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America's Cup Yacht Sinks Off Long Beach

Sailing: Skipper Dennis Conner is dealt setback as rudder shaft snaps on new sloop. Crew is safe.

July 24, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN and LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sailing legend Dennis Conner's newest America's Cup racing vessel sank abruptly off Long Beach on Tuesday when the rudder shaft snapped during a training exercise.

The damage to the $5-million, 80-foot sloop dealt a setback to Conner, who will make a ninth appearance in the trials to challenge for the 2003 America's Cup in Auckland, New Zealand.

The Stars & Stripes USA-77 was sailing alongside Conner's sister Stars & Stripes USA-66 in a routine two-boat testing session about 1 p.m. when "a large crack was heard and the rudder detached from the hull," Conner's team spokeswoman said.

Crew members worked furiously to block the water, deploying air bags and preparing on-board pumps, but they were outmatched.

"The water came in so fast that the pumps and the air bags could not keep up," said Bill Trenkle, Conner's general manager and longtime sail trimmer, who was aboard the vessel.

Within five minutes, the yacht sank in about 55 feet of water 1.3 miles south of Alamitos Bay, lodging in soft mud with its black mast protruding from the water at a tilt.

Most of the 16 crew members aboard were able to step onto chase boats that had been tracking the team, and the few who jumped into the water were quickly pulled on board, Trenkle said. No one was injured.

"The good news is no one was hurt," Conner said. "The crew hardly got wet."

Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Stephen LaLonde said officials received the distress call from one of Conner's support vessels about 1:30 p.m. and contacted Long Beach Fire Department lifeguards, whose rescue boat is moored nearby.

"By the time they got to the scene, the Stars & Stripes had already sunk," LaLonde said.

The 32-member racing team has been training at the Team Dennis Conner compound in Long Beach since February, but only began sailing the boat in late May. Training involved daily two-boat testing sessions as well as match-racing practice.

Conner, who spends most of his time fund-raising for his $40-million America's Cup budget, was at a nearby sponsor event, but rushed to the salvage scene.

Conner said he is confident the high-tech boat can be repaired in time for the start of the Cup competition, which begins Oct. 1 with the Luis Vuitton challenger trials. He said the broken rudder shaft tore a hole in the carbon-fiber hull.

"If you want to talk about luck, we're normally sailing where it's 2,000 feet deep," Conner said from his Terminal Island complex.

Thursday was to be the team's last sailing day, and the boats were slated to be shipped to New Zealand by container on July 30 and Aug. 6. Conner said in a statement that he expects those dates to stand.

Conner has won the 151-year-old America's Cup four times, but not since 1988.

The sloop that sank made its debut May 11 at the New York Yacht Club's opening day at its summer clubhouse in Newport, R.I.

The club is backing Conner for the first time since he lost the cup to Alan Bond's Australia II in 1983 at Newport. The boat was christened May 26 in Long Beach. Its companion, USA-66, was launched in February.

America's Cup contenders can only race one yacht at a time. This is the first time since the 1986-87 competition that Conner has been able to afford two new boats, but all has not gone smoothly.

In early March, one of the carbon-fiber masts on USA-66 broke in a moderate breeze, but was replaced by a new mast, Conner announced at the time on his team's Web site, saying his technical experts had "learned a great deal from this incident."

Tuesday's incident was another blow.

"Of course this is a setback," said New York Yacht Club spokesman Michael Leavitt, adding that it was unclear how long repairs might take.

"It could be days, it could be months," he said. "Fortunately, there is some time available. This is an edgy game, and there are going to be setbacks like this."

By about 6 p.m., a private salvage crane floated to the submerged vessel on a barge. Assisted by divers, the barge began the slow process of hauling the groaning yacht to the surface.

As the hull emerged, a crack about 4 inches wide and 18 inches long could be seen in the middle of the hull, directly below the 110-foot mast.

About a dozen pleasure boats milled at the scene as boaters watched the rescue.

The yacht was built at the New England Boatworks in Portsmouth, R.I. Before the finishing touches were placed on the vessel, Conner said in April that he "had a good feeling" about both new boats.

"But I know better than anyone that the competition is tougher than ever, and we're going to have to continue our intense training schedule to be on an even playing field with the other teams," he said.

The winner of the challengers' Luis Vuitton Cup will take on two-time winner Team New Zealand in February for the America's Cup.

The only other America's Cup yacht to sink was oneAustralia, which cracked in two and sank in 950 feet of water about five miles off San Diego during a challenger series race in March 1995. All 16 sailors were rescued. The yacht was never recovered, but oneAustralia had a backup boat.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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