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White-Knuckler Around the World : Sailing: Conner to compete in at least the first leg of nine-month race that starts Saturday off England.


When Dennis Conner first talked to New Zealand's Brad Butterworth about teaming up to sail the Whitbread Round the World Race together, the conversation might have gone like this:

Dennis: "So, how long does it take?"

Brad: "Well, it's 25 days . . . "

Dennis: "That's not so long."

Brad: "That's only the first leg. The whole race takes nine months."

"Hm. Is it fun?"

"Sure, trying to sleep in a cold, wet bunk and standing on a deck pitching and tilting 30 degrees day and night with saltwater splashing in your face is loads of fun."

"What do you have to eat?"

"Freeze-dried food."

"I mean the main course."

"Freeze-dried food."

"Oh, well, I guess it goes down OK with a beer or a glass of wine."

"We don't allow any alcohol on board. I can't even promise Diet Pepsi."

"I'll get back to you, Brad."


Dennis Conner has sailed a lot of miles over several oceans, but he has never been on a boat for 25 days. He is committed to sail only the first, 5,950-nautical mile leg of the sixth Whitbread, which starts Saturday off Southampton, England, and will finish there early next June. After the first leg, Conner will see how it goes.

But give the man credit. He knew what he was getting into when he conceived the project, and at his age--51 last week--he's still willing to try something new.

"The sailing's good," he said, reflecting on the Transatlantic Gold Cup tuneup race from New York when his boat won in a record time of 12 days. "But the accommodations. . . . I think the designers should be required to sail aboard the boat. It might be a little different."

Until recent years, Conner might have wished that on Bruce Farr, the Annapolis-based New Zealander who designed 10 of the 15 boats in the race, including Conner's and most of the other Whitbread 60s.

In the 1986-87 America's Cup at Fremantle, Australia, Conner accused the Kiwis of cheating because Farr built their 12-meter out of fiberglass instead of aluminum.

In '88, after clobbering Farr's superboat with a catamaran, Conner called Farr "a loser."

Conner never got to sail against a Farr boat in '92 because neither reached the Cup finals, possibly cooling the feud enough to allow them to work together.

"It's a great boat," Conner said.

For racing, he meant, not cruising. Most Americans' idea of a voyage around the world is aboard the QE II.

"Americans have different mentalities," Conner said. "They're not into long-distance racing. The French and the British, that's their type of racing. Our focus is on day sailing."

That's one reason why whenever Conner sails, he'll be the only American on the American boat, one of two in the race, along with Nance Frank's U.S. Women's Challenge. Butterworth was in charge of hiring the crew but, short of shanghaiing them, he had trouble finding American sailors willing to go, although he tried.

"I certainly did," Butterworth said. "But at the end of the day I had to feel comfortable with people I'd seen and had sailed with offshore. The other thing was that the boat was built and launched in Italy (with) no time or resources to do tryouts."

But Conner did fine, despite Conner's vivid descriptions of the discomforts, Butterworth said.

"Across the Atlantic the weather was pretty bad and these boats aren't that comfortable, but he coped with it easily. These boats are physically demanding, and he's probably one of the oldest guys in the Whitbread 60 fleet. He's got his work cut out."

Conner pointed out that the next oldest man on the boat is only 35, but he isn't concerned--not even about the 6,215-mile fourth leg through the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn, dodging icebergs.

"That doesn't scare me too much," Conner said. "I haven't ruled it out. It'd be fun.

"I know what it's like to spend a night offshore. It's not life-threatening. I've won four SORCs (Southern Ocean Racing Conference championships). You can't do that without going away from the shore. I sailed many Acapulco races.

"It's just not something you'd choose to do if you had a choice. If you want to go race, you don't have a choice, so you might as well make the best of it. It's just something I wanted to do.

"I'm going to go on the first (leg) and see how it goes from there. I have a commitment to be in Australia for the Etchell 22 world championships in November. That precludes me from going on the second leg (from Punta del Este, Uruguay to Fremantle). I tentatively plan to go on the third leg from Fremantle to Auckland."

He also said that Cape Horn held no sailor's romance for him.

"No, it's just another mark of the course."

Conner has enjoyed the attention the Whitbread receives.

"This a very big race in Europe, very big. I wouldn't say it's as big as the America's Cup, but the media requests can fill your day. Sailing is like the third biggest sport in France."

Unlike past Whitbreads, which had a mix of classes, this has only two, with five maxis and the new fleet of 60s.

"It's going to be a very competitive race," Conner said. "All the boats--the Spanish, little Dicko (old rival Chris Dickson), New Zealand's Ross Field and ourselves--all go about the same speed.

"I think we'll race in a pack until things get sorted out before people start taking flyers. Then you'll see some of these smaller, less-favored programs go off in another direction."

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