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Strong Wind Drives His Yacht, but What Makes Conner Tack? : Stars & Stripes' Skipper Difficult Figure to Figure

January 13, 1987|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

FREMANTLE, Australia — Sometime, somewhere, Dennis Conner must have met Archie Moore, for they both live in San Diego.

Moore must have looked upon a cocky kid once named Cassius Clay as Conner beholds Chris Dickson, because the America's Cup challenge final that started today comes down to this: the crafty, paunchy old warrior in one corner, the fiery-eyed upstart in the other, standing between Conner and his long-sought triumph.

The generation gap can be intimidating. Moore probably had no better idea of what to make of Clay in 1962 than Conner, 44, knows how to deal with Dickson, 25, other than with the usual tacks and jibes. Sometimes, especially in mano a mano combat, it helps to know the opponent's mind.

"It can't hurt," Conner said. "But we've sailed against each other three times in our lives and we've said as many words to each other. I don't feel like I know him real well."

On the other hand, said Peter Isler, Conner's navigator: "Dennis is no enigma to Dickson."

One wonders, though: Does anyone really know Dennis Conner? Does Dennis Conner know Dennis Conner? The last few months in Fremantle have revealed enough sides of the man to confuse a psychologist.

There is the Conner who lashes out at a reporter: "Are you stupid or are you just a Kiwi?"--then apologizes profusely over a mistaken identity.

There is the Conner who hears the crying of a boy who has fallen from his bicycle outside the Stars & Stripes compound, investigates, has some syndicate ladies administer first aid and invites the lad for a ride on the boat.

"It was great," says Jamie Rumsley, 9. "I had six cans of cool drink and three (granola) bars."

And Conner has a friend for life.

Then there is the Conner who knows better than to pop off but sometimes can't help himself.

"Talk is cheap," he says. "I'll keep my mouth shut. I have a fiberglass muzzle on."

Then in the next moment he says: "Why would anyone build a fiberglass (12-meter) unless they were trying to cheat?"

On that occasion, Tom Blackaller, Conner's great antagonist, was quick to pounce. "I don't think he should have said that," Blackaller said.

Conner replied, smiling: "I take it all back."

Conner meets a newsboy in a shop and takes him for a ride on Stars & Stripes.

Conner is run off the defenders' course for pacing a race between the Kookaburras to check their speed. Cheeky.

He emerges from a waterfront restaurant, drink in hand and relaxed, and agreeably poses for a picture with two young ladies.

Exploiting his '83 image as the loser of the Cup, he does an Australian TV commercial promoting the sale of America's Cup commemorative stamps "in a special folder, so even I can't lose them."

He autographs each set.

"It's the least I can do for you guys," he says, grinning through the tube.

Next to Prime Minister Bob Hawke, he has become the favorite subject of editorial cartoonists in Western Australia and the arch-enemy of the little country with the plastic boat.

Conner courts controversy. And if he can't find it, it finds him.

The Aussies love it. Deep down, they probably would rather lose the Cup to him than anyone else, if they have to lose it.

A New Zealand sponsor's ad reads: "What does Conner have in common with 17 million Steinlager (beer) cans? They're all behind KZ7."

Is he behind? What does Conner really think?

One day, perhaps off guard, he will predict a 4-0 sweep. The next day, asked about the Kiwis' weaknesses, he tells reporters: "If you guys'll tell me what they are, I'll work on 'em. We haven't seen any weaknesses.

"We've sailed 72 miles 37 seconds apart, and 7 of the last 14 marks we were overlapped. It looks like it's going to be a heck of a good series."

Analyzed, that gives Dickson little to swing at. The Mongoose is ready to strike.

Tom Whidden, Conner's tactician in three America's Cup campaigns, says: "Dennis has a comfort level, as we all do, and when he's in that comfort level, nobody's better. He knows to do the right thing at the right time."

On the boat, Whidden says: "He's very quiet, very unemotional. Hardly says a word. He and I talk back and forth, but that's pretty much all that's said.

"We try hard to keep it light . . . joke around once in a while. If things are going wrong . . . "

In a race against Blackaller, they guessed wrong on the wind and had the wrong sails on. A halyard jammed. The headsail ripped. They won.

"We could easily have gone to pieces there and, in fact, Dennis is a little more uncomfortable when things are going wrong," Whidden said. "He performs a little less well, so we all say, 'Look, Dennis, when you're concentrating, you're the best, so just go back to concentrating and we'll do our jobs.'

"I see Dennis getting maybe a little more tight about a Blackaller race than somebody else. But we're going into this series feeling very confident about our speed, (so) I feel Dennis will perform at 110%.

"When he feels we've got everything going our way, he performs very well."

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