ANOTHER all-male bastion is about to get a slap in the face.
An all-female crew will try to defend the America's Cup for the first time in its 142-year history when the next race starts in San Diego in 1995.
Sixteen women will attempt to outsmart, outmuscle, and outsail some of America's - and the world's - most macho sailors. It will mark the first time a team of women will compete directly against men in a major professional sport with a lot of money and national pride at stake. In the last Cup challenge in 1992, the competing teams from eight countries spent $498 million.
The female effort is being underwritten by Bill Koch, a Kansas energy multimillionaire, whose America3 syndicate successfully defended the Cup in 1992 when he spent $53 million, mostly from his own pocket. Mr. Koch, who admits he likes to ``do things differently,'' says he will throw several million dollars in seed money behind an all-female team because ``I would like to broaden the audience and demonstrate that women, using the right teamwork and focus, can compete head-on with men.''
In order to get to the press conference stage, Koch had to first convince the San Diego Yacht Club, where the Cup now resides, that it would be a serious effort. ``At first, they kind of gasped,'' Koch recalls. ``They were concerned it would bring a lot of ridicule to the America's Cup.''
Koch went about convincing them to throw out the old myth that women aboard racing sailboats were bad luck. ``It was just the old-timers,'' he says. ``Now they are very enthusiastic about the whole idea,'' he says.
Helping to fuel their enthusiasm are the commercial prospects. ``If there is a serious effort, it could bring in a tremendous amount of additional viewers,'' Koch explains.
THE America3 effort is starting with some serious female sailors, including five Olympic medalists. Supplying the muscle are several winners of Olympic medals in rowing. Even so, the organizers are appealing for more applications for the trials, which begin in April. ``You would be amazed at the number of women who are six-foot-one and weigh 185 pounds who are calling us [1-800-WOMENA3],'' says James Worthington, director of sailing operations.
Koch estimates that strength only represents about 2 percent of the effort in running one of the boats.
More important attributes are strategy, attitude, teamwork, and knowledge of sailing. Mr. Worthington says the most difficult job will be finding a woman who will work in the ``sewer,'' pulling the wet sails inside the boat while hunched over and unable to see any of the race.
But says one team member, J.J. Isler, of another member, Stephanie Maxwell-Pierson, ``She can bench press her husband, so I think we can overcome the strength issue.''
Women have sailed on the boats in the past. Dawn Riley, now skipper of an all-female crew representing several nationalities that is sailing around the world in the Whitbread Race, was a pitman on America3 during the trials.
It is not a given that the women will be representing the United States in the races. They have to beat PAC95, headed by Kevin Mahaney, who won a silver medal in the Soling Class in the 1992 Olympics. And, they have to whip Mr. Conner, who has competed in six past challenges and is known as a sailor who hates to lose.
``Maybe you are a little more motivated not to get beat by the women, so the press doesn't give you such a hard time,'' says Bill Trenkle, vice president of sailing operations at Dennis Conner Sports in San Diego.
If the women get to defend the Cup, they will face a competitor from abroad. There are now eight tough challengers from five countries.
Despite this array of manly muscle, the women can win, says Buddy Melges, one of their coaches and co-helmsman on the last defense. ``They just have to look outside their boat and see what Mother Nature is doing,'' he explains. In other words, they have to sail better than the men.