Quietly, while the competition wondered what he was up to, Dennis Conner was building up steam to defend the America's Cup off San Diego in 1992.
Now, he is the first American to start building a boat for the defense. Next week, it will be announced that, with the re-enlistment of a former sponsor to join Cadillac--and its $3 million, he is the first American to bank $6 million, which will be required of all would-be defenders by Oct. 1.
A third "gold-level" sponsor, as Conner's campaign calls such a contributor, may already be secured, but Conner is spreading out the announcements for maximum effect. From now on, the others are playing catchup.
It's somewhat early to write off the others, but Conner's operations manager, Bill Trenkle, said: "They're not making any progress," by which he meant that their funding is way short, and nobody else is building a boat.
It's the same old problem: Many people think Dennis Conner is the America's Cup, and even when told he must compete to defend it, they aren't inclined to back any longshots.
"Well," Conner said with a shrug, "that's a personal problem."
Trenkle questioned whether Conner's three rivals--Peter Isler, Larry Klein and John Bertrand's Beach Boys syndicate--will get to the starting line.
"The only possibility I see is Bill Koch coming in," Trenkle said.
Koch is the energy tycoon, based in Dedham, Mass., who built the old and new Matador maxi-boats and recently expressed interest in sailing for the America's Cup, as either a partner or a new contender. He has talked to Conner and other potential American defenders.
"(But) he has enough money that he could run his own program," Conner said. "He doesn't need me. He had $800 million through two weeks ago, and now with oil up 30% . . . "
Conner said he would like to have some competition before the finals--but only on the water.
"Sure, and Koch would be a good one to have. He's a class guy and he'd do a quality job--plus he won't tap into corporate America."
Conner would hope to have that to himself. He isn't looking for help from syndicates that falter, the way he recruited Isler as his navigator before the 1987 Cup races off Fremantle, Australia.
"I'd like to have whatever's good, but what do they really have?" he said. "I have the best sailmaker, the best builder and plenty of talent sailingwise.
"I don't really need Peter to navigate. I know where the marks are off Pt. Loma."
The sailmaker is Tom Whidden, president of North Sails and also Conner's tactician. The boat is being built at Eric Goetz's yard in Bristol, R.I., from a design by David Pedrick, recently joined by highly regarded naval architect Alberto Calderon.
Some of the old Stars & Stripes team have drifted to other syndicates--chiefly that of Isler.
But Conner said: "They don't have any of my team. My team is all giants. They didn't take any of my guys. "
Conner spent an afternoon charming corporate and yachting VIPs at Marina del Rey last week. The occasion was delivery of one of his practice 40-foot Stars & Stripes catamarans to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which is nearing completion. A Dixieland trio played, and a former Miss USA "christened" the catamaran's temporary dock by smashing a champagne bottle against a concrete piling.
Several invitees took a short sail with Conner--a bargain at no charge this time. The hotel will charter the catamaran to guests. If they want a cruise with Conner, that's another $10,000, the going rate he has established in San Diego.
"I've got to try to make a living," he has said. "I've got two girls going to college."
All of this has taken its toll on Conner.
"I gained about 12 pounds in 10 weeks out on the road," he said, explaining the comeback of his paunch.
Then he was off to New York to charm some more. It's part of the program. Conner drew the modern blueprint for sailing the America's Cup. "I've set a tough standard," he said. "I feel like a guy going through the snow. They're all following in my footsteps, and I've got to keep moving to stay ahead of them. But they don't know which way I'm going."
Americans won two sailing gold medals in the recent Goodwill Games at Seattle and would have won three were it not for the sportsmanship of Scott Steele, 32, of Annapolis, Md.
Steele, a 1984 Olympic silver medalist in sailboards, was running second in the series after Poland's front-running Grzegorz Myszkowski was disqualified in the fourth race for failing to return after a premature start.
However, Steele had seen Myszkowski restart and told the jury so. Myszkowski was reinstated, dropping Steele to third.
Then Steele won the sixth race to move into first place overall, but got tangled in weeds in the seventh and final race, fell off his board and finished fourth, settling for a silver medal, behind Myszkowski.
Brian Ledbetter of San Diego and Jody Swanson of Buffalo, N.Y., with crew Cory Fischer-Sertl of Rochester, N.Y., won golds in Finn and women's 470.
It's questionable whether any American besides Dennis Conner will have a boat ready for the first America's Cup class world championships off San Diego next May. Peter Isler plans to start construction in October, which is cutting it close. The 1991 worlds will be mainly for show and won't offer many clues to the '92 winner, anyway. The serious contenders probably won't be sailing their final boats. . . . Conner passed up the 12-meter worlds off Fremantle in 1986 to continue preparing in Hawaii. But he probably will sail next May to give his backers exposure. Besides, he's the hometown hero. "We have to go for corporate push," he said. "We'll learn something. It's worth going. But I'm not real excited about it because we don't expect to be that fast."
If well-heeled Bill Koch joins the America's Cup defense picture, his skipper could be Buddy Melges, the veteran from Zenda, Wis. . . . Italy's first, benchmark boat, sailed by American Paul Cayard, lost three consecutive test races to France's entry. The lire-loaded Il Moro di Venezia syndicate plans to build four boats and is the first to announce a San Diego base: Gerry Driscoll's boat yard on Shelter Island. Driscoll is a former Cup competitor and San Diego Yacht Club member who was at odds with the club for the way it handled the controversial catamaran defense against New Zealand in 1988. The Italians plan to move in by next Jan. 5. . . . The 21 challengers from 15 countries must post a $150,000 performance bond by Sept. 3. Look for the field to shrink.
Seventy of the nation's top teen-age sailors, competing in 30 boats in three classes, have reached the USYRU/Rolex Junior Sailing Championships next Friday through Aug. 25 at Balboa, hosted by the Newport Harbor Yacht Club. Ages are 13 through 17. The event will be preceded by an on-the-water racing clinic for competitors featuring a world-class roster of instructors--Larry Klein, John Bertrand, Robbie Haines, John Shadden, Charlie McKee and Brian Ledbetter. Doug Rastello is chairman.
About a dozen ultralight 70s (sleds) will compete in the Cabrillo Beach YC's first Summer Sled Regatta Aug. 25-26 off San Pedro. They will sail a tight course around "Hurricane Gulch," within sight of the beach. The public may tour the boats from 9 to 10:30 a.m. on the 26th. . . . The Women's Sailing Assn. of Santa Monica Bay will feature Bill Herrschaft of North Sails at its Aug. 21 meeting at the Pacific Mariners YC. For membership information, call (213) 821-8460.