AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Ask anyone on an American street to name a sailor and Popeye comes to mind, with Columbus a close second.
In U.S. sports consciousness, sailboat racing is a step above a coma, but every few years comes an event whose passionate nationalism draws interest well up the scale and revives awareness of a third sailor. For a quarter-century, Dennis Conner has been the lightning rod for that event, for all nationalities.
Some believe he is the event, Mr. America's Cup. There is no A.C. without D.C.
But when the challenger final series starts here next Tuesday, it will be a best-of-nine contest between Paul Cayard's AmericaOne team from San Francisco and Patrizio Bertelli's Prada from Milan.
Where's Dennis? And who is Patrizio Bertelli?
Bertelli is why Conner won't be there.
He heads the high-fashion house that has sold enough handbags and baubles to invest $40 million to $50 million in winning a 149-year-old trophy that's worth about $700 at current rates for silver.
The word around the waterfront is that his management style is more like Genghis Khan than Conner's, but his employees deny it.
Operations manager Laurent Esquier, a Frenchman who lives in Rochester, N.Y., said, "If you see Italians shouting and pushing, that doesn't mean they don't love each other."
On the other hand, Bertelli, who speaks limited English, said through an interpreter that he has enjoyed his first America's Cup experience and is looking forward to some serious infighting in the finals.
"When the war is on, I enjoy it a lot," he said.
Bertelli spent more time on his boats as the non-participating "17th man" than Conner did on his boat. However, Bertelli also is superstitious. He hasn't ridden along since the day Prada's mast fell.
A larger question is how his sailors--highly skilled but untested in the hand-to-hand combat they now face--will respond to Cayard's gang of streetwise warriors. Like Conner, Cayard doesn't blink.
Prada's boats, designed by San Diego's Doug Peterson, have sailed over Conner, three other U.S. teams and three other European teams, as well as a Japanese and an Australian entry.
They weren't all pushovers, and Conner's under-funded effort, in particular, overachieved to grow tough, especially in strong winds. With Ken Read at the helm, Stars and Stripes was 3-2 against AmericaOne and 2-3 against Prada.
Only at the end of the semifinals, when the wind didn't blow hard enough, did Conner's outfit falter. Dawn Riley's America True, already eliminated, sailed brilliantly and trounced Stars and Stripes by 1 minute 32 seconds in a make-up race. That was the coup de grace for San Diego's Cortez Racing Assn. entry and Prada's pass into the challenger finals.
That night, an appreciative Prada sent a truckload of beer and champagne to True's going-away party, as cannoned confetti drifted disrespectfully over Conner's compound just next door.
It was his earliest exit in his eight America's Cups since 1974--the first time he had failed to reach the defender or challenger finals. There was the sense of the end of an era about it.
It wasn't only that he wasn't on the boat this time. At 57, Conner has found his business skills as a manager and fund-raiser more valuable than his sailing. Now it's easier to hire world-class sailors than it is to raise money for one of these campaigns.
Tom Whidden, 52, is president and chief executive of North Marine Group, the parent company of North Sails. He has been at Conner's side as tactician through the seven campaigns run by Conner, who calls Whidden his best friend.
But the game has changed since they teamed up in Newport, R.I., in 1980.
"For sure, it's different," Whidden said. "A campaign was more manageable for a person like Dennis to manage financially . . . to raise 3 or 4 million dollars to have a pretty decent 12-meter campaign.
"The ante on the money side has gone up, and the ante on the perspective of all the various areas that are important has also been raised. It's a very big thing to manage financially. For a guy like Dennis to do it himself is pretty spectacular. The day of it being able to be done without an independently wealthy person or a large company doing the whole thing itself, that day's pretty much over."
The night after Stars and Stripes was ousted, Conner wouldn't say whether he would be back. It may depend on whether the Kiwis keep the Cup.
"We were very well embraced by the people here," he said. "It's a wonderful venue . . . [but] it's very difficult to raise money for an America's Cup in New Zealand."
Conner is known for his sailing achievements only slightly more than for his outbursts of arrogance and mean-spirited attacks on perceived antagonists. His moods during occasional appearances in news conferences at the media center have swung from sarcastic to gracious to contrite.
"While I'm sorry not to go on, I'm very happy to have been here," he said. "And I know this will be a very memorable America's Cup. The best is yet to come.