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The America’s Cup : Old Conner’s Knack of Upsetting People Surfaces Again

Times Staff Writer

No one knew what Dennis Conner was up to.

No one from ESPN, which paid millions of dollars to televise the America’s Cup, knew what the skipper of Stars & Stripes was doing, or even where he was.

Nor did anyone from Marlboro, a major corporate sponsor and the keeper of the Stars & Stripes compound. Light one up, guys. We may be here a while.

Thousands of spectators lined the harbor near San Diego’s Seaport Village, waiting for a wave or a smile from the sunburned skipper. But minutes stretched into an hour, and still, no Dennis. It got to be like waiting for Godot.

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The race was over. Stars & Stripes had won Wednesday’s first of a best-of-three by 18 minutes 15 seconds--a time the New Zealand challengers said should have been, could have been, an hour and a half. Easily.

Conner was due in at the Stars & Stripes compound any second now, to greet well-wishers and press, but the moment was oh so sloooooow in coming. If slowness was a Conner strategy, he was spreading it all around.

It wasn’t slowness, it was servitude. Conner, the 46-year-old San Diegan, honors loyalty first:

Enroute to the post-race gathering, he made an unexpected stop at the San Diego Yacht Club. That’s the club that holds the bottomless 8.4-pound jug that Conner is trying to defend.

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Finally, shortly after 7 p.m., and with the sun setting fast, Conner and crew sailed into the compound area near the Chart House restaurant. The hundreds of photographers and minicram crews that lined the dock were unhappy. Disgruntled spectators were unhappy.

But the worst part about it, joked one cynic, was having to listen to the trumpet-blaring Marlboro theme over and over. Each time, the guy operating the tape thought he saw Conner coming in, but each time, the alarm was false.

Conner is, of course, first and foremost an individualist, not unlike the stoic Marlboro Man in all those cigarette commercials. For some reason, he does have a knack for making certain folks unhappy--not the least of whom were the losers from New Zealand.

In a post-race press conference marked by charges and countercharges and insults that flew back and forth like flocks of kiwis, Conner was accused of going slower than he could have. The New Zealanders suggest he’s doing this deliberately, to make it look like his smaller, lighter catamaran is not as mismatch-fast as they say it is.

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Someone asked the San Diego skipper, who bore traces of smeared sunscreen on his lips, if he had been dogging it.

“I’m sailing a cat,” he said, in reference to the catamaran. “Someone else is sailing the dog.”

The Kiwis said they had lost all respect for Conner, since he didn’t sail the best race he could, in their opinion, and he volleyed back that they had been nothing but nuisances from the start.

Bruno Trouble, the press conference moderator, mistakenly identified Kiwi designer Bruce Farr as the architect of Stars & Stripes.

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“In his dreams,” Conner quickly interjected.

A few more charges of poor sportsmanship, and then the tired sailors drove off, into the night. Conner headed out of the old police station that serves as a media center, sitting in the back seat of a white Mark IV Lincoln with the license plate DC IN 91, a reference to a possible big America’s Cup in San Diego, in 1991.

Just before he climbed in, someone asked his teammate and tactician Tom Whidden if a countersuit against New Zealand were planned.

Whidden looked surprised by the question and offered a slight smile.

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“Not really,” he said. “We’ll just do the best we can under any circumstances. We just wish they’d race, and save the talking for some other place. We’re kind of getting tired of this.”


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