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America's Cup sailing beset by `big' development

By Robert Kilborn Jr.Special to The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 1988

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.

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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.