The America's Cup, once a competition for which U.S. yachts seemed only to have to show up to win, already may be slipping out of reach, 18 months before the next championship series is to be sailed.
"The reason," said Tom Whidden, tactician for every U.S. defender and challenger in the 1980s, "is pure desire.
"People and sponsors I talk to think this way: 'You guys have owned the America's Cup for so long, you're the best and you're just going to win anyway.'
"Unfortunately, that no longer is true."
At a panel discussion recently, Whidden, America's Cup veteran Larry Leonard Jr. and world-class sailor Dave Flynn attempted to size up the cup picture.
According to each, the situation does not look good for the United States.
At this point, with a spanking new class of 75-footers to be used off San Diego in 1992, syndicates in Italy, Japan and France have launched and are testing versions of the new boats.
Four licensed U.S. groups have launched none.
The major problem, said Leonard of Sobstad Sails in Annapolis, Md., and a member of the New York Yacht Club's 1987 challenge in Australia, is a lack of funding from corporate sponsors in the United States.
"Sailing is a little different in Europe and Japan than it is in the United States," Leonard said. "Corporate participation and corporate sponsorship is a little more accepted than it is in the U.S. We don't seem to get support, as shown by zero backing for the Whitbread boats that raced around the world. We could not enter a single boat. Sailing has not captured the public's appeal as it has in Europe, especially."
Part of the cause, Leonard, Flynn and Whidden agreed, was the prolonged court battle between the San Diego Yacht Club and the Mercury Bay Boating Club that preceded the America's Cup race off San Diego in 1988.
The 1988 cup series was sailed between New Zealand banker Michael Fay's 132-foot monohull, New Zealand, and the SDYC's 65-foot catamaran, Stars & Stripes. It was no contest, as Dennis Conner, Whidden and company easily won two straight.
But in early February, 1987, after a victory by another Stars & Stripes off Fremantle in western Australia, the American mood seemed much different.
"One of the things we (Americans) had going for us as we left Fremantle was that a lot of non-sailors were certainly very excited about the sport," Leonard said.
"We have kind of lost the momentum with the court battle and all the things that have transpired since then."
If there was a positive side to the 1988 series, Whidden said, it was that it forced the America's Cup hierarchy to reconsider the rules of the competition.
"It probably was necessary to get the rules makers and the powers that be out of the 12-meter, which was really a dinosaur and an antique, and into something a little more exciting," said Whidden, who also sailed with Conner when the United States lost the cup to Australia in 1983.
"And believe me, the new boats and a new race course will make the America's Cup more exciting."
The new course configuration (roughly windward leeward with a series of reaching legs through the middle of the course) should place a premium on sail changes by relatively small crews.
"The new boats will have an incredible amount of sail area," said Whidden, who is president of North Sails, "and the spinnaker handling and the changes of the sails. . . . Well, I know a lot of people watch the Indianapolis 500 to see cars hit the wall. Believe me, these boats are going to tip over and break and run into each other."
Under a plan devised by interested yacht clubs and designers, the new boats will be lighter, flatter, more sophisticated in the rudders and keels, and a good deal harder to sail than the heavy, slow 12-meter yachts that sailed for the cup over a period of 30 years. Something quirky and spirited, like a 75-foot dinghy, Whidden said.
Campaigning and developing such a boat, which will be sailed with a crew of 16, has bumped the price tag for a top-notch program to $20 million to $30 million, said Dave Flynn of Doyle Sails.
Italian Raoul Gardini has set a budget of $40 million to $60 million for his challenge syndicate.
The chances of all four U.S. syndicates raising even $20 million to $30 million, Flynn said, are one in four--Conner and the San Diego Yacht Club, based on their successful fund raising for the past two America's Cups.
Leonard, who is part of a defense syndicate headed by John Bertrand, said that his group will be sponsored in part by the Beach Boys, who will tour 50 cities to raise funds through concert proceeds.
"Nonetheless, we are already six to eight months to a year behind most of the foreign syndicates that already have their funding and sponsorship," Flynn said.
Australia, New Zealand, Britain, West Germany and Sweden, among others, also are well along in their development programs.
Foreign groups, Whidden said, also have greater access to U.S. technology that once was denied them under America's Cup rules. They also have access to foreign skippers and crew.
For instance, Chris Dickson, the young New Zealander who sailed Kiwi Magic very well against Stars & Stripes in the 1987 challenger finals, has signed a million-dollar deal with a Japanese syndicate making its first challenge for the cup.
Paul Cayard, an exemplary American skipper who was heavily involved in a U.S. challenge in 1987, has signed a hefty deal with Gardini's Italian syndicate.
"The Japanese, for example, are way too savvy to think they can simply copy American sailors," Flynn said. "They are smart enough to realize they have a great big leap to make in terms of the technology of the sport and, more than anything else, the people of the sport.
"Just as they have imported American baseball players to improve their baseball, they are going to import American sailors to see how it is done."
Leonard, who sailed with the Japanese in the 12-meter world championships in Sweden, said the Japanese are a force to be reckoned with even now.
"They are a hard-working, competitive people," Leonard said.