The 1983 America's Cup has begun. At least the race to fund it has.
Dennis Conner, who skippered the 12-meter yacht Freedom to victory in 1980, has started trying to raise enough money to get to the starting line. And a West Coast group of sailors, part of what is called the Defender Syndicate, is likewise sailing for well-heeled investors.
Mr. Conner, who was recently in New York, said his syndicate has built and will race two 12-meter yachts starting this summer in Newport in preparation for a possible defense of the coveted America's Cup.
The America's Cup is a series of sailboat races, held every three years, all of which the United States has won for the past 131 years, the longest winning streak in history. The racing pits one US defender against a foreign challenger in the best of seven races, which have been held off Newport, R.I., since the US won the first race. Some sailors consider the race to be the ultimate in sailboat racing, and wealthy individuals have staked large amounts of money and prestige on winning the trophy, which is kept at the New York Yacht Club, the sponsor of the race.
There are already eight foreign challengers for '83, who will race among themselves to decide who will ultimately challenge the Americans. The Americans will likewise race among themselves to determine the defender.
Although Mr. Conner declined to be specific about the budget for his 1983 campaign, he indicated it would be between $2 million and $3 million. ''We need just enough to run a good campaign,'' he said in an interview.
Other boating sources, however, indicate Mr. Conner actually has a much larger budget - about $6 million. ''Dennis is real sly about money,'' one source commented. Tom Blackaller, skipper of the Defender/Courageous, says his sydicate has budgeted $4 million and already has pledges for a substantial portion of it.
Raising that money, however, may require corporate sponsors this year. According to Edward du Moulin, manager of the 1983 campaign, the President's tax program, reducing the personal tax brackets from 70 percent to 50 percent, has eliminated some of the incentive for individuals to make contributions to nonprofit organizations, such as the Freedom syndicate. Mr. Conner noted that he is competing against charities, hospitals, and other causes for funds.
Mr. du Moulin said the general state of the economy had also adversely affected the fund-raising campaign so far. ''Yes, getting pledges is more difficult,'' he stated, ''but those that have been made will be met.''
So far in its search for corporate sponsors, the Freedom syndicate has lined up only one corporation, the seller of an alcoholic beverage. It put up $30,000. Mr. Blackaller said the Defender syndicate would probably have some corporate sponsors, but he added that ''it will depend on how the New York Yacht Club wants to handle that kind of thing.''
Although purists have decried it, corporate sponsorship of yachts has increased. In the 1980 America's Cup defense, at a cost of $200,000, Pan American Airways sponsored Russell Long's yacht, which was named Clipper, for the airline. Yachting sources indicate the airline's president, Dan Colussy, lost his job because of his decision to support the racing without asking his board of directors. A spokesman for Pan Am denied this.
This year Canadian, Swedish, and French yachts have corporate sponsors. The Canadians have received their funding from some Calgary meatpackers, while Volvo has been a patron of the Swedes. ''We're way behind the times,'' Mr. du Moulin said. ''It can be done if it's done in good taste.''