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AMERICA'S CUP 1987 : Whidden, Tactician for Conner, Knows His Sails--and Sales

January 30, 1987|EDITOR'S NOTE: Stories for this special America's Cup section were written by Rich Roberts, Times staff writer, who has been on assignment in Fremantle, Australia, since late November. Roberts, a recreational sailor, has written extensively about the sport and covered all classes of sailing for The Times during the 1984 Olympics. He will report on the final series, along with Times' sports columnist Mike Downey.

FREMANTLE, Australia — Dennis Conner approached tactician Tom Whidden, removed his cap, dropped to his knees and bowed his head to the ground, arms outstretched.

"I'm glad to know someone that's a success," Conner said.

Whidden, the former president of Sobstad Sailmakers, had just been introduced Thursday morning as the new president of North Sails, the other major producer of racing sails. The move compares to Lee Iacocca's jump from Ford to Chrysler.

During the previous America's Cup in 1983, John Marshall was president of North and trimmed Conner's mainsail, with the Sobstad chief, Whidden, calling tactics.

"It showed that competitors can work together to achieve something and still wind up close personal friends," Whidden said.

For this campaign, Marshall has stepped off the boat to be Stars & Stripes' design team coordinator.

Two days before Stars & Stripes was to start the cup finals against Kookaburra, Whidden said: "Our design team is really uptight. John was off duck hunting yesterday. Either they aren't concerned or they've given up on us."

Whidden founded Sobstad 14 years ago but sold his interest last October. In Fremantle he has directed the redesign of virtually the entire Stars & Stripes inventory for the local conditions.

The newest creation is a mainsail made from a new combination of materials: kevlar strands laid vertically with a synthetic yarn called Spectra 1000 woven in horizontally. Stars & Stripes has been testing it this week, along with its new spinnaker, Dolly.

The mainsail's unique construction is intended to prevent the sail from losing its shape laterally under wind stress.

Whidden seems to like the sail, "But we don't have a name for it," he said.

Whidden, 39, said he plans to continue sailing competitively.

"I'll still do the same old stuff," he said. "I'm gonna be a hands-on, sailing, promotion, marketing president. I'm not gonna be the kind of guy that stays in the sail loft and diddles with luff curves and designs. I'm gonna be out selling the company.

"I definitely won't get out of it, and I'll promote very heavily the America's Cup effort."

Conner reminded him: "By the way, there is a yacht race here Saturday."

And Stars & Stripes seems very confident about it.

"As you know, the Kiwis have sailed against the Kooks," Whidden said. "We don't want to be overly optimistic, but they say they'll see us in Hawaii or San Diego (for the next defense)."

Stars & Stripes has publicly conceded Kookaburra a speed advantage downwind, especially in light wind.

"We once lost an America's Cup on a downwind run," Whidden said, referring to the final contest against Australia II in '83. "But with the new configuration of the course, we feel a little less vulnerable."

America's Cup races are still about 24 nautical miles, but the old course had longer legs: three upwind, one downwind and two reaches. The new course is four upwind, two downwind and two reaches. Considering that a boat must tack--zigzag--to go upwind, they now spend proportionately more time sailing upwind.

"It's a trade-off when you design the boat," Whidden said. "We realize we are a little slower downwind, and it concerns us. But we feel races are won on the upwind legs."

Marshall said: "We're confident we'll be good upwind in 18 knots (of wind) or more."

Whidden added: "But we think we're better in less wind than we sailed against KZ7."

After several days of lighter, offshore winds, the pattern has returned to the stronger sea breezes of 20 knots and above and is expected to continue through the weekend.

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