufficient pomp and patriotism to pass for a floating presidential nominating convention.

Flanked by placards reading ``The Empire Strikes Back'' and ``Stars and Stripes Forever,'' a banjo trio in straw boaters twanged out ``California, Here I come'' - anticipating, with Yankee bravado, Conner's eventual triumph in February and the return of the cup to the skipper's hometown of San Diego.

None other than Walter Cronkite, commentator, yachting buff, and member of the New York Yacht Club, stepped aboard Conner's yacht to offer congratulations.

Eight-year-old Holly Whidden, dressed in a star-spangled jersey and blue denim skirt, threw her arms around her father, Tom, the yacht tactician, and shrieked: ``Daddy, I'm proud of you!''

Conner brushed back his jet black hair and said: ``It's a great day for America.''

Meanwhile, in a boatslip nearby, Conner's likely America's Cup opponent, Kevin Parry's golden-hulled Kookaburra III, was being put to bed after having dealt a fourth straight defeat to Alan Bond's Australia IV, putting itself just one win away from clinching the best-of-nine defender's final and becoming Australia's official defending yacht.

Four months and more than 900 races ago when the trials began, no one would have guessed that neither the New York Yacht Club, which defended the cup for 132 years, nor Bond, the brash Perth millionaire whose yacht Australia II won it in Newport, R.I., in 1983, would be in the final race in February.

``It's a whole new ball game,'' said William Packer, general manager of the New York Yacht Club's challenge this year. He added, ``Conner is definitely the favorite, and without question one of the most experienced 12-meter sailors in the world.''

Kiwi Magic and its skipper Chris Dickson came into the races against Conner with a 37-1 record. Before the contest, Conner forecast: ``If Stars & Stripes is going to be successful, we will have to be faster upwind, beause it will be difficult to come from behind in a tacking duel. Once they [the Kiwis] are ahead they are very hard to pass. Stars & Stripes is like a top fuel dragster, while New Zealand is like a turbo-charged Porsche. We have to beat them in a straight line.''

Conner did, in fact, beat New Zealand by shying away from tacking duels and concentrating on straight line speed and picking up favorable wind shifts. Also, shortly before the series he added a ``secret'' lightweight grooved plastic film to his boat's hull, after learning from NASA that such a coating reduced turbulence on spacecraft.

The Conner-Dickson matchup was pegged as a race between the old maestro and the 25-year-old ``child prodigy'' from Aukland. Conner, who won an Olympic bronze medal in 1976, was the tactician and helmsman on Courageous and Freedom, the yachts which sucesfully defended the America's Cup in Newport in 1974 and 1980 respectively. And in the end his experience triumphed.

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