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COMEBACK : Dennis Conner Was the First Skipper in 132 Years to Let the America's Cup Slip Into Foreign Hands. To Win It Back, He Battled Australian Technology, Skeptical Financiers--and the East Coast Yachting Establishment.

April 26, 1987|DENNIS CONNER and BRUCE STANNARD | Dennis Conner won the 1987 America's Cup. Bruce Stannard is an Australian writer. Their book, "Comeback," will be published in May by St. Martin's.

WHEN THE telephone rang, Johan Valentijn answered it. It was June 16, 1983, and he was in the middle of an America's Cup summer in Newport, R.I. As the designer of our syndicate's boat, Liberty, Valentijn had little time to take calls. But this one would change his life, every idea he'd ever had about 12-meter yacht design and, eventually, the future of the America's Cup.

"Johan, I've just seen something incredible." The voice was excited, perhaps even desperate. Valentijn recognized the caller as Paul Doppke, who earlier that day had been responsible for blocking the boat Australia II when she was hauled out of the water under heavy guard for her final measurement. He was most probably the first American to see the unusual configuration on the bottom of the yacht's hull. "Australia II has wings on her keel and they're made of lead. It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen," Doppke said. "Do you know anything about this?"

Doppke's anxious question would haunt us all for a long time. Valentijn's answer was anything but satisfactory. "What do you mean, wings?" he said. "What do you mean, made of lead?"

I had heard something about a peculiar keel back in January. In those days, we didn't have the resources to go to Australia to investigate. And when I didn't hear anything more, I forgot about it. But as reports began to drift into our camp during the summer that the Australia II was very fast in a breeze and was pulverizing the competition in the foreign trials, alarm bells started.

Armed with sketches from Doppke, I went to meet with Bob McCullough, past commodore of the New York Yacht Club and chairman of the America's Cup Committee. He was the man to make our case, if indeed we had one. "Commodore, we have a problem here, and you had better do something about it," I said. "Australia II has a peculiarity on the bottom of her keel, and we don't think it's legal."

The America's Cup rules state that the 12-meter boats competing in the race "shall draw no more than nine feet." We knew that when Australia II tilted in a breeze, its revolutionary new keel would extend beyond nine feet. "Heeled over with those wings," I told McCullough as we looked at the drawings, "she would run aground."

McCullough just stood there and scratched his head, as I had done the first day. He didn't see the practicality of pressing the issue immediately. Instead, he told me to go back to Valentijn and find out more. Disappointed, I did what he asked.

When we had our case together, we took it to the International Yacht Racing Union measurers. Tony Watts, the British chief of the crew, told us that our argument didn't mean a thing. The boat had to be measured vertically, he maintained. Mark Vinbury, the one American on the team, recommended that they refer the question to the IYRU Technical Keel Boat Committee. But Watts' team had already judged the keel in Australia and found it legal. His position was: If my team has ruled, it shall not be overruled.

The more Australia II won in the foreign trials, the more the New York Yacht Club's attention to our keel complaints grew. But the club never formulated a clear-cut plan. When word drifted into our camp that the Dutch had helped in the design of the Australian yacht, we finally had something to go on. If the yacht really had been designed outside Australia, it would be a definite infringement on the rules.

But instead of mounting an effective counterattack, McCullough helped dream up the idea of asking the Dutch to design a new boat for our use. Valentijn wrote a telegram that our syndicate manager, Ed du Moulin, agreed to send. Unfortunately, I never saw it. The whole idea was ridiculous and backfired on us. Here we were trying to prove that the keel was illegal, even while we were asking to build the same thing. Later it would be said that the cable was merely a ploy to trap the Dutch into acknowledging that they had helped the Australians. But the Aussies used it to make the club look like a cheat and a fool.

It's important to understand that the New York Yacht Club pulled all the strings back then. The sailors were puppets. As the home of the America's Cup for 132 consecutive years, the club had total control over how the trophy was defended against foreign challenges. Our syndicate was just one of three teams fighting to represent the club--and the United States--in the 1983 races. So there was a question of just how far we could push the keel issue on our own.

McCullough's right-hand man was Vic Romagna, a smart, scrappy little guy who might have had a real impact on all this if he'd become involved a little earlier. "Listen, Dennis, you guys go sail," he used to assure me. "Don't worry. We'll beat 'em."

"Fine, Vic," I'd shoot back. "But we know how to sail. It's what you guys are doing ashore that really bothers us."

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