Fremantle awash in sail mania on eve of America's Cup finals

THIS quiet, little Victorian seaport of 23,000 inhabitants on the Indian Ocean has been invaded by ``cuppies.'' Thousands and thousands of yachting enthusiasts have arrived over the last few days from places as far-flung as Bar Harbor, Maine, and St. Tropez. They have come to watch the America's Cup, the best-of-seven- race series for the sport's oldest and most prestigious trophy, which begins tomorrow. Clad in high-fashion sunglasses, deck shoes, and polo shirts, these cuppies pass their days lounging on the beach or swaggering down Fremantle's South Terrace Parade, an honor roll of quaint iron verandas and gingerbread architecture. In the evenings they stock up on sunscreen and post cards, then relax in a trendy sidewalk caf'e. If they haven't arrived on their own $1 million ketch, they queue up with the hoi polloi to reserve a seat on one of the umpteen boats in the spectator flotilla.

A few nights ago, this glitterati turned out in full sparkle at the $180-a-ticket America's Cup Ball, an all-night extravaganza held in a cavernous old wool warehouse redecorated to resemble a ``candlelit bushland fantasy.''

Amid an ersatz gum-tree forest and eucalyptus-scented waterfalls, Prince Albert of Monaco (who has been gleefully pedaling about Fremantle incognito in his baseball cap and sunglasses) waltzed the night away with local model Debbie Hutchinson. Pop singer Jimmy Buffet posed for photos with Stars & Stripes skipper Dennis Conner, who arrived in black tie with his wife and mother on either arm. Alan Bond, whose winged-keel ``Wonder From Down Under'' snatched the cup in 1983 from Conner in Newport, R.I., sauntered through the door with his red-headed wife, Eileen, who dazzled onlookers with a diamond ensemble estimated at $3 million.

The Perth millionaire and local folk hero, whose Australia IV was convincingly beaten in the defender finals by Kookaburra III, received a warm ovation.

Meanwhile, a few miles away in the driving sand on windy Bathers Beach, 500 Fremantle citizens dubbing themselves the ``gritterati'' staged the ``afford-a-ball'' in mild protest to the exclusive fete downtown.

Conner, a San Diego drapery store owner, is, like Fremantle's summer wind, on the rise. After a rocky start in the early rounds, he shut out Tom Blackaller's revolutionary double-ruddered yacht from San Francisco in four races. He then gave a few lessons to New Zealand's brilliant young skipper Chris Dickson, defeating his fiberglass Kiwi Magic, 4-1, to win the right to challenge the Australian defender. Of Conner's last nine races he has lost only one, and that was blamed on the failure of a sail donated by the vanquished New York Yacht Club. (The NYYC's America II yacht was eliminated early last December, making this the first time in 135 years the club has not sailed in the finals).

Conner, known in Australia for years as ``Big Bad Dennis,'' may, as one Perth columnist speculated in print, ``now be more popular in Australia than back home in the States.'' Conner has hired an ex-Bond public relations assistant to cultivate a ``Mr. Nice Guy'' image, and has taken local schoolchildren sailing.

He is also capitalizing on the fallout from a bitter battle within Australian yachting circles. Shortly after Bond's yacht was knocked out of the defender trials by Kookaburra III in a 5-0 sweep, he and Kevin Parry - the local department store magnate who bankrolled the Kookaburra syndicate - clashed in a vitriolic name-calling contest. Many Australians, alienated by the squabble, have thrown their support to the California skipper and are defiantly strutting about Fremantle in Stars & Stripes T-shirts.

After three years and $200 million of preparation leading up to the America's Cup, the victor may be decided by the weather - particularly by how hard the winds blow. The golden-hulled Kookaburra III appears to excel in winds under 20 knots, while Stars & Stripes has the edge in more blustery weather.

``We'll have the advantage in lighter breezes,'' said Kookaburra III skipper Iain Murray. ``How it pans out in 25 knots or 20 knots, that is something we are just going to have to wait and see. Western Australian meteorologists forecast moderate to heavy southeasterly winds of up to 22 knots for tomorrow's first race. Such weather, typical of early February in Fremantle, shows no signs of the light, shifting breezes the Kookaburras might like.

When Kookaburra III and Stars & Stripes begin circling about the starting line, each yacht will have a few new tricks up its sleeve. Last week Conner tested a multi-tiered ``wedding cake'' spinnaker originally designed for America II. ``I don't know all the reasons why it works,'' said tactician Tom Whidden, ``but it tested faster than anything else we used. You'll probably see it during the finals.'' Also new among Stars & Stripes' sail repertory is a low-stretch, lightweight mainsail.

Kookaburra III's secret weapon may, oddly enough, be the expert advice of New Zealand's Dickson. After Stars & Stripes swept Kiwi Magic, 4-1, the New Zealanders broke with 132 years of America's Cup tradition and threw their support behind the defending Australian yacht in hopes of keeping the cup in the Southern Hemisphere. (Customarily defeated challenging yachts unite behind the final challenger against the defender). Last week Kookaburra III conducted speed tests on the 24.1-mile America's Cup course against the New Zealand boat in hopes of learning more about Conner's relative strengths and weaknesses. ``This could make the difference between winning and losing,'' said Kookaburra syndicate director Ken Court.

Conner admits that Dickson might teach the Australians ``a fair amount'' about his yacht's performance. The New Zealand crew ``know what to expect in a tacking duel, and if they're better in tacking, the Kookaburras can relate that to how they do against us.'' Conner, who likens his fast gunsmoke-blue yacht to a dragster, is expected to follow the same battle plan he used against the Kiwis: Stay clear of entanglements at the starting line, take the lead, avoid time-consuming tacking duels, and sail straight for the marks.

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