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David Nelson / Society

Chasing America's Cup Can Be a Tough Chore

November 20, 1986|DAVID NELSON

PERTH, Australia — Ask any crewman with Stars & Stripes what he likes best about Fremantle, the picturesque old port that is home to the America's Cup Challenge, and his answer will be short and to the point:

He likes days off.

An outsider may think it a lark to spend most days sailing a first-class yacht in competition against some of the finest boats ever to hoist a jib, but the men whose sweat powers Stars & Stripes across the moody waters of the Indian Ocean find the job a job.

At the end of a 14-hour racing day, which begins with 5 a.m. reveille, most crewmen are ready for their pillows and a solid 40 winks. Fremantle, newly brushed and polished in anticipation of the hordes of tourists and sailing enthusiasts, is full of pubs, but they don't get much trade from the men who toil for Stars & Stripes skipper Dennis Conner.

The Stars & Stripes family--and a large and noisy family it is--takes its rest and meals in a modest row of apartments on South Street, not far from the tightly guarded mooring and maintenance compound on the Esplanade. Single crew members bunk in quarters that politely could be called Spartan; married crew members have somewhat more private, if hardly more comfortable, housing.

Despite the back-breaking labor that is the crew's daily lot, the Stars & Stripes team manages to be sociable. Upon first arriving here, they threw an open house that attracted 8,000 Fremantle residents and earned an overflowing cup of good will; in fact, one local businessman offered Conner the use of his personal luxury car for the duration and even comes by once a week to wash it.

Wednesday nights, the high point of the crew's weekly social life, is "barbie" night, and everyone is welcome to invite guests to share a simple, but substantial, barbecued meal. On Nov. 12, an especially large contingent of about 60 assembled in the crew mess to celebrate the birthdays of a pair of visiting dignitaries, Sail America Foundation President Malin Burnham and San Diego Yacht Club Vice Commodore Fred Frye.

Both men strolled into the crew mess adorned in their birthday presents, sunglasses shaped like stars. Frye announced, and not without reason, that his glasses made him look like rock superstar Elton John. That drew quite a few laughs (the crew, having lost that day to Canada II, needed all the laughs it could get), and then everyone got down to the serious business of tossing a steak on the barbie.

In honor of the birthday guests, a few balloons had been hung from the ceiling, but except for the presence of a few wives and sweethearts, the scene was pretty much like that in a barracks. And there was nothing to localize it to the wind-swept shores of Western Australia; the meal, though hearty, did not begin to approach the size of an Aussie repast (people here eat as if their next meal might never come), and the jeans and T-shirts were pure San Diego. (The French and Italian crews, outfitted respectively by Louis Vuitton and Gucci, look outrageously Continental in dressed-down Fremantle.)

A somber-looking Conner put in a brief appearance to pay his respects to the birthday guests, then retired as quickly as if he had been blown away by a gust from the Fremantle Doctor, the famous wind that whips ashore at speeds of 40 knots and more. Conner looked like he had had a hard day, which, in fact, he had.

The crew seemed in good spirits, though, which were raised even higher by the appearance of the candle-laden cake and the explosions of the "poppers" (tiny bottle-shaped firecrackers that explode at the pull of a string), which filled the air with bursts of confetti.

Malin Burnham seemed like one of the crew, which he is whenever he's in town. He spends racing days on the "rubber duck," the chase boat that tracks Stars & Stripes around the racing course bouncing on the wave crests.

"On a windy day, it's back-jarring and miserable to be out in that boat," Burnham said. "But it's part of the job, part of the territory."

Earlier that evening, Burnham had been treated to champagne by Ben Lexon, designer of the feared Australia II, and by Warren Jones, who is described locally as the "kingfish" of the Bondi Syndicate that is sponsoring several of the top Aussie entries.

The champagne get-together was described by an observer as "jovial and cordial." "There's a strong bond of camaraderie between the Bondi camp and the Stars & Stripes camp," said the observer, who then seemed to contradict this sentiment by asking to not be quoted by name.

But by and large, the Fremantle Yanks seem far too occupied by the demands of their daily labors to pay much attention to contradictions.

Most crew members say that they have attempted to Aussify themselves a bit, and in most cases this means that they have practiced saying "G'day" until they can pronounce it nearly as well as comedian and "Crocodile Dundee" star Paul Hogan. Few have attempted to learn much more of the local vocabulary, however; Australian verbs are murderous, and can twist the American tongue faster than the Fremantle Doctor can strip the mainsail off an unwary yacht.

But there is one term that bowman Scotty Vogel, grinder Henry Childers, Stars & Stripes protocol director Bill Waite and, doubtless, Dennis Conner himself, probably all have been practicing. That would be "Ta, Mates," which translates as "Thanks, Friends," and would be a suitable farewell to make to the Aussies should Stars & Stripes sail home with the America's Cup aboard.

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