SAILING : America's Cup Backers Looking for Refill

As the America's Cup crashed from a peak of popularity in 1987 to indifference during 2 1/2 years in court, observers wondered if it would ever be the same again.

Had the world suffered terminal turnoff? Would corporate America ever care to plaster another spinnaker with its products?

Now that New Zealand's suit has been sunk, once and for all, Peter Isler believes there is hope.

"I'm encouraged," he said. "There is definitely a revived interest (from) corporate America."

That's important, because a decent campaign for the 1992 defense will cost about $20 million. The San Diego Yacht Club, which holds the Cup, has cut off one source of funding--tobacco sponsorship. Marlboro was a major player in the 1988 catamaran defense off San Diego.

Isler, who was Dennis Conner's navigator in the glory days at Fremantle, Australia, has been on his own since '88. While other Americans--most notably, Conner--have laid low, Isler formed Isler Sailing International to mount his own campaign, has been competing vigorously on the world match-racing circuit, and will ultimately compete with Conner and other Americans for the right to defend the Cup.

All Isler needs is money, and part of his fund-raising strategy is to maintain a high profile. Earlier this year, he sailed a series against Danish challengers in borrowed 70-foot, ultralight maxi-sleds on San Diego Bay. Isler won seven of eight races, but the next one may not be as easy.

On June 15-17, Isler will race a New Zealand team dispatched by Michael Fay, whose pursuit of the Cup in court succeeded only in making several American lawyers rich. The event isn't sanctioned by the America's Cup Organizing Committee of San Diego, but it will be a welcome breath of air.

Although its value as a preview of the 1992 Cup--or even the America's Cup class regatta scheduled next May--is questionable, the sleds are more similar to the new, larger, faster boats than the relatively sluggish 12-meters, and the sailors will be those projected to compete in two years.

New Zealand's skipper will be David Barnes, who steered the big monohull K boat against Conner's catamaran two years ago. Barnes' tactician will be Rod Davis, the three-time Congressional Cup winner and Southern California expatriate who moved to Auckland, New Zealand, to raise a family after his futile 1987 campaign with Eagle.

During the last months of litigation, Fay laid off most of his sailing team, so Davis temporarily jumped countries again. He and Barnes have spent considerable time sailing Masakazu Kobayashi's Tiger on the International 50-Footer circuit back East, training a Japanese crew that will become the Bengal Bay Yacht Club America's Cup Challenge.

The Americans know how to sail and build boats. They just don't have any money. The Japanese have money but lack match-racing and boat-building expertise, which they are willing to buy. Kobayashi, for example, has commissioned New Zealand's acclaimed designer, Bruce Farr, who is based in Annapolis, to build a development boat.

America's Cup rules say a boat must be designed and built in the country it represents, but by '92 the Japanese figure they will know how to build their own--which may bear a remarkable resemblance to Farr's.

Sailing Notes

The maxi-sled 70s, designed for long-distance, downwind racing, will have to change tactics Friday through Sunday for their annual adventure around the buoys in the California Cup off Marina del Rey. It's akin to running Indy cars at Ascot Park when a dozen of these flyers converge on a mark. Defending champion is Bob McNulty's Chance, of the Los Angeles Yacht Club.

The 1989 season champion is John DeLaura's Silver Bullet, last year's Transpac winner. The Santa Cruz 70, built by Bill Lee, will miss the Cal Cup, having sailed the last leg of the Whitbread Round-the-World Race from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to England. Silver Bullet was fourth for a while, then ran into headwinds and lost distance to heavier-displacement boats. . . . Highlights of the last leg of the Whitbread will be shown by ESPN on June 11 at 4:30 p.m.

Steve Steiner scored a five-second victory over Steve Flam in the best-of-three final last Sunday to win the Long Beach Yacht Club's match-racing championship and a berth in next March's Congressional Cup. . . . Ens. Alec Cutler, USN, a Finn sailor assigned to the guided missile frigate USS Wadsworth based in Long Beach, was honored as 1989 Armed Forces athlete of the year. Cutler, from Connecticut, placed third in the 1988 Olympic Trials.

The third BOC Challenge solo around-the-world race has drawn 32 entries, including nine Americans and two women. The 26,000-mile event will start on Sept. 15 at Newport, R.I. Frenchman Philippe Jeantot won the first two events in 1982-83 and 1986-87. The top American is Mike Plant, who won Class II in 1986-87. The women are Isabelle Autissier of France and Jane Weber, a Canadian grandmother.

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