America’s Cup Trials : Not Only Is Silvestri Mad, He Wants to Get Even, Too

Times Staff Writer

For Russ Silvestri, there is more than just the America’s Cup at stake whenever USA meets America II in the challenger trials.

Silvestri, 25, is a tailer on USA, the San Francisco 12-meter. John Bertrand, 30, is the tactician on America II from the New York Yacht Club.

“Russ really gets up for that one,” says Steve Erickson of USA.


Silvestri, grinding his teeth, says of Bertrand, “Every time I see him I just get a feeling like Rrrrr, Rrrrr.

The stormy seas off Fremantle are nothing compared to the tempest Bertrand and Silvestri stirred up in the 1984 U.S. Olympic Finn class trials.

After Silvestri placed first and was disqualified on a protest by Bertrand May 13, the landmark case was kicked up through the top levels of the United States Yacht Racing Union and switched six more times before Bertrand was declared the U.S. representative July 26, two days before the opening ceremonies.

Bertrand went on to win a silver medal. Silvestri went home. The lords of yacht racing rewrote the rule book.

“I can understand him holding a grudge,” Bertrand says. “That’s just natural. He’s a real bright kid. It’s too bad that whole thing happened.”

Silvestri, with a commanding lead in the trials and two days remaining, was in position to concede a race as his throwout. He told reporters he might deliberately start over the line early just to get into position to “sit on (Bertrand’s) wind,” making sure that his nearest rival did not place high.

In effect, that’s what Silvestri did, although he never has admitted that he did it intentionally.

“I didn’t start over on purpose but I was willing to take the risk of being over,” Silvestri said this week. “I wasn’t going to go back if I thought I was over. I was going to start ahead of Bertrand at all costs.”

Actually, he didn’t do a very good job of sitting on Bertrand, who was ahead of him at the first mark. Yet, the final judgment was that at some point in the race Silvestri “disabled” Bertrand’s boat by infringing Fundamental Rule C (Fair Sailing), a new definition of the rules.

“It just didn’t turn out the way it could have or should have,” Silvestri said. “In retrospect, with what I know now and how people interpret those things, yeah, I would do it different.

“I’m a lot smarter from it, not cynical but more aware of how people might be shrewd and conniving in what they’re trying to get and that people are out for their own best interests first.”

Bertrand, cool and in control, lets Silvestri’s bitterness roll off his back.

But he notes how several Finn sailors have wound up at Fremantle this year, effecting the leap from the classic one-man class to the most complex type of program in sailing.

“They’re both grueling sailboats,” Bertrand said. “The 12-meters have caught on since (the Cup) left the New York Yacht Club (with Australia’s victory in ’83). It’s opened it up to a lot of sailors, and Finn sailors are generally regarded as really good sailors, and the 12-meters are always looking for good sailors. The demand has grown since ’83.”

Silvestri, who never lacked for self-motivation, has found this quality lacking in 12-meters.

“Sometimes you question the intensity of others,” he said. “If it was a basketball game, you see the guys that dive for loose balls and the guys that don’t. Sometimes you think the guys on your boat aren’t gonna be diving after loose balls.”

But Dennis Conner is one rival who arouses USA skipper Tom Blackaller and his whole crew. They are 2-1 against the San Diego skipper but 0-2 against America II.

The difference, Silvestri said, may be that “our whole program doesn’t like Dennis Conner. He seems like a person that if he ever got in a Finn . . . well, he’s just not an athlete.”

Bertrand assesses the opposition more pragmatically. “We’re thinking semifinals, for sure. We have some changes to make after the series, because right now there are some other boats out there that are quicker than we are.”

There have been some serious second thoughts around America II, which spent more time training and testing in Fremantle than any other challenger but has been struggling this month.

“That’s exciting stuff, though,” Bertrand said. “I wouldn’t mind being in French Kiss’ or New Zealand’s position, but being up against the wall, you’re really forced to do your best. I’ve been there before.”

Bertrand hasn’t been in a Finn since the last day of the Olympics. After this America’s Cup competition, he isn’t sure he’ll ever board another 12-meter.

“These programs are pretty intense,” he said. “It’s a long haul and I don’t think one would want to make a career out of it. There are other things in life. But if I had the opportunity, I’d look at it seriously.

“I’m not thinking much past . . . past tomorrow, really.”

Tomorrow--Saturday in Australia--he’ll face USA again, with Silvestri aboard.

Silvestri’s long-range sights are set on sailing a Finn at Pusan, South Korea, in the ’88 Olympics. He rebounded from his Olympic disappointment to win the North American Finn title in ’85.

“I’m gonna definitely do it,” he said.

Bertrand said: “He should. He’s really talented. He very well could have won the whole Olympic regatta last time.”

It’s possible, although remote, that Bertrand would join Silvestri in Finn competition again.

“That would be fun,” Silvestri said. “I don’t think he will. I know he won’t. I wish he would. I’d like to go out there one day just to hammer him. The last race of the trials my aim was to get him so frustrated that he was gonna want to quit. I thought that I was better than he was and I had all the momentum. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him. I didn’t dislike him. He was just a competitor. Maybe now, I wouldn’t let my emotions get so involved.

“John never does anything bad to anyone. He does what he has to do and he does it for himself. He’s not trying to please other people or make friends. He’s out there to win. He doesn’t have to worry about being invited to my wedding, but at the same time I wouldn’t go over and punch him in the mouth. He’s just different than I am.

“I respect the effort he made. He did everything he could to get into the Olympics, and he made no qualms about it . . . as ruthless as he could be. He got the silver medal. I would rather have had the gold.”

America’s Cup Notes Because Steak’n Kidney, equipped with a new keel, is suddenly competitive in the defender trials, an effort is under way to change the rules so it will have a chance to reach the finals. Under the present system, in which points are carried over, the Sydney boat, 3-25, would go into the Series D semifinals with only 9 points, all gained in Series C, but trailing Kookaburra III, 50; Australia IV, 38, and Kookaburra II, 31. The challenger semifinalists will start from scratch. . . . The challengers’ didn’t leave the dock Thursday because of unusual offshore winds that would have caused their separate courses to overlap, and the defenders called off their races after drifting around in dying breezes. . . . After two days off, the resumption of challenger competition today matches second-place French Kiss against Dennis Conner’s third-place Stars & Stripes. . . . White Crusader’s protest against USA for replacing her damaged front rudder after a race last week was dismissed Thursday night after a 10-hour hearing. The rules prohibit underwater changes during a series but, in an oversight, do not allow for breakage. The jury was convinced that skipper Tom Blackaller followed all proper approval procedures, including inspection and approval by measurer Ken McAlpine. The decision read: “USA had reason to believe that she had been duly cleared to replace her rudder, and she should not be penalized for incomplete formal procedures.” Disqualification also would have cost USA three other victories since the change. The British maintained that if a boat breaks a rudder, tough luck. They were supported by testimony from Stars & Stripes design coordinator John Marshall. Blackaller was upset that Conner’s rival American syndicate had “gone after USA like a rabid dog.” It was bad enough coming from the British, he said, when “we beat them by three seconds on the race course and they call out the legal corps.”