SAN DIEGO — Nobody ever played the America's Cup game better than Dennis Conner, but now they've gone and changed the rules on him.
The master of the 12-meters sees not the lumbering aluminum trucks that he drove so well but new, light high-tech boats built of space-age materials that may break if the crew exhales all at once.
"The boats will be . . . not as safe to sail . . . a handful," Conner said.
And the genius of gamesmanship sees no protest rooms but on-the-water judges who won't be swayed by post-mortem explanations of fouls that occur.
"I see this as taking away a potential advantage for the American defense, which I'm not thrilled about," Conner said.
Conner, the sailor who never liked to go to sea without feeling he had an edge, now will have to look elsewhere--or, just plain out-sail the opposition, as he's also been known to do.
Conner was sizing up--or setting up--that opposition Thursday when the three syndicates that will compete to defend the Cup for the San Diego Yacht Club in 1992 met at a luncheon sponsored by the America's Cup Organizing Committee. It was a sellout of 600 at $20 a pop--$30 at the door--and a number were turned away.
The trophy itself arrived with its full-time keeper, Jack Keith, in one of Paul the Greek's rented chauffeured limos. Few Cup competitors travel so well. Is Cup fever catching on already?
Conner and the Cup have become a familiar couple since an official of the Royal Perth Yacht Club handed it to him Down Under nearly four years ago. New players introduced Thursday were Bill Koch, a serious sailor with serious bucks--he's been identified as a "billionaire" industrialist--and David Lowry, a real estate developer and San Diego YC member who brought the Beach Boys into the event, with '84 Olympic silver medalist John Bertrand of Newport Beach as skipper.
There were two other San Diego defense efforts officially approved by the ACOC until Peter Isler withdrew for lack of funding and Larry Klein's Triumph America syndicate merged with Koch's America-3 team.
Klein was fired recently, and Koch's only comment on that Thursday was: "Larry's a fine sailor, and I think he's got a fine future, and what's in the past is in the past. It's better if we wash our laundry in the laundry room and not in the press room."
Now there are indications that with the Beach Boys struggling financially, Koch also may absorb that operation. He said the possibility had been discussed.
Koch, who recently sailed his Matador-2 to the Maxi world championship, and Lowry disagreed with Conner about on-the-water judging. They like it: settle the dispute now and get on with the sailing. Since '87 the sport has seen enough litigation to last a lifetime.
Conner said: "I see some pluses and minuses. It's better for television and better for spectators.
"But from an American defense standpoint, the protests being presented in the room has always been part of the sport, and if you're good at that it gives you an advantage. I would guess that the Americans as a whole would be better in general than the challengers . . . (and) with our experience on our particular team, with (tactician) Tom (Whidden) and Dennis in the protest room, that we would be able to hold our own or have an advantage. It definitely would weaken our chances of successfully defending."
The new boats, designed with San Diego's relatively light winds in mind, will measure 75 feet--10 or 12 feet more than the 12-meters--but carry half-again more sail with two-thirds the displacement.
Asked how such a boat would fare in the gale-force winds of Fremantle, Australia, Cup veteran Paul Cayard, who heads the Italian campaign, said recently: "It would sink."
Even at San Diego, Lowry said, it will be "a little scary . . . hard to control."
Koch said: "They're going to be quite fragile. I wouldn't want to take 'em out in 20 knots of breeze."
Conner worries more that they'll make for dull racing.
"If there's a big discrepancy in the speeds of two boats, the racing won't be interesting, and as many people as we have here entered, some will be faster than others by quite a bit more than in 12-meters. If there's a five-minute difference and these boats are going around at 10 or 12 knots, you won't be able to see the other boat."
America's Cup Notes
Dennis Conner ranked his old nemesis, New Zealand, as the top challenger, with the well-funded Italian and Nippon Challenge syndicates close behind. . . . The first new International America's Cup Class boat to sail in San Diego will be one the Beach Boys bought from the French, then sold a half-share of to Bill Koch. Koch's team will sail it in January and Beach Boys skipper John Bertrand in February, preparing for the first IACC world championships in May. Conner's boat, being built in Newport, R.I., is expected to arrive in San Diego in March, but operations manager Bill Trenkle said they haven't decided whether to truck it or ship it through the Panama Canal. It's 18 feet wide. . . . The New Zealand and Japanese Bengal Bay boats--both designed by Bruce Farr and built in New Zealand, are aboard ship due to arrive Jan. 8, followed by the Italians' two boats Jan. 13 and the Nippon Challenge boat Feb. 5.