The eager underdog & the reluctant favorite. SAILING UNDER ORDERS
`THE greatest mismatch since Tyson/Spinks.'' ``Saltwatergate.''Skip to next paragraph
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``David vs. Goliath in reverse.''
Next week's America's Cup race has been compared to the Concorde racing a hot-air balloon, or a sleek Porsche racing a top-heavy Suzuki Samurai down a winding, mountain road. But no matter. After a year-and-a-half, the battle between New Zealand's 133-foot monohull and American skipper Dennis Conner's 60-foot catamaran has at long last moved from the courtroom to the azure waters off Point Loma here.
``It's the strangest race in history, absolutely silly,'' says Michael Fay, the New Zealand millionaire who mounted the challenge after his team did well in its first America's Cup off Fremantle, Australia, last year. ``Everyone knows a race between a twin-hulled catamaran and a keeled yacht is no race at all,'' he adds, estimating the speed of the former as 20 percent faster by the laws of physics alone. Over the 40-mile course, that could add up to a 90-minute lead.
``Americans do not respond passively to a sneak attack,'' responds Conner, the skipper who lost the cup to Australia in 1983 and won it back for the San Diego Yacht Club last year.
``Sneak attack,'' according to Conner, was the unorthodox, preemptive challenge by the New Zealanders. It has forced the Americans into this year's individual runoff with the Kiwis, well before the SDYC's as-yet-unannounced international regatta in 1991, in the customary interval of three to four years.
``I've always believed that what is within the rules is fair,'' adds Conner, who was forced by a New York court to honor the interim challenge, but saw no rule binding him to race in a similar boat. ``When they decided to play hardball, so did we,'' says Peter Isler, navigator of Conner's Stars & Stripes.
No matter whom you agree or disagree with, most observers concede that the challenge has served to point up rather vague language in the race's governing document, written more than 100 years ago. Does the word ``match'' mean ``fair and equal'' boats of the same type, as the New Zealanders contend? Or does it mean simply ``contest,'' as the Americans say?
A New York judge has said she can't rule until the actual race (a best-of-three series) takes place. And the outcome, beyond making this the most anticipated cup race in years, may change the face of yachting's most prestigious competition.
It all started when the New Zealanders, surprised at relative success in their first America's Cup challenge last year off Fremantle, were itchy to race again. When the American victors, as the new official defenders, stalled in announcing when the next defense would take place - by recent custom, three to four years hence - the Kiwis read the deed of gift that governs the race.
To their surprise, they found that challengers do not have to wait for announcement or invitation. With 10 months' notice, a foreign yacht club may issue its own challenge, and the defender must accept. Though the rest is very complicated history, suffice it to say the Americans balked, the Kiwis took them to court, and they won.
``OK, we'll race ... but in a smaller, faster boat,'' said the Americans.
``That's not fair,'' said the Kiwis, taking them to court again.
``Shut up and race,'' said the judge (in effect). ``I can't give sentence until a crime has been committed.''
Now, most observers are expecting an easy win for the catamaran. Instead of a traditional soft sail, the Stars & Stripes has a rigid sail, designed by Burt Rutan, the builder of the Voyager aircraft that flew around the world on a single tank of gas. The sail is six times as large as any previously built - nearly the size of a Boeing 747 wing - and has wire-controlled slots, like an airplane wing, that adjust precisely for optimum air flow and forward propulsion. (There is a duplicate, soft-sail Stars & Stripes. Conner has been practicing with both boats, but is expected to use the hard-sail vessel.)
With two hulls, the catamaran can skate along the water surface without the drag of the heavy lead keel that stabilizes bigger boats. The challenges to the catamaran are rougher water, light winds (because two hulls are in the water), and possible breakdowns. ``It's inherently tougher to engineer,'' says navigator Isler, noting that acceleration speeds are so dramatic that crew members were tossed overboard in early practice runs.