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AMERICA'S CUP '92 : Conditions Keep Sailors Guessing : Sailing: Wind proves to be a big factor in the early races.


SAN DIEGO — The ill winds off Point Loma will blow the minds of some of the world's best sailors over the next few months.

For Chris Dickson of Nippon Challenge, a recent practice race among America's Cup challengers was all too typical.

"We thought we had a pretty good start and were gaining bearing on everyone," Dickson said. "We tacked and cleared everyone. The new Kiwi boat was behind . . . we're front boat. We get lifted (on a favorable wind shift) so we're more in front.

"And then we get lifted so much that we're reaching into the (windward) mark, and the boats that we've nailed converge together.

"We think, hey, we did everything right, we were going fast, the tactics were good, the (sail) trim, the crew work, everything spot on--and a big shift comes through and negates it all."

That's why Dickson, the New Zealand skipper who leads the Nippon effort, warned about taking early results too seriously when the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger trials start Saturday.

"Winning races in round robin 1 has absolutely no significance," he said. "Every dog is gonna have its day. There will be days when some boats are quick, and you go out there the next day with conditions a little different and that boat won't be as quick.

"A boat will be fast in 5 to 8 knots of wind, but that same boat may be very slow in 18 to 22 knots. It's winter, we get storms; there are going to be a lot of different conditions.

"The Italians are going to lose races to lesser teams. No one is going to go through this unscathed."

Nippon has already been scathed in its maiden venture in the event. The mast fell down in the first race of the International America's Cup Class World Championships last May. Virtually the last impression observers had of the fledgling team was the boat being towed away like a giant bird with broken wings.

"Breaking a mast is a fact of life," Dickson said, meaning it could happen to almost any sailor--and has happened to three other IACC boats, twice to America 3's Jayhawk.

"The timing was what made it different. It was the first race of the World Championships, the windward mark, 90% of the cameras were out there."

And the reaction in Japan?

"Fantastic! Great PR. It got us a couple of hundred thousand more in support."

If expectations were too high back home, they soon were lowered.

"I don't know what the expectations of Nippon Challenge were at the worlds," Dickson said. "My own were very realistic. I didn't expect we would have a boat that was rocket fast because there were a lot of fundamental things that were wrong.

"The Worlds was a big shake-out for us. It told Nippon Challenge this was the level we're at, and this was the world standard, and we had to come up. We have a completely new boat, new philosophy, new concept, new spars, new sails, some new faces.

"Since the Worlds we've achieved as much or more than all the others out there."

Dickson, 30, is the top-ranked match-racing sailor in the world. One rival, Syd Fischer of Challenge Australia, calls him a "cunning bugger"--high praise.

His presence gives the team credibility as a contender.

This is his second America's Cup, after sailing for New Zealand at Fremantle, the quaint waterfront suburb of Perth in Western Australia, in '86-87. It didn't take him long to decide that San Diego wasn't Fremantle.

"The best thing for yacht racing, the America's Cup and sports enthusiasts would be for the America's Cup to get out of the U.S.," Dickson wrote in New Zealand Yachting magazine.

He has tempered his view since, but he still says, "The boats are all spread around, and that takes away the atmosphere. It's something San Diego should have thought hard about . . . (and) provided dock space for all the teams in the same place. Then we'd have a bit of a circus.

"I enjoy San Diego. Sailing now is a bit like the south of France. Nice temperatures, the middle of winter, and here's these beautiful mountains with snow on the top.

"But what is severely lacking is the effort to make an event. San Diego has been saying, 'What's in this for me?' The America's Cup is not the Super Bowl. This event needs a give before a take. The attitude was that the people will come and they'll damn well pay.

"That was the attitude. I see a much improved attitude now. The racing is going to be great. It'll just be hard to get the atmosphere on shore."

Dickson might rather be sailing for New Zealand, as Il Moro do Venezia's Paul Cayard might have preferred to lead an American effort.

But those opportunities weren't available in their homelands, so they did what any ambitious sailors would do, and as a result have suffered the label of "hired guns."

"It's just not accurate," Dickson said. "When I joined Nippon Challenge it was because it was in my mind a team with the potential and the resources to win the America's Cup. And I was a skipper out there looking for a team."

Dickson skippered New Zealand's successful fiberglass 12-meter for Michael Fay in '86-87, but the two had a falling out afterward.

"I have a lot of good friends on the New Zealand team," Dickson said. "There's no animosity there."

Asked about Rod Davis, the American-born, New Zealand-nationalized skipper who stands at the helm where he might have stood, Dickson says, "That's the obvious choice. He's the most experienced (with) the best track record."

Dickson has plenty of Kiwi company at Nippon. His tactician is John Cutler, his navigator Erle Williams--both veterans of Fremantle. Others hold shore positions. Japan's best match-racing sailor, Makoto Namba, is mainsheet trimmer.

"It's just a team of people going in the same direction," Dickson said.

He started from scratch about two years ago. Some of the Japanese on his crew had never sailed.

"I'm pretty happy, pretty relaxed at where we are. We're at where we hoped to be. We've put in our hard work. We feel we have a good chance of winning."

He has learned some Japanese and adopted part of the culture.

"I take my shoes off at the front door," he said.

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