A Duel In The Sun

When last we tuned in, those magnificent men in their sailing machines had managed to run aground in a courtroom. The fate of the sterling America's Cup, trophy of the world's most famous yachting competition, had been reduced to a debate over ill-defined rule books and hoary royal charters. Poseidon be praised, those days are over! After laboring for three years, the sailing establishment has pulled itself up by its own Top-Siders. When semifinal races took off last week in the waters off San Diego, the new sea order was visible to anyone with a powerboat and a pair of binoculars. Armed with stunning new technologies, captains pushed their sleek, multimillion-dollar sloops toward immortality and a guest shot with Ray Charles in an Uh-Huh commercial.

Actually, there were two meets underway, one to decide who would represent the defending champion San Diego Yacht Club, the other to choose the foreign competitor. The U.S. match pitted a syndicate led by Dennis Conner, who, over the past decade, has twice won and once lost the cup itself, against a group led by Bill Koch, an amateur helmsman of enormous wealth who showed up with four different boats to test. The early line had favored Koch (pronounced "Coke ") and his America' (pronounced "America cubed "). In fact, Conner had been almost written off. With a kitty of $60 million, Koch's boats were freshly designed for the cup races. Conner, who raised a mere $15 million, was left to retrofit his aging Stars and Stripes. But for the moment at least, skill on deck weighed evenly with drawing-board magic. Conner beat Koch in three of their first four races. "Dennis has humbled us a bit, " said Koch.

The foreign competitors tasted some salty humility, too. Japan's Nippon Challenge went into the semifinals as a favorite. The Japanese have pursued their first America's Cup with all the competitive zeal they bring to international trade. They raised $45 million from 30 Japanese corporations, hired a crew of crack New Zealand yachtsmen led by world match-racing champion Chris Dickson and built a trio of boats at the forefront of yachting technology. But last week the Nippon Challenge lost four of its first five races. Sayonara, America's Cup.

That left France, Italy and New Zealand, all surprisingly well matched. With its rapierlike lines and big sails, France's Ville de Paris may have an advantage on the course's light winds and choppy seas. But the French have been hampered by tactical mistakes and sometimes sloppy deck work. New Zealand, by contrast, has by far the best-trained crew; its machinelike precision, over time, may offset possible deficiencies in boat speed. (The crews in these affairs are a thing to behold. When a sail needs adjustment, several members will spring into action, cranking winches with arms worthy of a Terminator. The rest of the time, they sit on one side of the boat or the other-depending on the wind--exhibiting the athletic involvement of, say, a designated hitter in the American League.)

If money guaranteed victory, Italy's II Moro di Venezia would triumph. The Italians won the International America's Cup Class World Championship in San Diego last May, and their expectations for the cup are high. What's more, they are bankrolled by Raul Gardini, one of the world's richest men. Asked how much money he was willing to spend, Gardini replied: "Whatever it takes. " So far, that has meant more than $100 million.

Sailors aside, the biggest gamblers may be the folks at ESPN who have committed to covering more than 100 hours of racing. For nonenthusiasts, a little bit of sail viewing is usually sufficient--unless there's drama. Last week ESPN began to get some. At the start of one race on Thursday, the Ville de Paris gouged a hole in its hull by slamming into the Nippon. The refs waved a penalty flag, the French had to sail a 270-degree penalty turn and finished two minutes behind. Later that day New Zealand rounded into the last leg of the race 11 seconds behind the Italians. Then, with incredible tacking, New Zealand caught and passed them, apparently winning by one second. Again, though, the refs hoisted a flag; New Zealand nipped a buoy at the finish and that infraction cost the boat the race.

The technology has changed dramatically. For most of the last 30 years, the race has been dominated by the so-called 12-Meter design. But in 1989, after Conner took advantage of a loophole in the rules and defended the cup using a catamaran--a boat with two parallel hulls-yachting officials came up with a new design for contenders: the International America's Cup Class. They are bigger, lighter and faster (box). Also more expensive and harder to handle. These tighter-turning boats require many more sail changes. And the gear breaks more often. Conner dropped out of one earlier race with a broken mast, and the Nippon's rudder splintered during last week's third race.

The new boats are bionic--the sum of ever-changing new parts. Preparing for the semifinals, Conner hung the Stars and Stripes with a new keel, cut 300 pounds off the stern and sanded an additional 35 pounds from its mast and rigging. He figures that improved his average speed around the 20-mile course by at least two minutes. Tactics have evolved, too. The superior speed and maneuverability of the new boats put a premium on skippers' racing and tactical skills. But all that is above the surface. The real magic may lie hidden in the 15-ton keels-the below-water ballast-that serve to keep the boats from taking flight as the world's largest hang gliders. The keel designs are highly classified; guards keep watch for scuba-diving spies. Last week, in fact, Japan's crew hauled a diver out of the water just yards from the Nippon's berth. They cracked him with a paddle but he refused to answer questions-and spoke only French. Moi? Mais non!

BILL KOCH, an amateur helmsman but a pro at amassing millions, has 60 of those and a fleet of four state-of-the-art boats. His match with Conner to decide the U.S. defender is a classic one of money vs. experience. (DOUGLAS KIRKLAND-SYGMA)

DENNIS CONNER, who has both won and lost the America's Cup, has only $15 million and an aging boat, the Stars and Stripes. Can his unquestioned skill outweigh Bill Koch's bottomless pockets and spanking-new yachts? (SALLY SAMINS)

Diagram

NEW I.A.C.C. CLASS OLD 12-meter Class Length: 75 ft. 65 ft. Mast Height: 110 ft. 86 ft. (to water) Displacement: 50,000 lbs. 60,000 lbs. Beam (width): 18 ft. 12 ft. Sail Area: 3,000 sq. ft. 2,000 sq. ft. Main and Jib Spinnaker 4,500 sq. ft. 2,500 sq. ft. Bigger but lighter; the new racing sloops skim the waves. With less weight, the boats ride higher in the water: In the races, with the sails at full billow, the boats tend to go over and down the waves.
MAST: Towering 105 ft. above the deck, it provides the sole support for huge sails. It's made of carbon fiber, which provides the best strength-to-weight ratio.
SAILS: As big as basketball courts, they are made of a light but tough Mylar-Kevlar.
HULL: Also made of carbon fiber; the new ones are longer and wider; but lighter than the 12-meter's aluminum version.
KEEL: (Under water): Contains the'bulb', a 30,000-35,000 lb. lead weight which serves to steady and support the boat.