Skipper of top `cat' sets sail in Little America's Cup defense bid

Duncan MacLane has a split nautical personality, equal parts tortoise and hare. He designs plodding tugboats and barges for a living, but gets his thrills sailing catamarans, the odd-looking, twin-hulled craft that zip across the water. Catamarans, the fastest racing boats under sail, are MacLane's passion, and have been since, as a teen-ager, he saw two streaking off the Connecticut shore. ``They were just the most awesome sight I had ever seen,'' he recalls.

Besides racing ``cats,'' he designs them too. ``From a construction standpoint, it's rather ironic,'' says the self-employed naval businessman. ``In working on a tugboat I'm doing calculations to throw around inch-thick steel plates. In working on a new catamaran hull, though, the core material is only a quarter-inch thick and the carbon layers on the outside just eight- or nine-thousandths of an inch. It's definitely two ends of the spectrum, but it's enjoyable.''

This week, and probably for the next few, he is pursuing his hobby to the max, racing for the honor of his country and Connecticut's Roton Point Sailing Association in the Little America's Cup. The event, begun in 1961, is catamaran sailing's version of what the big boys do in the America's Cup, the sporadically held battle of the world's best 12-meter boats.

By now, even the man on the street has caught wind of what occurred in Newport, R. I., two years ago, when the United States had its 132-year America's Cup reign snapped by Australia.

Hardly anyone knows about the Little cup, though, and most people undoubtedly would be surprised to learn that the smaller boats actually go quite a bit faster. A catamaran reaches speeds of about 20 mph under racing conditions, with an average speed of 15 mph being normal. By comparison, a 12-meter boat is really flying when it reaches 11 to 12 mph, MacLane claims. The ``cats'' are also incredibly efficient, often going moving faster than the wind.

Another little known fact is that MacLane, who is currently involved in the US selection trials with three rivals, has skippered the winning cup boat since 1977 -- and hopes to have the opportunity to make it five in a row come September.

The challenger this time will be a boat from Australia, where sailing interest is at an all-time high and a determined effort has been made to win back the cup last captured in 1974.

To show the Aussies mean business, they sent MacLane and his teammates a ``fighting flag,'' the kind flown on Alan Bond's winning 12-meter in Newport, with a kangaroo wearing boxing gloves.

Though a symbol of a good-natured rivalry, the flag makes it clear to MacLane that the Aussies are coming loaded for bear.

``They're going to be very formidable competitors,'' says the bearded young salt. ``The designer of their boat is the best catamaran designer in Australia. He has been involved in the series since 1964, and several of his boats have won the cup. They also have enlisted Australia's best catamaran sailors, two guys who were favored to win the Olympic gold in the Tornado class, but wound up taking home the bronze.''

The thought of masts locked in real battle excites MacLane, who admits that the lack of serious competition in recent years has probably been a factor in the event's low visibility.

With MacLane at the helm, owner Tony DiMauro's Patient Lady catamarans (III, IV, and V) have compiled a 16-0 record in the best-of-seven racing series, which is held whenever a challenge is issued. The opposition (Australia once, Italy three times) has literally been left in the Patient Lady's wake, often four minutes or more behind in negotiating the 191/2-mile triangular course. The defending champions host the event, which will be held on Long Island Sound off Rowayton, Conn.

Their dominance, MacLane believes, is really the product of 14 years of hard work begun when he came aboard the Patient Lady team in 1971. The team consists of two two-man crews, plus a small, land-based support contingent.

Because of the nature of C Class catamarans, winning is largely a matter of building a superior boat through painstaking trial and error.

Unlike other development sailboat classes that have reined in innovative designs, the C Class has retained an anything-goes type of approach that attracts the sport's ``lunatic fringe,'' according to MacLane.

There are very few rules: the boat must be 25 feet long, 14 feet wide, and have 300 square feet of sail area. After that, it's wide open.

In the early 1970s the Patient Lady team started developing a wing to replace the conventional sail. By mid-decade it was apparent that the designers were on to something, but a few more years were needed to iron out the control problems. Finally, a year after a storm destroyed Patient Lady III during the 1976 selection trials, the rebuilt boat captured the cup.

Although it has been clear sailing ever since, MacLane and his colleagues refuse to become complacent. They continually try to stay a design step ahead by finding ways to build ever lighter, faster boats.

By today's standards, Patient Lady II (vintage 1971) was a real heavyweight at 1,200 pounds. Her latest descendent, Patient Lady VI, is a svelte 450 lbs. and some 10 to 15 percent faster. That is a major leap compared to the minimal speed gains the 12-meter boats have made.

``When the America's Cup guys go into the towing tanks to test models,'' says MacLane, ``they are looking for a tenth of a percent more speed. That would be very dramatic for them.''

The C Class ``cats'' obviously are state-of-the-art marvels, with virtually every part custom-made using aerospace construction.

As the designs progress, the costs go up, which is why the Patient Lady team is happy to have a sponsor, Sanka, for the race. This lifts the considerable costs of hosting the event off the shoulders of the Roton Point club.

``It allows us to put all our private resources into boat development,'' says MacLane, ``which should significantly improve our chances of defending the cup.''

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