SAN DIEGO — Team Dennis Conner dodged a whale about the size of a submarine in Thursday's America's Cup defender finals. Consequently, it also dodged a bullet about the size of a howitzer shell.
Stars & Stripes defeated America 3's Mighty Mary by 2 minutes 50 seconds, leaving those boats in a three-way tie with PACT 95's Young America in the race to see which will defend the America's Cup beginning May 6.
"A couple of days ago, you could have gotten pretty good odds on us," Conner said.
Conner's campaign did, indeed, seem dead then. And it would have been buried had the controversial compromise not let all three defending boats into the finals. Conner was still a longshot, his boat 2-10 in its last 12 races over the final part of the round-robin series and the semifinals. It had to make up deficits of two points against Young America and one point against Mighty Mary.
"After carefully analyzing this, it was our conclusion that you can't fight if you're dead," Conner said at the time.
Conner is alive and kicking now.
Mighty Mary is 1-1 in two starts in the finals and Young America, dominant until the finals, is 0-2. Those boats will race today, the winner moving into first place.
First place among the challengers is hardly being contested. Team New Zealand, unbeaten on the water since Day 1 in January, breezed to a 1:57 victory over oneAustralia Thursday. It leads, 2-0, in a best-of-nine series that could be over on Sunday.
The defenders are going at it with considerably more intensity. The three boats have raced 47 times over 92 days to get to where they were late Thursday--dead even.
Actually, Stars & Stripes was well on its way to evening the series Wednesday, leading at one point by more than 17 minutes, before the race was abandoned because the winds disappeared and the time limit expired.
"We don't do things the easy way," Conner said. "We have to win two to get one."
It would not have been easy at all, had Stars & Stripes collided with the whale in its path on the second downwind run. Conner, steering on the downwinds, abruptly changed course, estimating later that the whale was maybe 10 feet away when it was spotted. Mighty Mary gained 15 seconds on that downwind run.
Another near collision on the first upwind leg determined the outcome. Stars & Stripes led at the start, then Mighty Mary nosed in front partway up the run and they approached the first mark with Mighty Mary holding the right of way. Mighty Mary, pinching into the wind, did not have the speed to force the issue, however, and Paul Cayard, steering Stars & Stripes, boldly shot past into a lead that was not threatened.
"Essentially," Conner said, "the race was over when we got around that mark."
The margin widened when Mighty Mary had problems with tangled lines on the third upwind leg. Stars & Stripes' advantage doubled from 1:25 to 2:50 when Mighty Mary had to make the final downwind run without its spinnaker fully extended.
As a result of this 2-0 start in the finals, Team Conner can, for the first time, control its destiny. If these teams finish the final series in a three-way deadlock, Stars & Stripes would advance because of its better record in the final series.