SAN DIEGO — Dennis Conner and Stars & Stripes, so old, so slow, just might limp into the America's Cup match together.
Their third consecutive victory over America 3, by 1 minute 47 seconds Tuesday, tied the best-of-13 defender trials at 4-4 and raised questions about how slow Stars & Stripes really is.
"Stars & Stripes looked pretty fast to me," rival helmsman Buddy Melges said, "and I'm not too sure that it wouldn't have blown away those two red boats on the other course, as well."
The reference was to the bitter scrap between Il Moro di Venezia and New Zealand on the challengers' course--advantage Italy, by 53 seconds, to even their best-of-nine finals at 3-3, with a couple of New Zealand protests pending in that acrimonious contest.
Bill Koch has spent more money--$65 million and counting--in this campaign than Conner has spent in six. He should have a faster boat. He has built four to Conner's one.
So why has Stars & Stripes led at every mark of the last three races?
"We're scratching our heads trying to figure (that) out," Koch said.
Melges said, "The flat water and five knots of wind is a favorable condition for Stars & Stripes."
That's what Conner has been saying. Generally, with an El Nino current warming the water to 75 degrees, the winds have been lighter and the seas calmer while Stars & Stripes has won four of the last five races.
"The conditions have favored us by having some shifty and streaky patches, and we've been fortunate to find the right streaks and patches," Conner said. "If that continues, maybe we'll continue to be lucky."
Conner still says America 3is faster than Stars & Stripes.
David Pedrick, one of Stars & Stripes' designers, agrees.
"If the crews were switched, Dennis and his crew would be blowing them away by a lot more than they are," Pedrick said. "We've got a good keel. They've got a better hull--and Dennis and the crew are sailing very, very well."
Conner would still be interested in borrowing Koch's boat if he reaches the Cup match.
"Obviously, we know their boat is a lot better boat than ours," Conner said. "Between 20 and 40 seconds a beat faster is a heck of a difference. They're fast downwind, too. They have a heck of a piece of equipment, but that's not my call."
A switch is legal for the defenders, if not for the challengers, but Koch has said there would be problems with the IRS in loaning the boat out because America 3is listed as a nonprofit corporation.
Conner got off to a slow start Tuesday, and Melges sailed across in front of him easily the first time they converged. But when Melges was slow coming out of a covering tack, Conner got through America 3's lee and worked up in front of the rival on a long port tack--one of Conner's favorite tactics.
"This is slow death," Koch was heard to say, knowing that, inevitably, Melges would have to tack away for clear wind, conceding Stars & Stripes control.
When America 3's afterguard misjudged the layline to the mark, Melges had to do two extra tacks to get around and fell 1:17 behind.
On the third windward leg, America 3lost 1:20.
In the challengers' race, Il Moro cornered New Zealand behind the committee boat shortly before the start, then tacked away with speed while the Kiwis did a slow, down-speed tack and were eight seconds behind at the gun.
The Italians enjoyed a comfortable lead of 1:14 at the first mark and led by as much as 2:07 before the Kiwis regained 1:16 on the last windward leg, setting themselves up for a downwind charge to the finish that this time they were unable to generate.
New Zealand's two protests filed afterward were for an Il Moro crew member hiking, or hanging, too far outside the boat and for having its spinnaker set without a pole at one point. The jury was deliberating late Tuesday night.