Eagle May Still Play Role in Cup Outcome : Sails Go to Conner; Skipper Is Helping Both Kiwis and Blackaller

Times Staff Writer

Eagle, a proud bird, is dead but may yet play a small part in the America's Cup.

After placing 10th in the trial rounds with a record of 10 wins and 24 losses, the Newport Beach 12-meter has become a donor boat, offering its equipment and expertise to the surviving syndicates.

Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes has borrowed a few sails, while New Zealand and USA may benefit from some of skipper Rod Davis' input in the challenger semifinals starting Sunday.

Davis has sailed with both of the latter syndicates during the past week--twice with first-place New Zealand, which wanted to improve its starting tactics after some mediocre efforts forced it to come from behind in four races.

"They felt they should have somebody push 'em," Davis said. "We were pretty successful around the starting line--it was after that when we had our problems--so they asked if I would come out and help 'em."

Davis sailed the backup boat, KZ5, while Chris Dickson sailed KZ7.

"We won two, he won two and we broke even on about three," Davis said.

Steering Tom Blackaller's twin-ruddered USA was a different kind of experience.

"It's a very strange boat," said Davis, who took it through several maneuvers. "It's more like flying than sailing. They use a lot of terminology on board that I didn't even know what they meant, like 'cyclex.' It has something to do with the ratio between the front tab and the back rudder.

"The front tab--I call it a trim tab, they call it a trim tab, but technically it's a canard--they worked real hard figuring out how much it should turn when the back rudder turns. They've got it pretty well figured out now."

The two rudders can be adjusted to turn in different ratios, depending on the sea conditions.

"Anything from 3 to 1 down to zero," Davis said. "They can fix it (in one position) if they want.

"It's funny going from Eagle to that boat to the New Zealand boat. They all have radically different feels. As far as helm loads, I like the New Zealand boat the best.

"But just because it feels good doesn't mean it's going fast. Tom's boat has a lot of rudder load. There's a lot of load on the wheel, like weather helm, but it's not the angle of the rudder. It's just that there's not much counterbalance in the rudder. There's a lot of rudder aft of the post, and that means that it pulls hard all the time.

"That makes it a little more tiring to steer. Tom's boat would be much more tiring to steer than Eagle or New Zealand's.

"I sailed KZ5. They say they feel the same, but 5 has a very light feel and is very quick responding to the helm, which indicates they have a very big rudder on the boat. New Zealand's boats both tack exceptionally well, and they accelerate quickly out of a tack.

"Tom's boat doesn't tack well. He's gotta sweep that front rudder through the water, and that makes it a very strange boat to tack."

Davis sailed with New Zealand's second-string crew on KZ5 but found them no different than the regulars.

"They're a very highly disciplined group, well-drilled," he said. "They're focused in on the America's Cup. In contrast is Tom's crew. Man for man, there's more talent sitting on Tom's boat, by a long way. But they're not as focused in on the America's Cup.

"When the New Zealanders get a day off, they're in the sail loft making a sail or whatever. When Tom's crew gets a day off, they're off playing golf or doing what normal people do.

"That's not to say that Tom's method is wrong or right. It's just different."

Davis hasn't sailed with Conner, but his sails have.

"They liked one of our medium mains, and we had a brand new No. 10 light-air main they wanted to see, and two jibs," Davis said.

"We were sailing upwind on a leg and they were going downwind in a separate race. As we went by we looked over at their boat. We were looking at their spinnaker, and we caught 'em all looking up at our mainsail as we sailed by. I thought, 'Hmm,' so I looked at our mainsail and I said, 'Yeah, that looks pretty clean . . . set up pretty nice.'

"So as soon as we got eliminated (tactician) Tom Whidden made a beeline over here and said, 'We want that main.'

"That's pretty good, because they probably spent twice as much on sail development as we did."

Eagle, Davis believes, was not as complete a flop as its record would indicate.

"As bad as our final performance was, we did a lot of things very right that don't reflect in what happened. Within the sail program, we had things going very right. (Mainsheet trimmer Kimo Worthington) had it set up nice. He always does.

"I think the hull design was actually pretty good. I'm not positive because I'm not a naval architect, but I think the biggest glaring difference in our boat and everybody else's boat was always the keel. We took a gamble and it wasn't right. Tom Blackaller took a gamble and got it right."

Davis won't pick a winner between Conner and Blackaller in the semifinals.

"Tom is going pretty fast. That's one you can't call. But you'd sure have to say the Kiwis are gonna beat the French (Kiss).

"I'm of the mind that if Blackaller beats Conner, the Kiwis will beat Blackaller. If Conner beats Blackaller, that will be a good, tough one. Dennis Conner can be an intimidating guy to go against."

Dickson, 25, acquired an early reputation as an unstable skipper.

"He's settled down a lot," Davis says. "The early Chris Dickson was a John McEnroe type: A yeller, screamer, complainer. Now he's settled into a very confident mode. He doesn't appear to get flustered. He thinks he has some very good people around him that have created this confidence in himself."

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