It started with what was regarded as a hostile challenge and ended in mean and bitter recriminations following two lopsided races.
So much for the Acrimonious Cup, an ugly successor to the glorious spectacle that was the America’s Cup off Fremantle, Australia, only 19 months earlier.
The only similarity was that Dennis Conner again sailed a gunsmoke-blue Stars & Stripes boat for the San Diego Yacht Club, except this time it was a catamaran--to Cup purists a twin-hulled abomination with an airplane wing for a sail that finished off New Zealand’s massive monohull with the old 1-2 in the best-of-three series.
The race was close for about 15 minutes, but Conner, sailing conservatively as he had in Wednesday’s first race, steadily stretched out to win by 21 minutes 10 seconds--about 4 1/2 miles on the 39-mile triangular course.
That non-competitive affair hardly set the tone for what happened when the principals gathered for the post-race press conference Friday night.
A brief, sportsmanlike exchange of pleasantries quickly disintegrated, and all of the animosity of the past 14 months since Michael Fay issued his challenge exploded on the stage.
As several hundred reporters scribbled notes, Conner and Stars & Stripes design chief John Marshall on one side, and Fay and New Zealand designer Bruce Farr on the other turned up the heat of a rivalry they were unable to settle on the water.
Marshall said the big boat wasn’t just slower than the catamaran but was a slow boat, period.
Then, as it broke up and New Zealand skipper David Barnes shook hands with Conner, Farr stepped across them and said to Marshall, “You’re a liar.”
Conner said to Farr, “You little . . . you’re a loser. Get out of here.”
Quickly, a Stars & Stripes security man stepped between them and escorted Farr off the stage.
Oddly, early in the press conference Conner seemed conciliatory and indicated he found the attitudes of the event distasteful.
“The sailors have never really shared any of the controversy or bitterness,” he said.
“I would like to acknowledge how much respect we have for the New Zealand sailors. I think they were good sports and they sailed their boat well. I look forward to seeing David and his New Zealand crew in the next Cup, hopefully under more pleasant circumstances.”
Asked how he rated his third America’s Cup victory (he also was aboard Courageous in 1974 as starting helmsman and tactician) against the others, Conner was low-key.
“It would be hard to say this was one of the most exciting or most pleasant or most rewarding. We had a job to do and did it. We’re just a small bit player here. It wasn’t something we wanted to do or feel particularly great about. I’m just relieved it’s done.”
Fay, seated at the far end, then was asked to restate his determination to protest the catamaran back to the New York State Supreme Court, after which Conner pulled a letter from his pocket.
“While we’re politicking here, Michael . . . “
Fay said, “I haven’t started politicking yet, Dennis.”
Conner read the letter Fay wrote to the SDYC on July 23, 1987, extolling the virtues of big boats.
Conner: “I’d like to suggest that’s what you challenged us with, and that’s what we responded with.”
Fay: “I think, Dennis, I was describing a monohull, not a catamaran.”
Conner: “It doesn’t say anything about monohull or catamaran, Michael.”
Fay: “Did you pick up the first letter on July 23 or did you pick one up on July 17?”
Conner: “I’m just a carpet salesman, Michael.”
Fay: “OK, I’ll tell you about the one on July 17. Remember it said . . . ‘keel yacht.’ That’s the boat we challenged with.”
With the tone set, Marshall picked it up.
“The America’s Cup should represent the highest level of technology and performance in our sport,” Marshall said. “I think this match lacked a challenger that represented, in fact, the highest level of technology.
“If it was a mismatch, it was because the challenging yacht was not fast. I know we’ve been asked to match her, and it’s ridiculous to ask myself or any designer to match a yacht that’s not fast.”
A few seats away, Farr winced.
Conner, mimicking archrival Tom Blackaller at Fremantle, said: “Whoops, I wouldn’t have said that.”
Then Farr said, “If John Marshall thought the New Zealand boat was not a particularly fast boat, then why didn’t he match it with a similar boat that was faster? The reason was that Sail America couldn’t do that and had to find some other way of beating the New Zealand boat.
“Apparently, John Marshall thinks that the high point of technology is 12 meters.
“I find it quite disturbing that the gentlemen on my right, who are supposedly professionals in their work, can sit in a press conference and tell lies. That really troubles me.
“None of the other designers who have criticized the boat--particularly those representing the people on my right--have had the guts to come out and design one to race against us. Until they do that, we’re the fastest 90-foot waterline boat in the world.”
After the press conference, Britton Chance, one of the Stars & Stripes designers, stopped a reporter on the way out.
“I’d like to take strong exception to Bruce Farr’s remarks,” Chance said, tight-lipped with rage.
“Two weeks after we started designing, we had a boat that would have been two knots faster around the course than Bruce Farr’s boat. The reason it was not built is there was not time to do so. We were put in that position by the legal manipulations of Michael Fay.”
Partway through the exchanges, there was a brief, bizarre incident. A clown ran onstage to present Conner with a designer jockstrap, announcing, “Dennis, from your true supporters.”
The principals then returned to their debate. Conner alluded to “loopholes” in the Deed of Gift governing Cup competition, which Fay has been charged with exploiting.
Fay said, “Just read the deed, Dennis.”
Conner started to respond: “Michael,” then turned to the audience and said, “It’s hard to believe that I really like him.”
Fay: “What do you do to people you don’t like?”
The most lopsided Cup race ever was Mayflower’s victory over Galatea by 29:09 in 1886. Stars & Stripes could have beaten that if Conner hadn’t sailed safely and conservatively in winds building to 15 knots midway through the race.
But Friday’s margin was larger than Wednesday’s 18:15 win on a 40-mile windward-leeward course and confirmed what Fay has been saying: The event was a ludicrous mismatch.
Before counting the victory, Stars & Stripes will have to endure a third trip to court by Fay, who has found only the American legal system willing to give him a break. He promised to file papers Monday.
When Conner steered the flimsy-looking craft back into his compound, he looked like a man claiming a hollow victory. He took his ceremonial dunk in the water with the crew but seemed weary, glum and apart from the frivolity, grimacing as he picked his way barefoot across the gravel to the office building.
This win may have been even less fun than his loss in ’83, when Conner’s 12-meter Liberty gave up the Cup to Australia II.
At least, Friday’s race had a few competitive moments.
Unlike Wednesday, when the boats failed to engage before the start, Conner pounced on New Zealand’s stern at the 10-minute gun and chased the big boat a quarter-mile below the starting line, almost drifting in the light 3 to 5 knots of wind.
With five minutes to go, Barnes jibed KZ-1 away from Conner and headed back up toward the line, but at minus-two minutes Conner slipped under Barnes’ leeward bow as both slowed down to avoid crossing the line early.
Then, 100 yards from the line, they trimmed their sails and accelerated--but the cat shot away to cross the line 43 seconds after the gun and 29 seconds ahead of New Zealand.
Both skippers then showed just how maneuverable their boats could be. Barnes tacked to port as he crossed the line, and Conner followed. But then Barnes did a “false tack,” bringing his boat momentarily head to wind as if he were going to tack, then falling off to the same course.
Conner fell for it, and in recovering slowly gave up the lead to the Kiwis, who pulled alongside and forced him to tack away.
When they met on opposite tacks three minutes later, Barnes had starboard rights, and Conner was unable to cross in front, tacking away again, and they settled into a long starboard tack, with the Kiwis controlling the game.
At 13 minutes into the race, however, Stars & Stripes was pointing higher into the wind and crowded up in front of KZ-1, forcing Barnes to break away, and New Zealand never led again.
All Barnes could do was force Conner into a tacking duel, but the catamaran answered every Kiwi move with agility uncommon to its design.
Heading upwind, the wind built to 10 knots, then 15 a few miles from the windward mark, and Stars & Stripes took down its small headsail while KZ-1, dragging its leeward wing in the water as it became overpowered, twice changed down to smaller headsails.
Conner rounded the windward mark exactly 10 minutes in front, then, despite the wind, kept his boat depowered. He sailed with only the tall airfoil main without flying a hull to safely protect his lead of 11:56 at the reach mark and cruise home more than comfortably.
Both boats received enthusiastic receptions from the large spectator fleet as they crossed the finish line, but the upbeat moment was short-lived.
As the day ended, there was one thought on everyone’s mind: They can’t wait for Conner and the Kiwis to meet again.