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Conner Is Upset at Makeup of Cup Committee

May 01, 1987|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

The America's Cup has been under tight security since Dennis Conner brought it to San Diego--especially, it seems, to keep Conner from slipping away with it again.

The San Diego Yacht Club's America's Cup defense committee that will select the site of the next defense has been stacked solidly with San Diegans, apparently in the fear that Conner would exert influence to take it to Hawaii or elsewhere.

Conner is believed to favor Hawaii, where his team trained and tested boats for the last campaign, but he hasn't said that publicly.

He did say this week, however, that he hopes the committee won't just make a hometown decision.

"We're all San Diegans, certainly, but I would hope that decision would be made on what's best for the Cup and a successful defense, ahead of the natural sentiments of, 'Well, it's our hometown, let's take care of ourselves,' " Conner said. "I'm hopeful they'll put what's in the best interests of the Cup ahead of all our sentiments."

Conner is a trustee of the Sail America Foundation, which financed his victory at Fremantle, Australia, but the San Diego Yacht Club officially was the challenger. Technically, the America's Cup is a competition among yacht clubs, not countries or individual sailors.

Sail America and the SDYC agreed in a 1984 contract that if Stars & Stripes regained the cup, the club's board of directors would form a 7- to 11-member defense committee from a list of nominees submitted by Sail America.

Sail America recently submitted a list of 17 nominees--9 primary and 8 alternates--in case too few of the primary nominees were unacceptable.

The club had the right to accept or veto individual nominees, but the contract stipulated that most of the committee would be members of the SDYC.

The club's board chose six of its own club members, with the seventh from the Coronado YC, and most of those were from Sail America's list of alternates. Most of the primary nominees were rejected.

A committee of local amateur sailors is not what Conner or Sail America president Malin Burnham had in mind. Apparently, they have no objections to the San Diego seven, since they did nominate them, but their list also included international sailing figures such as Buddy Melges, Gary Jobson and others with the expertise to produce a major international sports event.

The defense committee chairman is Eugene Trepte, 61, a former club commodore who owns a construction company. The vice chairman is Chris Calkins, 41, who helped negotiate the contract with Sail America.

A source said there was an indication late this week that the club might expand the committee to give a more cosmopolitan mix and the expertise Sail America was seeking.

Conner said the situation is laced with politics. "And I don't want to get on politics," he said.

"I'm in a situation where to make some official comment, I would really have to study it. I'm not as informed as I should be on all the various aspects. The way the contract is, the San Diego Yacht Club basically can have any committee they want, because they could just keep vetoing our committee."

Burnham has been publicly noncommittal.

Although Conner spoke cautiously, his Stars & Stripes tactician, Tom Whidden, whom he calls his best friend, was quoted in Sports Illustrated this week as saying: "I feel like we've been duped."

Contacted in Connecticut Thursday, Whidden added: "I think San Diego would do a terrific job and it would be fine to have it there. But I would hate to have it appear to be too much of a rigged deal."

Selecting a site has never been an issue in the 136 years of the America's Cup. Since bringing the cup home from England in 1851, the New York Yacht Club controlled the event and chose to sail it off New York from 1870 through 1920 before moving it to Newport, R.I. in 1930. When Australia II won in '83, it moved to Fremantle.

And selecting a site is only one of the new defense committee's responsibilities, which also include organizing and supervising all phases of the competition. Its functions were not specifically spelled out in the agreement, but the cup suddenly has become an event of great public interest, requiring broader expertise.

Conner and Burnham apparently nominated people they considered skilled and knowledgeable in matters such as television negotiations, money raising and even determining if they should continue to sail 12-meter boats, as they have since 1958.

Another decision--also never a consideration until now--will be when to stage the defense. Most insiders seem to agree on 1991 but not on the time of year.

Dr. Fred Frye, commodore of the SDYC, had indicated earlier that he would favor holding the event in late winter into early spring.

"The most wind's in March (at San Diego)," Conner said. "That doesn't mean it's necessarily best. Some of the best sailing is in light air . . . the finesse, the tactics. That's what the committee has to look into."

Wherever and whenever the next defense is staged, Conner said, "It can't be the same (as at Fremantle), but that doesn't mean it can't be as good or better. It will just be different. We're just scratching the surface. There's tremendous interest world-wide."

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