FREMANTLE, Australia — When Stars & Stripes returned from the sea Wednesday, a huge American flag flew over the dock, its colors backlighted by a bright sun filtering through a high, fleecy sky.
Although the breeze was moderate, the flag was streaming full, and so was Stars & Stripes. The scene was enough to make a Kiwi cry. It was going to be a beautiful sunset.
The score now in the America's Cup best-of-seven challenge final is Stars & Stripes 2, New Zealand 0, and the Kiwis don't know how to stop the forces at work against them. They haven't had much practice losing.
Tuesday, they were surprised when Dennis Conner's crew whipped them in strong winds by 1 minute 20 seconds, but Wednesday, when they were beaten worse--by 1:36--in moderate winds of 16 to 20 knots that were supposedly less favorable to the Americans, they were shocked.
Syndicate chairman Michael Fay spoke of "two bloody noses."
Skipper Chris Dickson said: "I don't know who he's been fighting the last couple of days.
"Obviously, we're a little subdued. We had some problems getting into the groove. We were chasing our target numbers all day for the wind strength and the wave conditions. Maybe we got the wrong sails on or were sheeting them wrong or helming the boat wrong. Whatever it was, we weren't sailing the boat to its potential.
"We could come up with a million and one excuses. The if only blues, I think is the term. If only we had done this, we might have sailed faster today. If only we had done that, we might have won.
"There's a lot of things that go into yacht racing. The end result is that Stars & Stripes has beaten us twice."
Like the crew here, 3.4 million Kiwis transfixed by their TVs back home now know that 37-1 and 28 straight was little more than window dressing. By Wednesday night, New Zealand was certain of only its next move: punt.
The Kiwis called for a day off to sort out their setback, but Conner's domination was such that it may only be postponing the inevitable. They can request one more lay day after the fourth race, but by then it may be all over.
Conner still speaks cautiously, for the record, although by all signs he is supremely confident. He opened the compound gates--heretofore off-limits even to most reporters--to a couple of dozen fans after the race and thanked them genially for coming.
"Don't forget, we've been up 2-zip before (in 1983)," he told the press. "We're not counting our chickens. Our fairy tale won't end until we win two more."
A Conner victory would seem far less a fairy tale than a Kiwi success, which was already being projected into another Down Under defense of the cup three years hence. Fittings for glass slippers have been canceled for guys in fiberglass boats, and real estate values in Auckland have come back to earth.
The last two races indicate that Stars & Stripes, once strictly a heavy-weather boat, is now the equal of or superior to KZ7 in heavy air, moderate air and maneuvering.
Stars & Stripes' new superiority is most apparent when sailing upwind. In Tuesday's race, won by 1:20, Conner gained 1:19 of his advantage going to weather. Wednesday, he gained 1:43 upwind.
"We felt that even in the light spots today we were faster than they were," Sail America President Malin Burnham said Wednesday.
Design coordinator John Marshall said: "They walked into a meat grinder hoping for these conditions, because our boat's optimized for these conditions now, too."
Added tactician Tom Whidden: "They had a fast boat in the beginning and thought they had something pretty special, and maybe they did. I might eat these words--they're still good and they're fast and we still fear 'em--but if we were 37 and 1 we might have been a little more careful in making any changes."
Although Stars & Stripes '87 is significantly improved since the trial rounds, the team doubts that KZ7, Kiwi Magic, is better at all.
"I think it's been dangerous for them to be so successful," Marshall said. "It's difficult for anybody to propose a change and have any credibility."
And now it's too late.
Wednesday's race, like Tuesday's, was over shortly after it started. Conner used Sail America's own VIP boat, Carmac VI, a $9-million, 137-foot motor yacht, to hide behind in a game of hide and seek near the crowded starting line, then went for the favored left end of the line in an even start and never trailed.
Conner sailed past Carmac's stern, and Dickson headed for the bow to pick him up when he came back. But Conner looped around and came out the backside free.
At the dock, Conner told Howard Stein, Carmac VI's skipper: "You needed rear-view mirrors to see what was going on."
The tactic apparently wasn't planned between Conner and Stein.
Whidden said: "We just look over in the spectator fleet and pick a boat and say, 'That'll be the boat for today.' "
Stein said later: "He would know that any experienced skipper who saw him coming would hold position."
"Our game plan was perfect," Whidden said. "We've done this before. That's gotta pay off sometime, right? The crew keeps looking back for leadership, and we look like we know what we're doing."
He smiled, then added: "If they only knew."
America's Cup Notes Stars & Stripes has won 11 races in a row since losing to Tom Blackaller's USA in the third round. . . . The forecast was for the return of heavy winds the next two days. New Zealand's only hope after today's day off might be light breezes, in which the modified Stars & Stripes hasn't been tested. . . . Bill Packer, head of the America II syndicate, visited the Stars & Stripes dock Wednesday morning to talk to the crew and wish them luck.