Essex, Conn. — A HUGE American flag flaps in the wintry winds outside Chance & Co. in this quiet Connecticut River town. Visitors must duck under it or hold it out of the way to enter the colonial-style waterfront office. There's more than a little symbolism here. Britton Chance Jr. is the man who heads the design team for Sail America, the yacht-racing syndicate whose 12-meter boat, Stars & Stripes, won back the America's Cup from Australia a year ago this month.
Sail America wanted to wait four years before competing again. So under normal circumstances, Mr. Chance might be gradually developing ideas for the defense of the cup in 1991.
But these are not normal circumstances.
As matters stand now, there's a cup defense to prepare for, all right. But not in 12-meter boats and not in 1991. Instead, the defense is scheduled for this coming September. And it will be in a boat that measures up to 90 feet at the waterline - roughly twice as long as the boats that have raced for the cup since 1957. If you're familiar with the game of baseball, 90 feet is the distance between bases.
Last Feb. 10, Chance, skipper Dennis Conner, and other members of the Stars & Stripes team were paraded along New York's Fifth Avenue to celebrate the return of the America's Cup. They were also invited to the White House to meet President Reagan. Conner's fame brought him millions of dollars' worth of endorsement opportunities, such as a TV commercial he taped for American Express credit cards.
The afterglow of victory, however, lasted only until mid-July. That's when New Zealand banker/yachtsman Michael Fay sprang a challenge to the international racing community. He proposed a new contest for the America's Cup, in 90-foot boats, to be held in September of 1988. Fay was among the cup challengers in 1987.
Conner's San Diego Yacht Club spurned the New Zealander. But the race charter, called the Deed of Gift, is housed in New York, and on Nov. 25 New York Supreme Court Justice Carmen B. Ciparick ordered the San Diego club to compete with Fay.
Design work on the new Stars & Stripes began immediately.
In a news conference Jan. 15 announcing his return as skipper of the American boat, an angry Conner complained that Fay had made a ``sneak attack'' on the cup. But later he said the time had come ``to settle the issue out on the water, like sailors.'' He predicted ``an exciting race between the fastest big sailboats that the world has ever seen.''
At the time, Britton Chance and the other Sail America designers had only just finished their work.
``We've had to scramble and to work very hard,'' Chance says. ``Definitely, the designs have been constrained by time. We are under great pressure because of the fact that they have roughly a five-month time advantage on us. So we are building boats that are non-optimal with respect to size.''
You read that right: He said ``boats,'' as in more than one.
The Sail America strategy is to approach the race with two craft, each of which is a multi-hull design, and to use the faster one against the New Zealanders. At least one will be a catamaran, which has two parallel hulls and is considered up to twice as fast as a single-hull, or mono-hull, yacht in brisk winds.
Other than that, Sail America isn't saying anything for publication about its designs. Construction of the boats at an undisclosed California shipyard began in late January.
Fay and his New Zealand crew will compete in a mono-hull, whose design has already been published. The mast alone will tower 17 stories high. Fay plans to have his boat ready to sail by the end of March.
If the United States plan to use a multi-hull design upsets the New Zealanders, that seems to suit Sail America just fine.
Project coordinator John Marshall told a news conference in San Diego Jan. 22 that Fay is ``pretty clearly on record that he doesn't like the idea very much. I'm not surprised. At some point he had to anticipate that we were going to come up with something that he wouldn't like - namely, what we think is fast.''
The Deed of Gift, an 11-paragraph document written in 1887, does not specifically rule out multi-hulls. It simply says that competing yachts ``shall be not less than 44 feet nor more than 90 feet'' long at the waterline.
But critics of the San Diego strategy, such as America's Cup rules expert James Michael of the New York Yacht Club, contend that since multi-hulls were not used in racing when the deed was established, they couldn't have been in the thoughts of the America's Cup donors.
The Sail America people, meanwhile, think they may have appeal rights, too. Britton Chance says there are features of the New Zealand yacht that - to keep the boat from tipping over in high winds - make it wider than the rules allow.
``Only class boats are permitted these features,'' he says. ``New Zealand may try to make a case that their challenger is, indeed, a class. But we're not aware of what class it might be. At best, it's a prototype of a class.''
He smiles: ``This was passed on to our legal people and was of interest to them.''
That is where matters stood until Jan. 26, when Sail America released the details of a compromise proposal:
The race would be postponed until the spring of 1990.
Competition would be open to all nations.
The race would be held at San Diego.
The yachts - all single hulls scaled back to a length of 70 feet - would be designed by Fay's chief architect, Bruce Farr.
The Fay camp flatly rejected the proposal, calling it ``nothing but an ultimatum.''
Mr. Farr told the Monitor: ``If the thing gets into legal arguments and carries on for a number of years, then I think the whole America's Cup will lose its luster and neither side will gain. So it's really in both sides' interests to try to settle any differences.''
No date has been set for resumption of the race negotiations, according to a Sail America spokesman.
Robert Kilborn Jr. is a reporter/producer with MonitoRadio.
Boat-rocking Brits want to enter race
A third party has joined the battle while Sail America and New Zealand challenger Michael Fay try to reach a settlement in their America's Cup dispute.
Britain's Royal Burnham Yacht Club, representing financier Peter deSavary, filed suit in New York Supreme Court Jan. 25 seeking entry to the ``next race'' for the cup. Alternatively, the court papers ask that the San Diego Yacht Club be removed as trustee of the America's Cup Deed of Gift -- the document that established the race rules.
The suit also asks that the race be postponed to 1989.
Royal Burnham's suit is scheduled to be heard Feb. 24 by Justice Carmen B. Ciparick. She already has dealt Sail America and the San Diego Yacht Club one setback, ordering them last Nov. 25 to compete with Fay.
In a separate action she ruled that the city of San Diego had no say in where the U.S.-New Zealand race would be held.
DeSavary is a veteran yachtsman. In 1983 he led a British syndicate that challenged unsuccessfully for the cup off the coast of Newport, R.I.
Sail America spokesmen say they understand deSavary's frustrations. But they claim the Royal Burnham suit represents ``another expensive distraction.''