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Conner Back at the Helm : Cup Loser Is Sailing Off Long Beach This Week--His Destination: Australia

March 12, 1985|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Dennis Conner has some advice for the Australian skipper who will defend the America's Cup in 1987: Have something to fall back on, just in case.

"If he loses, there goes his career," Conner said.

Conner, for example, is in the drapery business, which must have been a comfort to him as he sailed Liberty back to the harbor after losing to Australia II in the seventh and determining race off Newport, R.I., in 1983.

If, as are most other world-class sailors, he had been in the boating business, he couldn't have counted on selling a life raft to a drowning man that day.

Would you have bought a used dinghy from the only American ever to lose the America's Cup in 132 years? Drapes, maybe.

But Conner was surprised. Later he said that he received "literally thousands of letters from people all over the world," and not one lowered the boom.

"All very upbeat," Conner said. "Most people feel that we sailed real well and got beat by a faster boat."

But the Aussie skipper who will one day surrender the cup will not get off so easily, Conner said.

"The person sailing the defending boat will have a tremendous amount of pressure on him, even more than I had last time. It's a big thing to those people. You've seen the TV ads: 'In case you've forgotten, Australia's the home of the America's Cup.'

"In America, sure, it's a big thing in yachting, but until we lost, it hadn't exactly been a household word."

The victorious Australian skipper, John Bertrand, has retired from America's Cup competition, which means that he will not have to face the threat of 20 or more challengers, including four from his own country.

"I think he's quitting while he's ahead," Conner said. "It's a no-win situation for him. If he comes back to win again they say ho-hum, and if he loses he's no longer the national hero.

"It's going to be far more than the loss of a cup. It's more than national pride. You're talking about severe economic consequences."

The competition, trials and all, will run about four months, climaxing with the start of the defense Jan. 31, 1987. Conner said the Australians are investing about $700 million in new construction around Perth and Fremantle, the rustic waterfront suburb on the edge of Western Australia.

"They're building condominiums, hotels, casinos, restaurants, highways," Conner said. "If this thing's only there for one year, I don't see how they're gonna get their money back."

Maybe they could sell tickets for a national tour of the skipper's public flogging. Conner was lucky. Soon after his defeat, the America's Cup was shipped out and forgotten, and he was able to slip back quietly into his drapery plant on the west side of town next to the freeway. It's Vera's Draperies, custom drapery manufacturers. Up front, the proprietor does not flaunt what he calls his hobby. In his cramped inner offices, however, the walls are laden with sailing art and awards. There is a map of Western Australia, with a blowup of the Perth area.

Conner said: "Vera was my major competitor when I was doing work for Sears, so I bought her out in 1977."

The business is not just something to keep him occupied.

"If you're married and have a couple of kids that have to go to college, you have to be pretty serious about making a living," Conner said.

"Obviously, I'm not living as well as I could if I were working the same amount of time at my business as I am at sailing, but it's a matter of priorities."

Conner hasn't gotten rich sailing 12-meter boats in three America's Cup defenses, successfully in '74 and '80.

Wait a minute, you say, what about the full-page Rolex watch advertisement in Sports Illustrated last month, showing Conner at the helm, not a hair out of place?

"Sails taut, a trim boat slices the punishing waves," the copy reads. "A square-jawed man angles into the whipping wind. The sea has met its master. Dennis Conner is at the helm."

Conner said: "I didn't get paid for doing that. I just helped Rolex out because they've done a lot for the America's Cup."

Many others will be asked to do a lot more before the next one is sailed. Conner's America's Cup Challenge '87 program, sponsored by the Sail America Foundation, probably will cost more than $12 million, so he spends much of his time raising funds.

"It's going well," he said. "We're ahead of the pace we were in 1980 or '83."

There are more American campaigns than ever--eight altogether, with five or six appearing serious. Conner will meet two of his strongest American rivals--John Kolius of America II and Rod Davis of Eagle--in the Congressional Cup match racing series at Long Beach starting Wednesday. Ten skippers will compete in Catalina 38s.

Kolius and Davis are hustling funds for their own campaigns, but Conner said: "There's a superior pot to draw from. With the Australians winning and the awareness that came with it from the American public, there's a much broader base of support. Corporate America will be more involved than ever before."

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