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Suspense Surrounding Keel Is of Mystery Novel Proportions

Times Staff Writer

Under partly cloudy skies at the RMI shipyard in National City on Wednesday afternoon, information was gathered for an early chapter of the “Tale of the Winged Keel’s Successor.”

Actually, suspense mounted in the morning when members of the media gathered in the parking lot of the Town and Country Hotel. The occasion was the first San Diego showing of Dennis Conner’s new Stars and Stripes 12-meter yacht.

Behind the platform with a microphone was a huge colorful burgee that was big enough to house a 12-meter yacht. There were also flags, corporate sponsors in three-piece suits, and topsiders galore.

But where was the yacht?

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Since “Stars and Stripes” was christened in New York on Aug. 17, it has run into one roadblock after another. First, the yacht was delayed for nearly a week by light winds and shallow water along Interstate 30 going through Arkansas.

Winds on the highway? Imagine what will happen when the ship goes to sea.

On Wednesday morning, the Sail America Foundation discovered that a San Diego city permit prohibited bringing the 12-meter yacht from its base in National City to Mission Valley.

In this mystery of Agatha Christie proportions, Conner is trying to protect the innovative keel on Stars and Stripes from the sleuths from Down Under.

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Maybe Conner really didn’t want the media to see his new boat. Never know when an Aussie journalist might be around. After all, there were those two Australian television crews covering the christening in New York.

And all this for a keel.

Well, a little nautical background may help explain why the keel has become almost as secretive as the Pentagon Papers. Who knows if there is a Deep Throat of the Pacific Ocean?

In 1983, the Australia II crew with its winged-keel entry defeated Liberty to snap America’s 132-year reign over the America’s Cup. Ever since, Conner has been possessed to come up with a better keel than the one used by Australia II. Conner, a member of the San Diego Yacht Club since 1954 and a three-time America’s Cup defending helmsman, considers the keel to be the critical element in winning the America’s Cup in Perth, Australia in 1987. So, he plans to keep his revision of Australia’s innovation as secretive as possible.

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Call Conner the Bo Schembechler of the ocean. The Michigan football coach would never reveal any new offensive wrinkles the week before the Ohio State game. Part of Conner’s strategy to recapture the America’s Cup involves keeping the keel covered.

Therefore, Conner has instituted a security system to keep the keel under cover when Stars and Stripes is docked. There will be someone on guard at all times. And Conner probably has some secret plan to deal with nosy submarines at sea.

“They are common-sense security measures,” Conner said. “I’d rather not say exactly what they are. Millions read the L.A. Times and you’d be surprised how many are of Australian decent. If you don’t think it gets back to Perth, you’re wrong.”

One of Conner’s security measures is an internal one. Crew member Charles Cox, who lives in Carlsbad, said he had to sign confidentiality statements saying he wouldn’t divulge any information about the yacht, and particularly, about the keel.

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“We need to protect information about the keel,” Cox said. “Besides, it’s not something we’d want to disclose anyway.”

Quick, cover that keel with a banner. That’s exactly what happened on Wednesday. You can look at the bow, memorize the stern and stare at the side. But don’t dream of checking out the keel on the blue and gray Stars and Stripes.

Conner may be more serious about his preoccupation with security than most of his predecessors, but he is not unique.

“When I was with the Columbia in 1967, I had a new sail that I tried to keep a secret,” said Joseph E. Jessop, Sr., the No. 1 life member at the San Diego Yacht Club. “Ten minutes after we hoisted it, a string of boats started following us.

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“There is a great deal of desire on the part of the competition to find what they’re up against.”

That’s one of the reasons Conner is not training on the East Coast or even on the mainland.

“It doesn’t make sense to allow Australia or any other competitors to get this design sooner than they have to,” Conner said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ll train in Hawaii.”

Hawaii is actually closer to Australia than any other state, but the winds are similar to those he will find in the summertime in Perth. And it is a lot nicer than training in Corpus Cristi, Tex., which is surprisingly one of the few other places to have winds similar to those in Perth.

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“Anyone who thinks they’re practicing in the U.S. is kidding themselves,” Conner said. “There are very few conditions in the continental U.S. with strong winds on a regular basis. The waves are over 20 knots on a daily basis in both Australia and Hawaii.”

Training in Hawaii will also enable Conner and his crew to be far away from his primary American competitors in New York and Newport, R.I. He will take Stars and Stripes and Liberty, the boat he was the skipper of in 1983, to Hawaii at the end of September and will train there from Oct. 15 through the middle of July.

“I’m concerned with protecting the keel from other yacht clubs in this country,” Conner said. “I’m especially concerned with those (clubs) who have only one boat to train with.”

He believes they might be most likely to try and duplicate his innovations. Conner said he will use five boats to train and the N.Y. Yacht Club will use three boats. No other club has more than one boat at this time.

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The Sail America Foundation, based in San Diego, has a budget of $12 to $15 million. Sail America president Malin Burnham said the foundation already has commitments from corporations and approximately 30 yacht clubs totaling nearly half the amount needed.

That will enable Conner to train in a first-class manner and to keep refining his boat until construction of the final boat begins in January, 1986. At that point, Conner and his 31 consultants will put together the findings of all his experimentation and will design their dream boat. The America’s Cup preliminary trials will be held in October, 1986.

By then, “Tale of the Winged Keel’s Successor” should be a best seller in Perth.


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