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A Year Ago, the Cup Victory Was Still Sweet--and Uncomplicated

February 11, 1988|ARMANDO ACUNA | Times Staff Writer

Exactly a year ago this week, Dennis Conner and his Stars & Stripes crew were the toast of the nation. Welcomed back home by thousands in San Diego, congratulated by President Reagan at a White House ceremony and honored with a ticker-tape parade down 5th Avenue in New York City, they basked in the sweetness of victory.

Move over, World Series and Super Bowl, make room for the America's Cup.

And for awhile--despite some intrigue and false starts, including the much-criticized delay by Sail America to name a site for the next race--the planning for the next regatta, a 1991 affair in San Diego to be attended by a record 22 challengers from 10 foreign countries, moved forward.

But then Michael Fay of New Zealand demanded a one-on-one contest, invoking a literal interpretation of the Deed of Gift--a sort of constitution that governs the Cup. To the shock of the San Diego Yacht Club and the Sail America Foundation, a New York judge agreed with Fay and ordered the race to be held this year, in what has turned out to be boats radically different than the 12-meter yachts in use for the last 30 years.

Legal Maneuvering

The decision initiated another round of legal maneuvering that still threatens to undermine the Cup, making it a prize to be won by lawyers in courtrooms rather than by sailors at sea.

Here is where the "legal" side of the Cup contest now stands:

The City of San Diego, which had wanted to appeal Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick's decision, was rebuffed late last year when the judge declared the city had no standing in the lawsuit. Asst. City Atty. Curtis Fitzpatrick said Wednesday the city has filed a notice of appeal, a technical procedure that allows the city to continue pursuing its case, which Fitzpatrick says is unlikely at the moment.

Sail America, the organization under contract with the San Diego Yacht Club to put on the regatta, announced two weeks ago, on the final day when appeal of the judge's decision could be lodged, that it too would let the order stand and would instead use its energy preparing for the race scheduled for this September in Long Beach.

More Drama Left

"We have chosen not to appeal in an effort to end the uncertainty, to end the legal wrangling and to get on with settling this on the water . . . ," said Sail America president Malin Burnham in a letter to Fay.

As result of that decision, New York Atty. Gen. Robert Abrams, who had indicated immediately after the judge's decision that his office would contest the ruling to protect the "public trust" implicit in the Deed of Gift, also declined to appeal.

The attorney general would have looked silly arguing that it was "impossible or impractical" to conduct a race with Fay when Sail America had already agreed to do just that, said Abrams' spokesman David Fishlowin a telephone interview Wednesday. "Once they agreed to conduct such a race," he said, "it would have been extremely hard to support (our) contention . . . basically, the attorney general was supporting the San Diego Yacht Club."

Despite all that, there is still more courtroom drama left.

On Jan. 25, England's Royal Burnham Yacht Club filed a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court seeking to force the San Diego Yacht Club to open this year's race to all foreign challengers. A hearing on the suit before Justice Ciparick is set for Feb. 24.

And in the wings is Fay, who is threatening more legal action over San Diego's decision to move the site of this year's regatta to Long Beach.

Whatever the outcome of the courtroom battles and the scheduled race in Long Beach, 1988 already has earned a prominent niche in the often tumultuous 137-year history of the America's Cup.

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