Fleet of sailing contenders jockey in America's Cup prelims

Though popularly known as the preliminary for the 1987 America's Cup, the great regatta now being contested in Fremantle, Australia, is an international prestige race in its own right - a multimillion-dollar, multinational clash of yachts, crews, and sailing technology. It will be no shame to place second, or even last, among the dozen magnificent 12-meter boats vying for the Louis Vuitton Cup. And of course it will be a double triumph for the eventual victors. For besides capturing first place in the the three-month-long scramble for the graces of the wind and the sea, the winner will gain the coveted challenger's role for the America's Cup itself.

The celebrated trophy, successfully defended by the New York Yacht Club against every challenge for more than 130 years, was taken away in 1983 by Australia.

So this time it is the Aussies who will defend the cup in a best-of-seven series Jan. 31-Feb. 15. But first both the defender and the challenger must be determined.

The 12 yachts seeking the challenger's role launched their third and final round-robin series this week. The four top finishers move on to the semifinals beginning Dec. 28, followed by a best-of-seven final starting Jan. 13. Meanwhile, five Australian boats are battling for the honor of defending the cup in a similar series.

Whoever eventually earns the defender's role will enjoy the edge that comes with racing in a familiar environment. Most likely its crew will be less tired, its sails less weather-beaten than those of its rival. On the other hand, the challenger that makes it through the long grind may be so determined, the fibers of crew and boat so in harmony, as to be nearly at an advantage itself.

After the first two rounds of the Vuitton Cup, New Zealand had built a substantial lead - and it added to the margin by starting the third round with two more victorious efforts. Dennis Conner's Stars and Stripes also began the new series with two wins to take over second place, while one of the two entries from France, French Kiss, did likewise to move up to third. Both boats climbed past the New York Yacht Club's vaunted America II, which lost two in a row and dropped from second to fourth, just one point ahead of Britain's White Crusader and San Francisco-based USA, which were tied for fifth.

The six other yachts trailed by various margins, but few were giving up yet - partly because the scoring system is designed to allow a late-blossoming boat to catch up in a hurry. Each victory in this third round is worth 12 points, compared with the five points given in the second round and the one point in the first.

One entry that hasn't lived up to its pre-race dreams, but is still hoping against hope for a late surge, is the Eagle, out of Newport Beach, Calif. I had a chance to visit this beautiful yacht last summer and to get an idea of the work and determination it has taken for every one of these boats and their crews to be in Australia at all.

Upon viewing the Eagle, one can't help being struck by the motif of an eagle gripping in its talons a red-white-and-blue flaglike design. The yellow eyes, capturing the unflinching watchfulness of the real bird, have beacon quality. Embracing both sides of the slate-gray hull, the eagle of the Eagle is a dramatic and elegant sight.

When I came aboard, skipper Rod Davis, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1984, was preparing his boat for a practice race. Few words were needed to interlink the crews as they mingled on deck knowing one another's springy steps so well. The engineering team and the racing team - a guild of craftsmen steeped in one project.

The Eagle's computerized brain was switching digits up and down in an endless exercise of matching the reverberations of the sea. Sea gulls approached inquisitively. One napped on the wafts of water nearby. A tow-yacht pulled in, the bird flew away, and the Eagle's sensors began to flick the digits faster as the sea, too, became more vibrant, and even the wind increased pace.

Struck by the mystique that surrounds sailboats, I asked Davis if he thought they had a special spirit. Instead of replying, he sent me to ask Kimo, his ``indispensable man,'' about such things.

``The crew gives the boat its spirit,'' Kimo Worthington, the mainsail trimmer, answered matter-of-factly. ``Everything and everybody is in it together. There is instrumentation, there are the guys - and you have to know the wind. It's the wind that makes the water move. After you've sailed for as many years as I have, your instincts will be more accurate than the computer. Sometimes I don't agree with the computer readouts, and mostly I am the one who is right.''

Why does Davis call Kimo ``indispensable''?

``It's because I can fix everything. Improvise, keep the boat going. In order to win, you must be able to finish the race.''

Last summer, the dreaming was already intense. At one point Paul Fernal, a buff mechanic of the Eagle's ground crew, snapped: ``At the end it will be up to 22 guys. Only 22 guys out of the whole world....''

All six US entries, as well as the half dozen from other nations, have made contributions of technology, intellect, and handwork too numerous to name. Each in its own way is a million-dollar textbook in aerospace graphics, hydrodynamics, and manufacturing skills.

Yet, as with other miracles of technology, the smarts of each ship lie in the callused hands, wind-swept faces, and challenges to the hearts of her men. The crews hold on to the dream. And come Jan. 31, two of these boats will set out to the sea, 11 men in each, under magnificent sails, propelled by sweeping winds, for the grand finale. Olga Connolly, then Olga Fikotova of Czechoslovakia, achieved her own greatest athletic triumph in Australia, winning the gold medal in the women's discus at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. She competed in four other Olympics, finishing 7th in 1960, 12th in 1964, 6th in 1968, and 16th in 1972. She now lives in Culver City, Calif.

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