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Judge Wrests America’s Cup From San Diego

Times Staff Writers

In an unprecedented ruling, a judge Tuesday said that Dennis Conner and the San Diego Yacht Club, in winning the America’s Cup sailing race last year, violated the spirit of fair competition called for in the rules. The judge stripped the San Diego club of the trophy and awarded it to New Zealand.

New York Supreme Court Judge Carmen Ciparick decided that by racing a two-hull catamaran against a mono-hull craft in September, San Diego had created a “gross mismatch” contrary to the intention of the author of the 19th-Century Deed of Gift governing the race.

The decision by the New York court, which has jurisdiction over interpretation of cup rules, was a shocking blow to the sailing community and to the city of San Diego, which was expecting a $1-billion bonanza in hosting the next race in 1991. After the ruling, New Zealand officials announced plans to the hold the race there.

Officials of the San Diego Yacht Club and the America’s Cup Organizing Committee criticized the judge for what one of them called a legal “flip flop.” The lawyer representing the yacht club said bluntly: “We’ve been had.”

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A final decision on a possible appeal probably will not be made until today at the earliest. The officials said they had to analyze the 14-page ruling, and that they would be guided by “what is best for the America’s Cup.”

Almost from the moment skipper Dennis Conner won the cup in races off the coast of Fremantle, Australia, in February, 1987, the cup has been under siege. First there was a controversy over where the next regatta would be held--San Diego or Hawaii--in what amounted to a bidding war, and then merchant banker Michael Fay of New Zealand issued an unusual one-on-one challenge. This sent the contest, once determined by sailors at sea, into the hands of lawyers in the courtroom.

Fay’s challenge, which called for him to race off the coast of San Diego in a $10-million 123-foot mono-hull, was upheld by the New York court in November, 1987, touching off a decision by the San Diego Yacht Club and the Sail America Foundation to “dispose” of Fay’s maverick challenge as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Catamaran Chosen

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Conner and the yacht club selected a 60-foot catamaran, a boat clearly superior in speed to Fay’s mono-hull. No catamaran had ever raced for the cup, and the San Diegans defended their unusual choice--which was criticized by many in the yachting world for being unsportsmanlike--as legal under the cup’s rules embodied in the 1887 Deed of Gift.

Last September off Pt. Loma, the two vessels raced in a best-of-three match series. The result was a blowout for Conner, who won the first two races by wide margins. The loss sent Fay back to court.

On Tuesday, Judge Ciparick sharply criticized the San Diego club for selecting a catamaran, and said the club fell short of its responsibility as a trustee of the cup. Acknowledging that forfeiture is an extreme remedy, the judge said she had no choice but to turn over the cup to Fay and his Mercury Bay Boating Club Inc.

“San Diego was well aware of the risk it ran when it chose to follow the unprecedented course of defending in a catamaran,” the judge said. “Barely paying lip service to the significance of the competition, its clear goal was to retain the cup at all costs . . . (and) thus violated the spirit of the Deed (of Gift).”

The judge said, “The holder of the America’s Cup is bound to a higher obligation than the victor of the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl.”

Fairness Called the Issue

The foundation of cup racing since its inception in 1851, the judge wrote, is fair competition, and the use of a catamaran strayed from that concept. “It is clear that a catamaran may not defend in America’s Cup competition against a mono-hull,” she declared.

The announcement of Ciparick’s decision and set off celebrations in Aukland, which calls itself “the city of sails.” Joggers stopped their early morning exercise to discuss the news, and a fireboat motored into Auckland Harbor to spray its hoses.

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Fay was awakened by a phone call from an aide, who told him of the decision. Then Fay went for his own morning jog, receiving congratulations from his countrymen along the way.

Also contributing to this report were Times Staff Writers Leonard Bernstein, Chris Kraul and Greg Johnson.


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