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Yachting Community Shows Its Support

September 23, 1985|TOM FRIEND | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Now that America's Cup resides Down Under, America typically wants it back. For 132 years, no one gave a damn, but, darn it, get America mad and you usually pay the consequences.

So they all came out Sunday to say bon voyage and bonne chance to Dennis Conner, the guy who lost the Cup to the Australians in 1983. But Conner is also a guy who grew up in San Diego and, thus, is forgiven.

Besides, if Conner can go to Perth in 1987 and bring back the Cup, it's entirely possible that the 1991 America's Cup competition will be held here.

Yachting experts say that's the equivalent of hosting the Super Bowl.

So darn it, San Diego said on Sunday, "Bring Home the Cup."

Actually, this extravaganza was appropriately named the "Bring Home the Cup Festival," and it featured a race between Liberty, the boat that became the goat after it lost in 1983, and Stars & Stripes, a newer version that gets around pretty good because of a mysterious keel.

Unfortunately, the spectators thought it their duty to become part of the race. The Coast Guard estimated that 800 to 1,000 boats were out on the San Diego Bay along with Conner (who was captain of the Stars & Stripes) and company.

This is like driving your Ford at 55 m.p.h. in the middle of the Indy 500. Nice try, and you'd better have insurance.

Consequently, it became a non-race. The course was changed to protect the innocent (Conner), but all these little patriotic boats still had a grand time, getting an up-close-and-impersonal view of Conner at work. And all these boats had names. There was "Cheers" and "Buoy George" and "Generic" and "Beethoven's Heaven" and "Bully" and "No Salt" and "Weird Dance" and "Fourth Estate" and "Flashdance" and "Latest Caper."

"As far as I know, neither Stars & Stripes nor Liberty was involved in an accident," Conner said after he guided Stars & Stripes to a narrow victory. " . . . I understand the risk involved in running a demonstration like this."

This demonstration, one might say, is Conner's latest caper. About to leave with his boats for Hawaii and 10 months of private testing and training, he was coaxed into this San Diego affair by his sponsor, the "Sail America Foundation for International Understanding."

Malin Burnham is the president of "Sail America," and also is no dummy. This was a way to raise public awareness and public funds. So all this strike-up-the-band business (the Navy Band was there), all this patriotism was supposed to make the Americans open their pocketbooks and contribute.

"Our boats had to come here (to San Diego) and be put together on their way West to Hawaii," Burnham said. "And this was an opportunity, without going out of our way, to thank San Diego."

For what?

Their support.

And money. To build a boat, you need money.

"Oh, there were people cheering today, and they'll come forth, whether it's with money out of their piggy banks or if it's with someone sending us a $1,000 check," Burnham said. "We'll take it, whatever."

Publicity helps, too. So there was a special boat for the media, so they also could watch the (non) race. It was about to pull out when some executive said: "Wait a minute. Is ESPN here, yet?"

"We're here," ESPN said.

And they were off.

Now, more about Conner's boats. Australia II had taken the seventh and final race in 1983, apparently because of a "winged keel." Conner likes to call it a secret weapon, only one tends to think he has a secret of his own.

Stars & Stripes has a special new keel which he would not elaborate on. And, at present, there is another version of the Stars & Stripes being built, one that "is a departure from what is now considered the norm," Burnham said.

That's all they'll say.

"What I can tell you is that it's not in San Diego's best interest or America's best interest to disclose (information about the keel)," Conner said. "I can see the curiousity, but it's not in our best interest to help the Australians."

Did the Aussies have spies here? Unknown. But some guy was walking around with a baby kangaroo, and he kept saying "Hi there, mate," so you never know.

Nonetheless, Conner kept himself on an even keel, explaining to one and all: "Had we won in '83, they would've said: 'Ho hum.' Well, it took losing to bring it (yachting) to the forefront. All of a sudden, America cared. It took losing to do that, but it was no fun being on the losing end."

So darn it, San Diego said on Sunday, "Bring Home the Cup."

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