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Americans' Competition for Cup Is Keen : Canadian Yacht's Skipper Puzzled by Lack of Common Front in U.S.

September 07, 1986|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

Leave it to Terry Neilson, a Canadian, to tell the Americans how easily they could reclaim the America's Cup from Australia, and why they may not.

"There are too many big egos involved," says Neilson, the skipper of Canada II. "I can't believe the Americans aren't smart enough to get together and try to win the thing. It's kind of funny that two of the syndicates that are working together are from different countries."

For 10 months Neilson sailed alongside Buddy Melges' Heart of America effort, one of six American syndicates, sharing ideas and taking turns using each other's boat as a fixed performance platform for the other so that both could improve.

"We get along well and we're both lower-key on the security side," Neilson said. "We consolidated the information we learned, so that gave us a real advantage over other camps."

The Canadians also will start sailing with Newport Beach's Eagle off Perth within the next few days, but the American syndicates generally don't talk to each other for fear of revealing a secret--as if there are any secrets left.

Should they meet while practicing on the race course, it might not mean much.

Sandy Purdon, executive administrator for Dennis Conner's Sail America, said: "They'll all be sandbagging. If somebody comes alongside, you'll put your trim tab on hard right, and the other guy will probably have his on, too."

A trim tab is a control surface on the trailing edge of the keel. Overtrimmed, it can serve as a brake.

Melges went to San Francisco Bay last spring to sail with the Golden Gate effort skippered by Tom Blackaller, who after the Aussie victory in 1983 criticized Dennis Conner for not cooperating with other American programs.

But that series ended in hard feelings, so when Melges returned west with his new boat early this summer he went to nearby Santa Cruz to sail with the Canadians instead.

The three California syndicates never did get together for mutual benefit. Conner isolated himself in Hawaii, Blackaller chose to stay in San Francisco and Eagle remained in Long Beach to tune against its own beefed-up trial boat, Magic.

Eagle, the Newport Harbor Yacht Club entry, did work with one of the Italian syndicates, but that was seen as a one-way benefit for the latter.

"I'm just surprised that Blackaller and Eagle couldn't work something out, or Blackaller and Buddy Melges," Neilson said. "Same thing with Conner. He was off by himself in Hawaii. I think if they consolidated a bit, they could make sure they'd win the cup."

It's too late now. All of the boats are in Australia or en route, soon to be joined by their crews. Some competitors would say that Neilson's points are moot, anyway, because the America's Cup is not nationalistic, that it is a competition among yacht clubs, not countries.

Tell that to the Australians.

Neilson, 27, believes the two Canadian syndicates--Canada II and True North--were smart to consolidate their efforts earlier this year, thus multiplying their chance for success.

"If there wasn't a merger, I think both syndicates would have gone bankrupt," Neilson said. "There also were some problems in the True North camp with morale, but once we put the two together we got the best sailors in Canada.

"Then when Canada II proved how fast she was--quite a bit faster than True North--we got the confidence in the boat. Things are a lot more optimistic than they were a few months ago."

Two years ago, Neilson was about as far removed from the America's Cup as one can be while still afloat. He sailed a one-man Finn dinghy to a bronze medal in the Olympic Games at Long Beach. Until 11 months ago, he had never sailed anything bigger than 30 feet. Suddenly, he was in command of a 12-meter more than twice that size.

"What you do in a dinghy compared to these 12-meters is very similar," he said. "All you're doing is concentrating, whether it's the (wind indicator) ribbons on the jib or the knotmeter. You've done that for 15 years.

"But the communication involved is very different. In the Finn, that obviously is not a problem. You're the only one in the boat. But when you have 11 people on board and another eight on shore that are sailing the next day, and then 20 support crew for maintenance, it's a large company."

Other Finn sailors have adjusted successfully. John Bertrand, who won a silver for the U.S. in '84, is America II's tactician and alternate helmsman. The other John Bertrand, a two-time Olympic Finn contestant from Australia, steered Australia II to victory in '83.

Accustomed to making all of their own decisions, they seem to move smoothly into positions of command, but not so smoothly into subordinate roles.

Russell Coutts, the gold medal winner in '84, was part of the New Zealand's crew for a while but apparently missed the satisfaction of controlling his own destiny.

When the Canadians merged, Neilson was nominated as helmsman over True North's more experienced Hans Fogh.

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