FREMANTLE, Australia — Sailboat racing has some of the most detailed, explicit and complex rules of any sport, but they're still so rife with ambiguity that teams of experts must sit as juries to resolve disputes.
The raft of protests lodged by the Kookaburras against Australia IV in the America's Cup defender trials has carried legalism to such an extreme that some sailing people fear for the sport.
As the competition approaches a climax and Dennis Conner prepares to take on New Zealand in the challenger finals, on live TV around the world, sailing has never had more attention than it has now.
Yet the Kookaburra-Australia IV feud must be turning off many of the people tuning in.
The Kookas insist, "Rules are rules," but the broader view is that their repeated protests are insufferable. When a race is over, people like to know who won.
One would think that TV tapes shot from various angles on the water and in the air would simplify the judges' task, but instead they seem to be deliberating longer than ever--six and seven hours in some cases.
The current squabbling has reached this absurd state: If Kookaburra II succeeds in reopening its dismissed protest against the "gennaker" sail Australia IV used last Saturday and wins, Australia IV can still resubmit the protest it tabled against Kookaburra II in the same race after Kookaburra II's protest had failed.
Australia IV would have to do that to get back into the defender finals with Kookaburra III.
It's all too clear that, at least between the defenders, races aren't won on the water. The only time Australia IV failed to finish first in Series D's nine races was when its mainsail fell down while leading near the end. Three other victories over the Kookas were reversed in the protest room.
Buddy Melges, the droll Heart of America skipper who has stayed on to do local TV commentary, had a thought.
"It's too bad they can't do it like a football game," Melges said. "Have a referee out there to blow a whistle when he sees a foul and penalize a boat 15 yards."
One of the world's most famous sailors has been in Fremantle this month but couldn't care less about the America's Cup.
Paul Elvstrom, 59, has been competing with his daughter Trine as crew in the Australian national Tornado catamaran regatta. They just missed winning a bronze medal in the '84 Olympics at Long Beach, but Elvstrom already had won four Olympic medals.
One day Elvstrom drifted over to the America's Cup race course, out of curiosity, and was shooed away by a patrol boat. He went peacefully.
"Too old-fashioned, too slow," Elvstrom said of the 12-meters. "I love sailing the Tornado because it is fast and gives me a chance to sail with my daughter."
The America's Cup probably hasn't seen the last of Tom Blackaller.
The irrepressible USA skipper from San Francisco was the most quotable figure in Fremantle--the perfect foil for dour Dennis Conner in the challenger semifinals--and he had a lot more fun than he ever had at Newport, R.I.
"I'm very happy that I made this effort," Blackaller said. "I've had a lot of fun with it, and when I finished up in 1983 in Newport, with the New York Yacht Club and all those straw hats and all that, I said I'd never do that again.
"But this one I've enjoyed very much. The sailing out here has been terrific. I might even resolve to do it again."
Kevin Parry, chairman and principal supporter of the Kookaburra syndicate, credits Alan Bond with getting him into the America's Cup.
Bond, who heads the rival Australia IV campaign, no doubt rues the day.
Parry says he got interested "when Alan Bond came back (from the U.S. with the cup) three years ago and said he didn't think he'd have enough competition to get up to speed to defend it in '87.
"The national pride that swept Australia really did affect me."
Parry and Bond were business rivals in Western Australia long before they went at it on the water.
Parry's diverse interests include planned mass production of the remote-controlled underwater vehicles that explored the Titanic and located the Challenger space shuttle wreckage, half-interest in Seven Keys Productions in the U.S., and Australia's fourth-largest television network.
"Our record shows that we try to do everything properly and professionally," Parry said. "And we usually succeed."
As the disputes between Parry's Kookaburras and Australia IV persist, the principals were asked which challenger--Dennis Conner or New Zealand's Chris Dickson--they'd prefer to meet in the cup final.
After Parry and Kookaburra skipper Iain Murray hemmed and hawed, Warren Jones, Australia IV's executive director, responded: "I don't know what they're all ducking out. Big, bad Dennis, of course."
Australia IV had hoped to save its "gennaker" sail for the defender finals but had to spring it on the Kookaburras after Kookaburra II tore away the regular spinnaker in last Saturday's race.
The sail was created by Tom Schnackenberg, a native of New Zealand whose sister is married to Eagle skipper Rod Davis.
Bond's designer, Ben Lexcen, said Australia IV lost an edge by showing it so soon.
"That sail had the potential to be for Australia IV what the winged keel was for Australia II in '83," Lexcen said.
Boxscore of Protests Filed During Cup Defender Trials
Protests Protests Protests Boat Filed Won Against Disqualified Kookaburra II 17 3 11 3 Australia IV 12 1 17 5 Kookaburra III 8 2 4 0 Steak'n Kidney 3 2 7 1 Australia III 1 1 2 0 South Australia 2 0 1 0