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Q & A WITH MALIN BURNHAM : Sail America President Making Best of Situation

Times Staff Writer

From his office high above the center of the city, Malin Burnham can look down on the waters where he learned to sail and rose to a position of power in the sport.

Burnham is a power in the community, as well. He is chairman of the board of John Burnham and Co., a real estate, mortgage loan and general insurance business founded by his grandfather in 1891.

It is clear where the firm’s heart is this week. From the top of the building hangs a red, white and blue banner urging, “Go for it, Dennis!”

Burnham also is president of the Sail America Foundation, which sponsored Dennis Conner’s America’s Cup victory at Fremantle and is managing his effort to retain the Cup for the San Diego Yacht Club against New Zealand’s challenge in a best-of-three series starting Wednesday.

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Neither Conner nor Burnham is given to issuing frequent public comments, but when they do, they usually have something to say. Burnham broke his silence this week.

Question: You have been quiet for several months, leaving it to others to exchange accusations with the New Zealand people. Why?

Answer: My style is one of organized approach. I have always tried to encircle myself with top quality people that can be assigned a responsibility and go out and do it. I’m somewhat of a private person. Every once in a while, though, the head guy needs to come forth and be present and make a statement.

I plan to be in evidence throughout the series. We are the managers, we are the host, we are the trustee.

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Q: From where will you watch the races?

A: The Stars & Stripes team has chartered a Catalina Island ferryboat. We’ll have a big gang of the corporate sponsors and supplies on board. It’s a 600 capacity boat. We’ll have no more than 450.

Q: Has this controversy caused a problem with your sponsors?

A: We’ve had no problem with any of our suppliers or sponsors sticking with us. Certainly, we have had a problem in attracting new commitments.

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Q: Can’t this whole situation be traced back to Jan. 6, 1987, at Fremantle, when you invited the American press aboard your yacht Carmac and put San Diego on notice to drum up support for your effort or risk losing the next defense to another site? Didn’t the subsequent wrangling between Sail America and the San Diego Yacht Club over selection of a committee that would select the site leave the door open for Michael Fay?

A: The San Diego community has been quite good. Prior to the court awarding the validity to the present Kiwi challenge, this community came aboard with substantial commitments to putting on a full-scale America’s Cup open to the world in 12-meters in ’91. It’s too bad it all couldn’t have been used. We had to backtrack into a much smaller and quicker event.

Q: But your ultimatum also had a backlash.

A: Dennis and I were very open and up front to tell everybody that we had nothing to do with choice of the venue. There was a mechanism set up to form an America’s Cup defense committee, of which neither of us might not be on that committee. History proves that we aren’t on that committee. But it did open up some speculation on the part of various people as to what might happen to it.

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Q: Your family has been in the club since 1938, and you have been a member since the mid-'40s. Has it been a strain on old loyalties?

A: There were some difficult moments. The most difficult part from my perspective is to be able to explain the complexity of this whole event, and it is terribly complex, having to do with a lot of history and tradition of the America’s Cup and the various interested potential challengers from around the world.

Since I’ve had 10 or 11 years of direct involvement in that--and Dennis, also--we’re in a position that we just know more about the matter than other people in San Diego. To get them to understand and up to speed has been a very difficult thing to do. A lot of expressions have come from people in San Diego that might look negative, because they really didn’t understand all of it.

But certainly today our community is as close to 100% solidarity as you can get. We are committed to defend this America’s Cup in San Diego and get this thing into a multi-nation, multi-challenge mode open to the entire world, where everybody comes to a level playing field and gets to the starting blocks on an equal basis, where we don’t have an advantage over the rest of the world or any other potential participant.

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Q: You seem to have a big advantage with a catamaran. How were you involved in that decision?

A: I was deeply involved in the strategy of how we could best defend the challenge that was thrust upon us in a surprise mode. We collectively decided it would be best for us to answer an unorthodox challenge with an unorthodox defense.

Q: The two sides accuse each other of shutting out other challengers. How does Sail America, as manager of the defense, justify excluding other potential defenders?

A: It turns out in this America’s Cup that no matter what any of us do, somebody out there criticizes it. We had two basic considerations as to how to organize (the defense). The first consideration was an extremely short period of time. The more defense syndicates that might come forth into a sailoff limited the amount of time that any of us could perfect our own boat because we would be engaged in racing as opposed to (development).

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Since our launching date about 90 days ago, we believe our catamarans are going 15 to 20% faster. We could not have achieved that if we had to be diverted into an elimination program.

The second consideration was that to finance the boat program as well as the event, we had to go to corporate America and give marketing fulfillment to our sponsors that wasn’t compatible in a short period of time.

As it turned out, I’m satisfied that we were entirely correct that, while there were a couple of other potential defense syndicates out there, it was too little and too late for them to get involved.

Q: Does Dennis Conner have a lock on being the defender in ’91, should you win this week?

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A: We don’t want to presume we’re going to win this thing, but if we are successful, we have talked about several schemes as to how the next America’s Cup should be organized. I can only say there is no lockup of any kind.

Q: So Conner probably would have to compete for the defense spot?

A: Absolutely. There is no agreement with Dennis or anyone else.

Q: In your own sailing career, you won the Star world championships (the most prestigious one-design title) in 1945 with Lowell North as your crew. North went on to win four Star worlds, more than anyone. Did you teach North to sail a Star?

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A: Lowell is two years younger than I. He was in Stars for his first summer in 1945, just getting in the Star class in our local fleet.

Did I teach him how to sail a Star boat? I don’t want to take credit, necessarily, but I might have given him a hint or two. I’d love to claim him as a pupil.

Q: You are a financial businessman, co-founder of your own bank. Michael Fay is a merchant banker. Do you feel any affinity for Fay?

A: From a background standpoint, Michael and I have a lot in common. We’re both very strong competitors. Some people have described us as being stubborn and hard-headed. But being competitors, we want to see our teams win.

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My background separates from his in the America’s Cup because so much of my interest comes from being a participant--a sailor on the boat--and much of my thinking and my approach is colored accordingly. Michael doesn’t have that perspective.

Q: So what do you think of Fay?

A: Controversy always has its good sides, as well. This controversy--and Michael Fay gets credit for it--has shown the world that there is a better way to conduct the America’s Cup.

Michael also gets credit for pointing out that 12-meters have a limited life, and thirdly, we will see another class of boat.

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Q: Is Michael Fay a man you could like?

A: Sure. There is nobody in the world that I can’t like.


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