If the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys, then Russell Long has come of age. He is the youngest skipper ever to complete for the yachting world's most cherished trophy -- the America's Cup.

In little over a year, the blond 24-year-old has gone from a rich man's son fresh out of Harvard to the underdog favorite for this year's defense of the silver goblet that America has never lost.

In August, the rookie helmsman of the $300,000 yactht Clipper will compete bow for bow against two of the world's best sailors, Ted Turner in Courageous and Dennis Connor in Freedom. The fastest of the US boats, to be subjectively judged by the blue-blazer denizens of the New York Yacht club, will match up in September against the best of four challengers from overseas -- Australia, England, France, and Sweden.

Since he splashed unexpectedly into world competition last fall, the "youngster," as he is called by some in the staid New York Yacht Club, has become the darling of Newport, the dark horse to win the Holy Grail of sailing, and the daring young man who will fly any spinmaker, promote any business sponsor, and even plug a talking computer into his boat to help him win.

But he picked a rough year to throw his fortunes to the wind. Never in the cup's 129-year history -- longer than the modern Olympics -- have so many top-level competitors from so many nations come to historic Newport in quest of claiming the most prestigious yachting prize for the homeland.

For the overseas challengers, the longer the cup stays put in the United States, the more it gains the allure of the song of the sirens. So far their hopes of victory have been dashed against the rock-ribbed excellence of US sailors.

Coming in second is as good last in the cup's unusual match-racing. When Queen Victoria asked who came in second at the first America's Cup, the response was, "Alas, Your Majesty, there is no second." Unlike fleet racing with many boats, match-racing resembles a dogfight on water, the purpose being to hinder your opponent as well as make the boat go fast. Slower boats, however, can often win by getting over the starting line first and then tacking back and forth in front of the other boat, "covering" its wind.

The racing edge for Russell Long is that he may have a boat that cuts through the water faster than the other 12-Meters -- the slender, 65-foot vessels shaped according to the international 12-Meter rule. He had the benefit of the latest design because, just a year ago, this relatively unknown racing sailor was not even a contender for the cup.

As he recalls it, about April Fools' Day last year he was on his way to Disney World when he got a call "out of the blue" from Ted Turner -- the braggadocio skipper with the Clark Gable mustache who won the 1977 America's Cup , the loud and proud owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, and the multimillionaire entrepreneur who recently launched the world's first all-news cable televesion network.

The two became spar mates. The blue-eyed Long was to be helmsman on a slow and old trial horse 12-Meter, Independence, to help Turner tune up Courangeous, the boat that had won the past two cups, in 1974 and '77.

By summer's end, however, Long, who is more mature for this years than wet behind the ears, bought the "stablemate" yacht and surprised everyone, including Ted Turner, by taking a hacksaw to it.

Dave Pedrick, a Newport yacht designer who was a naval architect for Courageous, reassembled the basic parts of Independence to give it good tacking ability upwind -- important in the cup's win-or-lose tacking duels -- and cut costs by salvaging the keel, rudder, trim tab, deck gear, and rigging. By the April 12 christening this year, a hopeless boat had been transformed into a real wave-stopper in immediate cup contention.

Why did Turner call the blue-eyed, blue-blood son of a wealthy New York shipping magnate, sumner (Huey) Long? Was a kid born with a silver spoon the best choice to save the silver cup?

The younger Long had never even set foot on a 12-Meter. As a spectator of past cup races in Narragansett Bay he had been bored silly. His best big-time racing was in the Boston Marathon, a race on foot that's about as long as what the 12-Meters cover on water (24.3 miles), which he ran last year in about the same time -- roughly three hours.

But, he points out, he hadm been cocaptain of the Harvard sailing team and he hadm crewed on the 1978 North American winner in the two-person dinghy 470 class. and as a teen-ager, he hadm sailed against Turner in the Tempest sailing class and he hadm been on his father's giant ocean racer Ondine many times, including once with Turner, who nicknamed the young lad "Russell the Muscle."

But today the former encyclopedia salesman has left his mentor with mixed feelings of Turner's having begat a brash cup contender in his own image and likeness. Long was able to scramble together enough financial backers for the $ 1 million cup venture and assemble a young but experienced crew that has quickly climbed the "learning curve" of 12-Meter sailing.

In his quick hunt for money other than his family's (on both sides he has Reynolds fortunes, one in aluminum, the other in tobacco), he became the first US skipper to throw open the gates of corporate sponsorship for cup contenders. In past cups, "syndicates" made up of any number of wealthy sailing-oriented men put up hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for a campaign.

Foreign competitors, led by the Swedish team, which is more than 90 percent commercially backed, in most cases have had to resort to outside patronage to compete in the world's most expensive sport.

In fact, Swedish sponsors have even opened up a souvenir shop on Thames Street in Newport, where a front window displays a grotesque, seven-foot wooden Statue of Liberty beset by foreign beasties.(The statue will go the winner of the overseas challengers.) the French challenger is captained by white-suited Baron Marcel Bich, who has spent millions from the Bic pen dynasty to back three cup attempts and now his fourth on France III.

Long's biggest backer is Pan American World Airways, which was granted the choice of selecting the name Clipper, which matches the company's nickname for its aircraft. When the young skipper tried to fly a spinnaker emblazoned with the logo of another sponsor, Bacardi Rum, the sponsoring New York Yacht Club frowned, and the sail was withdrawn. "The members found it difficult to accept, " Long said.

The sudden rise of corporate backing is seen by followers of the cup either as evidence of heightened patriotic pride in the outcome of the cup contest or as a possible corrupting influence as companies seek publicity. But, says Long: "Corporate sponsorship will salvage the America's Cup for America."

The Clipper team has also been the most willing of cup contenders to enhance its sailing performance with state- of-the-art computers.

"We call it 'Hal,'" Long says as he stands at the stern of his royal blue yacht, pointing to a black panel of digital readouts and an input terminal connected to a gray aluminum box perched on a shelf in the whalelike belly of the boat. Looking much like actor Robert Redford, he is wearing his favorite skipper's uniform -- brown leather boots, a red sweater, white shorts, and a blue visor. The Data General "Micronova" computer below feeds its wisdom of data from the boat's instruments up into the cockpit. The crew refers to the computer as "the Thing."

Although used in previous cups, computers are still an odd addition to a sport known for its seat-of-the-pants technique. But in most big sailing races these days, electronics is a must, including the advanced navigational instrument known as Loran, which will be used in the cup this year for the first time -- just in case that pea-soup Newport fog sets in.

"The computers are not going to take over sailing. The only thing they do is tell you how terrible you are doing when you may think you are doing well," says Clipper's computer expert, Richard McCurdy.

For this year's cup, computers may play as crucial a role as the quality of crew, the brilliance in tactics and starts, and even the choice of sails, including the new Du Pont-created Mylar and Kevlar synthetic material now being tested on the 12-Meters. "You're not dead in the water if you don't have a computer. But it's better to be objective than subjective," McCurdy says.

"Hal" reveals to skipper Long and his navigator, Tom O'Brien, such things as how to tell whether an opponent is ahead, what is the best course to take, or whether boat speed is fluctuating too much. It also transmits millions of "bytes" of data to a larger, onshore computer for postrace, in-depth analysis. Digesting so much information, however, has been difficult. "How do you pull out the pearls of wisdom?" McCurdy asks.

Soon to arrive aboard Clipper will be a voice for the computer, booming over the sound of wind and waves whether boat speed is up to snuff or perhaps whether the wind is about to shift.

But it will be programmed to shut up, too. "If you give the machine a voice, you better have the decency to make it be quiet. Otherwise someone will attack it with a winch handle," McCurdy says.

Also in the works under Long's operation, most likely for the next cup, are sensors to be placed on the sails to calculate the best sail trim for maximum speed. Clipper's grand computer experiment is called "Starship Nova."

Such talk of new technology, of course, may be just as important in psyching out opponents as in actually winning a race. And no one may be more of a master at competitive hype than Ted Turner. He either insults his opponents into submission or praises them into overconfidence.

After Courageous lost the initial race to Clipper in the June preliminary trials, the flamboyant Atlantan told his protege: "Russell, if hadn't been here in 1977, and you were sailing against these others, you would have won. Clipper is the fastest 12-Meter I've sailed against. You're doing all right. You're good on the starts. You could do it."

Indeed, the "youngster" has quickly gained the grace and ruthlessness of a cup skipper. "It's like a ballet out there. The entire crew works together to turn our start-up problems into an opportunity for a breakthrough," he says.

Freedom, the third US contender besides Long's Clipper and Turner's Courageous, is skippered by Dennis Connor, a San Diego drapery manufacturer and veteran helmsman on 12-Meters who has written a sailing textbook entitled "No Excuse to Lose."

IN 1974 Connor and Turner battled over who would be chosen as helmsman on a cup defender, with Connor winning out. "Ted has a score to settle with Dennis," says Courageous tactician Gary Jobson, "and it is one reason he is back."

Although the entire winning 11-man Courageous crew from 1977 has returned, it may be no match against Freedom and its estimated $2 million budget and crew. SElected from more than 120 applicants, the Freedom crew has been honed to razor-sharp performance for over a year against the trial horse Enterprise, a 1977 cup contender.

With a world reputation for a killer instinct on starts and plenty of ocean and small-boat medals to his name, Connor has so far made Freedom the favored winner, based on informal races in June. But no one underestimates Turner's or Long's ability to catch up fast.

The strongly competitive Turner, not really needing to prove anything in putting his well-deserved reputation on the line again, has not lost any of his sailing prowess. For instance, he won last year's Fastnet Race off the coast of England, in which 13 sailors were killed in a freak gale. But he so far is not up to his old speed, detracted perhaps by his business interests, although he could just be up to his old tricks by not tipping his hand early.

"We decided to take a trip down memory lane and see what we could do. I didn't have two years to prepare for the America's Cup again," Turner explains.

So competitive are the three American contenders, however, that the spotlight for the cup is more on the US elimination trials in August and less on the final sailoff in September, when it is assumed the US 12-Meter will be able to retain the longest monopoly in sports history.

Nonetheless, with two more nations competing than last time -- Lionheart from England and France III, joined by Sverige from Sweden and Australia -- the cup challengers for the first time have scheduled elimination races among themselves. Many arrived in Newport after longer-than-usual shakedowns and displayed new designs in hulls and sails that closely match American makes. The front-runners in early races appear to be the French and the Australians, the latter being known for sailing in winds so strong that dogs are blown off their leashes.

The eagerest learner on the Newport docks this summer, however, is Russell Long. He knows he has youth and enthusiasm going for him. He had his crew listen to a talk by a member of the "underdog" US Olympic hockey team that beat the Russians at Lake Placid last winter. In May, elder helmsman Turner was seen on a Newport wharf giving pointers on layline tactics to his young offshoot.

But of late the two contenders more often meet in the postrace protest meetings. "I'm here to keep whoever wins honest," Turner says. "And I intend to enjoy it whichever way it goes."

Which way it goes could depend on the kid who one day last year was on his way to Fantasyland but overnight put on the underdog hat that Turner wore in 1977, and is now trying to climb the Magic Mountain of sailing.

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