The eager underdog & the reluctant favorite. SAILING UNDER ORDERS

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`THE greatest mismatch since Tyson/Spinks.'' ``Saltwatergate.''

``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.

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``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.

Some observers say the hard wing will also make it harder for spectators to detect ``sandbagging'' by the Stars & Stripes crew - intentional deceleration to make the mismatch of catamaran and monohull appear to be a close encounter.

The Kiwi boat, for its part, is also a marvel of state-of-the-art technology, including Hewlett-Packard computers that measure everything from boat, air, and water speed, to stress on sails, to the boat's position relative to the finish line and the ``enemy'' boat. The vessel is the longest permitted by the deed of gift - 90 feet at the waterline - and carries a 17-story mast made of a carbon fiber that is twice the strength and half the weight of aluminum. Much of the boat is made of plastic honeycomb and titanium, the superlight metal.

The enormous sail is the size of a baseball diamond, maintaining advantage when the wind is at slower speeds. Allegedly the fastest boat of its size built since the 1930s, the New Zealand has been clocked at a speed of 30 knots, fast enough to pull a water-skier.

Whereas the Kiwi boat has a crew of 40, the American boat has only five.

As the race nears, the two camps - just docks apart on the waterfront here - are still conducting propaganda campaigns to woo press and public to their points of view. A swirl of tourists can be found wandering between docks, comparing boat sizes, a perception that Fay, the Kiwi millionaire, hopes will swing opinion to his side.

At the small bevy of makeshift trailers where he has mounted his challenge since June, Fay is handing out ``Read the Deed'' bumper stickers, as well as those reading, ``I Like The Big Boat.'' He shows interviewers the results of a recent Gallup poll that says 53 percent of American adults feel that ``it is not fair for sailing boats of a radically different type and design to race against each other for the cup.''

When pollsters asked if competitors should be of ``similar type and size,'' 45 percent said yes, and 29 percent felt any boats should be entitled to compete. Part of Fay's $16 million campaign - about $8 million for the boat alone - is exhaustive press kits elaborating the details of what he regards as the defenders' unsportsmanlike conduct in trying to ``dispose'' of his challenge quickly by ``jimmying the rules.''

One chapter outlines Fay's attempt to re-create the excitement and splendor of the cup's early days, when much larger, so-called J-boats were raced.

In interviews, he is also eager to deny that his challenge was unfriendly, but rather arose out of his country's nearly crazed response to its previous America's Cup challenge. In races against Dennis Conner's boats off Fremantle, the Kiwi crew won three of eight. ``When we returned to New Zealand, 250,000 people greeted us. People said they hadn't seen anything like it since the return of troops from World War II,'' says Fay.

Then, legal wrangling between Conner and the San Diego Yacht Club over control of the cup stalled announcements of future races. ``We probably wouldn't have issued the challenge at all if, because of our frustration over delays, we hadn't read the deed of gift,'' he says.

Perhaps 200 yards down the dock, the Stars & Stripes crew and management are not nearly so open with facts and figures, or access to Conner. Indeed, at a press conference this week, the skipper made a brief statement about fairness and refused to take questions - suggesting he is taking a lot of heat.

``I'm fed up with defending myself and Stars & Stripes for having a fast boat,'' the embattled skipper said Monday. ``America's Cup has always been a design competition ... and that has been fundamental.''

Although unlikely, it still appears possible that Fay could win, but observers say it would take major error or breakdown on the Stars & Stripes. If Fay loses, he will ask the New York court that has jurisdiction of the deed to declare the Stars & Stripes an unfair challenge. If she so ruled, the cup would go to New Zealand by default, but Fay says he would claim no victory.

``If it were a horse race, our horse would be hobbled,'' says Fay. ``All we can hope for is that he [Conner] falls off, and even if he does, he still has time to resaddle it, climb back on, and win.''

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