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Sinking From View

Until boat went down, not much was heard from Dennis Conner in America's Cup buildup

July 25, 2002|RICH ROBERTS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While operations were underway to raise Dennis Conner's sunken Stars & Stripes USA 77 to the surface off Long Beach late Tuesday afternoon, the owner was nowhere to be seen, leading some to wonder whether he had gone down with the ship.

No, he was back at the training base on Terminal Island fixing dinner for his cold, hungry crew that would be bringing the salvaged vessel home shortly before midnight.

"Dennis had come back and made a big pot of chili for all the guys," said Bill Trenkle, general manager of Team Dennis Conner. "They really appreciated it because some of them had been diving and hooking up the crane. There were plenty of cold puppies that appreciated the warm chili."

Conner hadn't been on the boat. He seldom is these days. Confident to leave sailing and administrative matters in capable hands, he spends more time schmoozing with sponsors who are providing the $30 million-$40 million necessary to run a successful America's Cup campaign.

The America's Cup trials begin Oct. 1 in Auckland, New Zealand.

In fact, when USA 77 sank, he and some sponsors were on a launch on their way to meet the boat to go for a ride.

As Trenkle said, "About 99% of the time, we're offshore in a couple thousand feet of water, which would have been a bad place to sink."

There would be little hope of recovering the boat from the middle of the San Pedro Channel between Santa Catalina Island and the mainland, where the team normally works. But, on this occasion, they had come in closer to transfer the VIPs onto the race boat in the calmer waters behind the Long Beach breakwater.

Thank heaven for sponsors.

"Technically, it was not a sinking. It was a grounding and a swamping," Conner said.

Another small miracle was how the boat remained upright after it sank, half its 110-foot mast remaining out of the water. The secret: Before it went down in about four minutes, the crew had inflated some air bags inside, and then the keel planted itself in the mud like a tulip.

Several of the 15 crew members, including navigator Peter Isler, jumped into the water, the others hopping onto chase boats.

"I didn't have a chance really to think," Isler said. "Just act fast, helping to pull down the sails, pass out life jackets, get the pumps and air bags distributed in the right place, and then it was time to jump in."

Although a structural failure in the rudder housing caused the boat to sink, there also was concern about the 18-inch cracks along the port and starboard gunwales, opposite the mast.

"We heard some cracks when it went down," Trenkle said, "so we're still trying to sort that out."

But he did not link the cracks with the broken hulls that sank oneAustralia at San Diego in 1995 and almost sank Young America at Auckland in '99.

Trenkle said, "The other failures happened back by the keel area, which is much more highly stressed, well aft of the mast. [These cracks] are not really in a critical part of the boat."

It's unusual that the incident even occurred in the United States. For more than a year, eight of the nine challengers have been in and out of Auckland with the seasons like swallows, probably wondering what Team DC was up to 7,500 miles away.

The six-month routine of testing and training started with USA 66 breaking its mast in February, before USA 77 was built. That it ended with USA 77 surviving a sinking is about all the rest of the sailing world knows.

With as low a profile as Mr. America's Cup can manage, Conner has chosen to work in relative isolation from a modest base lost amid the containers and cranes of the massive commercial shipping operation.

Their last sail will be today, albeit with a single boat, USA 66. The injured USA 77 will be shipped to New Zealand on Wednesday, to be followed by USA 66 a week later.

"It'll go down to New Zealand and be repaired and we'll be sailing by the end of August, as we planned," Trenkle said.

Conner said the damage "is definitely not mortal."

A couple of hiccups like a broken mast and a sunken boat aside, the training program has been rated successful.

"We've had excellent conditions, from nine to 20 knots [of wind], so we've had a lot of good sailing," Conner said.

The 25-mile-wide channel is ideal for fine-tuning America's Cup boats, as Paul Cayard's AmericaOne team learned in 1999.

Trenkle said, "This has let us train every day without the constraints of bad weather. Compared to most places, it's very reliable. We haven't lost one day because of bad weather or no wind."

Ken Read, the 40-year-old helmsman from Newport, R.I., has driven one boat, tactician Terry Hutchinson the other. The crews might as well have been punching clocks. They sail together upwind for a long time, then they sail together downwind, testing incremental adjustments in sail trim and sailing angles against the static platform provided by the other boat.

It's not very compelling drama, but it exploits a valuable tool the team lacked in 1999-2000: a second state-of-the-art boat for a benchmark.

What does it achieve?

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