Journey Into the Unknown : Local Crew May Lack Credentials, but Not Enthusiasm for Congressional Cup

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The Long Beach Yacht Club’s right to enter a skipper in its own Congressional Cup has never been disputed, although the tradition has sometimes meant throwing live bait into a shark tank.

The locals have found themselves in a difficult position against some the world’s best sailors. The LBYC entry has won only twice in 24 years when it had exceptional competitors--Tom Pickard in 1971 and Rod Davis in ’81--but usually has trailed the fleet.

Enter Steve Steiner, who won a sailoff for the privilege of flying the club’s flag in the silver anniversary event Wednesday through Saturday.

Steiner and his crew bring a list of credentials about, oh, this long: no major championships, virtually no match-racing experience, and no international competition, unless you count some of the coastal race-cruises to Mexico.

Most of Steiner’s success has been achieved in handicap fleet races, recently aboard Dr. Alan Adams’ 58-footer, Black Silver, which Steiner helped design.


But the likes of Davis--now sailing for New Zealand--Peter Gilmour, John Bertrand and Eddie Owen, some of the best on the world match-racing circuit, may not be terribly impressed by Steiner’s victories in the ’88 San Diego Yachting Cup, the L.A. Harbor Series, the Midwinters and, as Steiner says, “a lot of little buoy races.

“We’ve got to earn a little respect,” Steiner said. “If they think they can just go out and beat us up, they’ll try to do things they think we haven’t seen before.”

Steiner, 29, has been trying to close the gap with as intense a campaign as anyone ever waged for the Congressional Cup. Many excellent skippers have taken their lumps in the event because of lack of preparation.

Steiner has worked on the event the last few years as a boat rigger and a commentator for the club’s closed-circuit telecast. What he has seen leads him to believe he has a chance.

“I’m shocked that the other teams show up the week of the event,” he said. “The race is so important to me, I’d be here at least two weeks ahead to practice.

“There’s only one test of this caliber, and then there’s the America’s Cup. I figure this is a big opportunity.”

After winning four of five races in a three-boat sailoff last fall, Steiner chartered Heinz Fischer’s Basilea, one of the Catalina 38s to be used in the series. He and his crew have been in vigorous training since, as much as their professions allow, sailing four or five days a week.

The team has a name--"Challenge ’89"--and a budget of about $6,000 for expenses.

Adams, 55, a neurologist who has an interest in the Carson Nugget casino, is the port trimmer. His son Brad, 27, a computer scientist, is the starboard trimmer.

Tactician and mainsail trimmer Dave Egan, 26, is an airflow theory research associate. Bowman Don Kaplan, 35, is director of pharmacology at a hospital. Mastman Tom Zahlten, 32, is an architect. Alternate trimmer Steve Severns, 25, is aeronautical engineer. Grinder John Granahan, 33, is a contractor. Alternate grinder Ray Sanders, 28, is a student.

Only Steiner, the skipper, seems to have no commitment beyond the Congressional Cup. He has written music, run his own boat-rigging company for a while, but what he really wants to do is sail in big races.

“I quit everything to do this,” he said. “There is no time for anything else. I’m either studying or sailing every day.”

He also is engaged, but, as he said: “My whole life is on hold until after Con Cup.”

Steiner attended Cypress High School and Cypress College but, unlike most world-class competitors, did not sail seriously as a youth. Instead, he raced in open events, often on his father’s boat with friends. That lasted until dad fired the crew.

“We had a lot of hot sailors on the boat, but he couldn’t race with a bunch of hotshots on board and felt he was losing control,” Steiner said. “He likes one man in charge of the boat.”

Steiner could be described as intense. One of his concerns, he said, is “handling the stress of being in the Cup.”

During a recent practice, the crew seemed relaxed but sharp. Steiner’s comments and instructions were in a conversational tone, and he tacked without barking the usual warning to his crew--"Coming about,” or “tacking.” That, he figures, might alert a nearby competitor.

“When I turn the wheel, the crew can feel the boat come level and knows we’re tacking,” he said. “We found it works better than me saying anything.”

There are constant checks for variation in wind direction. A crew member will drop a potato chip overboard next to a buoy to check the current. Challenge ’89 is leaving very little to chance.

Good match-racing sailors also must be aggressive and, Zahlten said, "(Steiner) is about as aggressive as they come.”

But he also has learned patience. Recalling a recent race around Catalina Island, he told of sitting on another boat’s “hip” under spinnakers for a half-hour, waiting for a chance to pass.

“Sure enough, his trimmer looked back and they lost the (wind out of the) chute,” Steiner said. “Our whole crew had been sitting ready for half an hour, and the second he did that we hardened up and went around him. That was it. Really nice.”

The crew has sailed about 90 races in the last year, and Steiner can recall every key incident. He records it all--even the crew “debriefings” after a practice sail.

When they aren’t sailing, Steiner and his crew study computer video simulations of Australian 12-meters made in 1983, when Alan Bond won the America’s Cup. Steiner has found the handling characteristics of a 12-meter and a C-38, translated on a computer, to be similar.

“You learn when to tack or jibe on a guy and when to get out of a situation so you don’t get pinned away from the mark,” he said.

“I’m very surprised, watching all the America’s Cup and Con Cup tapes, some of the guys don’t cover (stay between their opponent and the next mark). They get in the lead and go off looking for better wind and maybe a five-minute victory, and all of a sudden the lead changes.

“We’re not going to allow any ego to play into our tactics. I don’t know if we’re as good as they are yet, but we’ve got to aspire to their level.

“We should have the edge on boat speed because we’ve had so much time on the boat. They’ll have the edge in time-on-water match racing.”

Steiner doesn’t think he’ll be intimidated.

“Being out there every year, watching, I’ve seen a lot of mistakes. Even though they’re great, they’re all my age, we’ve all sailed about the same length of time. It’s just that in the smaller countries it’s much easier to get into the big circuit. Here, unless you’re just incredible, it’s real hard.”

Nor does he expect to sneak up on anybody.

“If I get seventh, eighth or ninth . . . I’m not prepared for that after all the work.”

But Steiner definitely would settle for a headline: “Unknown Wins Congressional Cup.”