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Crowds Drink From the Cup, and Then Nap

Times Staff Writer

This city was host to its first America’s Cup race Wednesday, and, judging from the people taking afternoon naps at Seaport Village--where a few thousand people gathered on a grassy knoll to watch the nearly five-hour contest on a huge TV screen perched in the bay--it was less than a smashing spectator event.

Maybe it had to do with the Stars & Stripes catamaran’s laborious, lopsided, 18-minute victory over pesky challenger New Zealand in the first of three races, or the odd circumstances surrounding this oddest of Cup matches, or the lack of time and preliminaries to entice and build up a crescendo of interest.

Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t a repeat of Fremantle, the site of last year’s spectacular multinational Cup regatta, where the atmosphere for the final races between Dennis Conner and his Australian opponent--Kookaburra III--was pitched in Cup fever.

Racehorse and a Mule

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“What you have is a high-strung racehorse going against a mule with a huge plow, that’s the difference,” said a discouraged Warren Mooers, a semi-retired advertising man and experienced racing sailor who sailed with Conner when Conner was 14 years old.

Mooers was holding forth at the San Diego Yacht Club, one of the few bastions of true fan enthusiasm. It was certainly the most boisterous place, as people packed the dining room and bar to watch one of several televisions broadcasting the ESPN telecast of the match, which was close in the beginning and rather tedious after the first half-hour.

“Everyone feels this is a fiasco,” Mooers said. “I had 15 people who wanted to go out in my boat . . . but it’s still over there. We didn’t go out. You can’t see anything.”

As far as maintaining his interest, Mooers described Wednesday’s contest as comparable to last year’s Super Bowl rout. “Yeah,” he said, “say that. People will understand that one.”

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Out at Cabrillo National Monument, which at 3 miles from the start and finish line made it the closest point of land to the competition, several people formed a human line of binoculars and telescopes in an effort to get a glimpse of this Cup affair.

But the 20-mile leg of the race, plus spotty fog, made viewing difficult at best soon after the contest began. Harry Lex, a retired manufacturer and recreational sailor, drove down from Long Beach and spent all day at the monument, listening to the radio for updates on the battle at sea going on somewhere beyond the hazy horizon.

‘This Race Is a Farce’

Asked at mid-afternoon for his assessment, he replied, chuckling, “Boring.”

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“This race is a farce,” he said. “But it’s a nice day in the sun . . . and you can’t beat that.”

There were many empty parking spaces at the monument, and a park ranger said that, compared to a regular day, “Just a little bit more people showed up.”

Nearby and conspicuous in their limousine were John Vela and Troy Stephens, two men on a mission: trying to find some Cup excitement.

Vela and Stephens are co-owners of Blue Bird Express Club of Del Mar, a firm that provides limousine service to its 43 club members. They had been to the America’s Cup Village at Seaport Village, which they enjoyed. “We’re just hanging out to see what it’s like,” Vela said.

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So what’s it like?

“It’s amazing there’s not that much interest. I don’t know why,” said Stephens. “There’s armchair interest . . . but we have lots of clients where money is no object, lots of people interested and involved in sports, but we’ve heard nothing from them.”

At the America’s Club Village, the scene resembled a sedate picnic. People brought their beach chairs and blankets, coolers, suntan lotion and laid-back attitudes. At any one time, 3,000 to 4,000 people congregated at the village, and San Diego Police Sgt. Tom De Chandt, who organized police security, estimated that, by the end of the day, an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 made their way through the village of temporary tents, where the sales of souvenir items, such as T-shirts and caps, were brisk.

Sponsors Everywhere

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One very visible and dominating component of the America’s Cup Village and the bay was the presence of corporate sponsors. Floating above the harbor waters were large, inflatable Pepsi Cola cans. Marlboro workers were handing out free cigarettes, painter’s caps and posters, and the company logo was draped around the Diamond Vision screen. There was a Nissan tent, and Louis Vuitton bunting hung from every lamppost.

The highlight of the village, though, was the 14-by-18-foot TV screen, which was placed on a barge a few hundred feet out in the bay. Some people watched from the grassy knoll and others from the rocks lining the shore. The effect--the lack of fan interaction--was at times almost eerie, like people placidly watching a movie.

After all, said one man, it isn’t like going to a baseball or football game, where a quick trip to the restroom can mean a missed home run or touchdown. Wednesday, it was possible to take naps--you could take a long nap even, a shower, do some shopping, call your Aunt Martha right in the middle of the competition--and not miss anything. And that’s almost what Sheila Parliament and her friend from Ludington, Mich., Gail Dancz, did.

By mid-afternoon, the two middle-aged women were working on their sunburns after having arrived at the America’s Cup Village at about 11 a.m. Yes, they had taken a nap, they said, surrounded as they were at the moment by sleeping bodies littering the nearby landscape. But Dancz had made a special trip out from Michigan to see the contest, and both she and Sheila were having a good time.

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“We’re not really seeing anything, but I just wanted to be here, be a part of this. Also, we’re people watchers and we’re grading people from 1 to 10,” Dancz said. “So far, we’ve seen a couple of 10s.”

Once-in-a-Lifetime-Thing

Being here. Being a part of it. Those were refrains repeated often at the village by people who weren’t sure what to expect but who wanted to see what this Cup stuff was all about.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. . . . I just wanted to see the spectacle,” said Pete Hawekotte, a retiree who lives in San Diego.

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The second-most popular place was the Cup Village beer garden, where, as the day grew longer, more people packed the open tent, which had several television sets broadcasting the match.

Although the presence of Americans--most of them local folks--was overwhelming, there was a smattering of New Zealand backers, most garbed in Kiwi caps and shirts, many plastered with bumper stickers that read, “I Like the Big Boat.”

The day was particularly long for Errol Cook, a 25-year-old New Zealand schoolteacher, and his friend, Lisa Bader of San Diego. Sitting in a beach chair under two New Zealand flags, Cook, asked about his country’s dim chances for victory, replied strongly: “Kiwis have stamina. . . . I’m here for the duration.” That was at 11:30 a.m. “We’re going to eat a lot of food and drink a lot.”

In a declaration of defiance, Cook vowed to stay at the village, to await the return of the Big Boat, no matter how long it took. “Kiwis won’t leave. . . . Even if they’ve lost by an hour,” he said, “we’re going to be here to cheer them as come back.”

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