Sailors hope to bring the America's Cup to the Windy City

There were no grand celebrations when Harry Melges Jr. left for Australia this week. No big write-ups. No sports photographers. In a city that thinks in terms of football championships, Mr. Melges and his yacht got lost in the shuffle. Only a small band of Midwesterners realized the importance of the moment: the next big step in bringing back yachting's most prestigious trophy, the America's Cup, to the United States.

Lost to Australia in 1983 -- the first US loss in 132 years -- the Cup is now eagerly eyed by yacht clubs on both coasts of the US. For the inland Chicago Yacht Club, just getting the chance to compete has been difficult.

In early 1984, a couple of local attorneys undertook the legal challenge to prove that Lake Michigan was indeed ``an arm of the sea'' because of its connection to the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence Seaway. In September 1984, a New York court ruled in the yacht club's favor.

Raising funds to build, test, and transport a winning 12-meter boat was another obstacle. ``They just looked at me with this disbelief in their eyes,'' recalls Alan Johnston, president of Heart of America Challenge Inc., of his first contacts with potential sponsors. Now, the money has begun to flow in. Mr. Johnston has raised $5.1 million of the team's $7 million budget.

With Melges, the new 12-meter ``Heart of America,'' and a third of the crew already in Perth, Australia, the Chicago team is preparing to compete next month in trials against the other US and foreign teams.

In addition to the Americans, New Zealand, French, English, Italian, and Canadian challengers will vie for the chance to take on the best Australian boat next year in a best-of-seven series.

And here, in Chicago, hope is running at high tide that the ``Heart of America'' team will bring back the sailing trophy. If it does, the America's Cup races would be hosted on Lake Michigan until another non-US team won the trophy.

``You've got to realize, this is an arm of the sea now,'' Johnston says. Skipper Melges ``is down there until he brings the Cup back.''

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