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Eagle's Sponsors, Crew Charting a Course to America's Cup

December 19, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

This Eagle won't land until March. But its threat is poised, bold and defiant, with a target firmly set. Eagle, all 23 slick tons and 12 Spartan meters of aluminum racing yacht, will sail against Australia to win the America's Cup for Southern California.

No doubt about it, say the businessmen and mariners of the sponsoring Newport Harbor Yacht Club. Nothing can sink us, say donors and dockwallopers of the organizing group, Eagle Challenge. Their optimism is gale force.

Said Gary Thomson, president of the syndicate: "I'm looking now for a location, maybe a shopping center, maybe a nationwide business, that would be interested in displaying the America's Cup."

Said George Tooby, the 72-year-old San Marino sailor who began organizing this American counterattack while the crew members of Australia II were sleeping off their 1983 victory hangovers: "We have a boat (Eagle) that's so fast we'll be able to overcome any mistakes."

On the other hand, it could be a mite too early to tell very much about anything.

For between now and January, 1987, six equally slippery America's Cup challengers will be launched by similarly passionate syndicates in San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Eagle must climb over these just to earn the right to sail against more than a dozen yachts from Canada, Italy, England, New Zealand and France. And only when those have been beaten can it square off against Australia and the advantages that come with being title holder and home team.

The challenge will cost $8.5 million. More than $1 million has been spent so far on designing Eagle and it's only half-built. There must be the February warm-up of the World Cup Championships in Perth, Australia; the final transfer of a race operation from up here to Down Under (it costs $100,000 to ship the boat alone); a 3 1/2-month elimination series. . . .

And at the end of it, in April, presuming victory, little more than 8.4 pounds of silver that is the America's Cup--more of a skinny pitcher and to some, the ugliest piece of tableware not held captive by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

"I did ask myself, 'How can we justify spending $8.5 million on a yacht race when there are hungry people in the world?' " Thomson said. He's the epitome of the gentleman sportsman as a skier, pilot, sailor, 13-letter man in high school and commissioner of wrestling for the 1984 Olympics. "But we've had a study made (by the Center for Economic Research at Chapman College in Orange) that says winning the cup and bringing it back to the United States will add more than $1 billion to the Southern California economy."

It's an investment that pivots on the defense of the trophy. That extends over years and always takes place in the home waters of the winning club. Some challengers have been in Australia since last year. Eagle Challenge already has bought the Captain Freemantle Motor Lodge in Perth for its team. So if Eagle wins the pot, predicts the study, an estimated 24 teams must come to Southern California to compete in the 1991 America's Cup series.

Mounting Expenses

These syndicates will spend $350,000 a month on mooring and maintaining boats and accommodating crews. About 1,600 workers will be needed. So will additional boat yards, sail lofts and machine shops. Add the spending of 1.6 million additional tourists and you have the billion-dollar bonanza.

"But more than the money," said Thomson, "winning the America's Cup will involve the thrill of victory and the pride of America. So often we (America) get kicked in the teeth by these Mickey Mouse countries and there's not much the nation and individual Americans can't do about it.

"But here, with this, the average American, Joe USA, can share the satisfaction of bringing this cup home."

Such mile-high patriotism has surrounded the 27-inch trophy since 1851. That's when it was the Queen's Cup (subtitled the Hundred Guineas Cup) for the Race of All Nations, a one-time sailing event staged in England as part of the Great London Exposition.

Commodore John Cox Stevens of the New York Yacht Club beat the British at their own game, brought the trophy home and eventually offered it as the prize for an international sailing contest. The cup was renamed after Stevens' winning yacht, the America, leading some to wonder what would have happened if his boat had been launched as Mr. Coffee.

The America's Cup was America's for 132 years, thanks, in large part, to a tricky ground rule (not rescinded until 1956) that required challengers to sail from their hailing ports to the scene of the contest. The net result of this was chunky challengers, lightweight defenders and lopsided competition.

Until 1983 . . . when Australia II, revolutionized by a winged keel and skippered by John Bertrand, beat the bell bottoms off the United States and Liberty captained by Dennis Conner of San Diego.

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