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Dressed to Keel : Wigging Out by Dennis Conner’s Crew Disguises the Darker Side of America’s Cup Activities

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The America’s Cup started last week.

No, not the racing. The other stuff.

You know, Dennis Conner donning a blond wig, disguising his boat as the Swedish entry and sneaking into a challengers’ practice race.

A French power boat ramming Conner’s Stars & Stripes.

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Two mysterious frogmen under Conner’s boat.

The first real race won’t be until Jan. 14, when Conner squares off with the only other defender, Bill Koch of America-3. The challengers don’t start until Jan. 25--the day before the Super Bowl. They also will race on Super Sunday.

But all the Italians, Kiwis, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Japanese and Aussies who have been piling into town for the last year or more hadn’t been able to generate as much excitement as the events surrounding Conner this week.

The Swedish masquerade, of course, he totally contrived.

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The Swedish boat is in town but not ready to sail, and when Conner arrived on the challengers’ race course Tuesday wearing a blond wig and with Stars & Stripes’ identifying marks masked over with Swedish ID, the race committee ordered him off the course--as sailors on some of the other boats rolled on the decks in laughter, according to reports.

Conner started and sailed much of the race. Stan Reid was not at all amused. Reid, the Australian dentist who heads the Challenger of Record Committee, called it “bad manners” and took Conner to task for flying a Swedish flag. “Knowing the respect you people have for your national flag,” Reid told San Diegans at an America’s Cup breakfast Friday, “it was surprising to see USA-11 (Stars & Stripes) sailing under the Swedish flag. It demonstrates a deeply misplaced sense of values.”

Lighten up, said Malin Burnham, the head of the America’s Cup Organizing Committee and a longtime Conner ally.

“We need to have a little levity and humor,” Burnham said. “We said that the America’s Cup was going to be fun.”

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Fun, indeed. Wednesday, while behaving himself, Conner was rammed by the French chase boat.

Thursday, Conner’s crew chased the two frogmen out of his compound. They were discovered moments after the boat had been dropped into the water for the day’s sailing but before the tarpaulin skirts hiding the keel had been removed.

The divers never surfaced and made a clean getaway, leaving behind what was described as an “electronic marine measuring device.”

Two TV crews happened to be on the grounds and filmed the episode, arousing suspicions that Conner might have hired the frogmen himself.

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Publicity has been slow for this Cup--although everybody knows that Conner is so broke he can’t even afford to build a second boat, let alone hire make-believe spies.

Besides, all of these Cup capers, while amusing on the surface, held serious underlying purposes.

The best way to measure a boat’s performance is to line it up against another boat. Conner doesn’t have another boat, and the challengers are united in refusing to help him.

The irony is that Conner began the multi-boat development system that has become the pattern for success in the Cup. Now, because of his financial fix, he stands to be beaten by the system he created--if not by Koch in the defender trials, by the surviving challenger next May.

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So he is looking for other ways to compete. When “Claus Conner” crashed the challengers’ party Tuesday, it was probably more than a prank.

There’s more than divers beneath the surface of any America’s Cup. Stars & Stripes was so impressive in its intrusion into the challengers’ race, leading by more than 1 1/2 minutes when Conner decided to drop out, that some in his camp believe the French wanted to get a close look at his keel the next day.

Curiosity about keels is fundamental to the modern-day Cup. Standardized and virtually ignored by designers in earlier years, they are now considered critical to a boat’s performance--but as elusive as fish in the sea.

“That’s why we lost the Cup in ’83,” said Bill Trenkle, a member of Conner’s crew then and now. “We didn’t check out winged keels.”

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Alan Bond’s Australia II had a revolutionary winged keel, and it took 12-meter design into another dimension for the ’86-87 Cup.

The 28-foot Beneteau cruiser that rammed the 75-foot Stars & Stripes was loaded with photographers but, apparently, had an inexperienced driver. Independent versions of the incident confirm that Conner was the victim--nowhere near the race course that time and totally within his rights.

Every sailor knows that sailboats have the right of way over power boats, but when Conner, running downwind under a spinnaker, altered course to keep the wind on the left side of his boat,he was struck by

the Beneteau.

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French skipper Marc Pajot faxed and phoned Stars & Stripes to apologize the next day.

But, apparently, certain rivals still hadn’t learned anything about Conner’s keel. To really see the keel, they needed to go underwater.

Divers have tried it before--most notably, in 1983 at Newport, R.I., when a member of the Canadian syndicate was caught by the crew of Australia II trying to photograph the winged keel.

The Canadians tried to pass it off as a prank.

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There have been other, unconfirmed reports of mysterious divers around syndicate compounds in San Diego. New Zealand, across the bay from Conner at Coronado, caught an unidentified intruder on foot several weeks ago.

Espionage is as much a part of the America’s Cup as tacking and jibing. Every team has the tightest security it can afford, conducting covert operations in fortresses with tall fences, 24-hour guards and remote TV cameras.

Don’t even think about taking pictures. They’re already taking yours.

On the waters off Point Loma, competitors routinely shadow one another with video cameras from boats and helicopters. It got so out of hand that a few weeks ago they all agreed to stay 200 meters away from rival boats. Still, it’s not safe to go near a boat when it’s testing.

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This past week a Times photographer, in an open, 18-foot power boat, was trying to take pictures of the new French boat for a story on the syndicate. He identified himself to the Beneteau chase boat--the same one that had rammed Stars & Stripes a day earlier--and was told to stay 200 meters away.

Instead, he said he would try to get closer, but would stay out of the way, dead in the water. As the French boat sailed past he took several pictures--then turned to see the Beneteau heading straight at him, at high speed.

A few feet away, the Beneteau turned sharply, sending a cascade of water onto the photographer’s boat--a trick used by chase boats to discourage trespassers on what they claim is their piece of ocean.

Stars & Stripes probably wouldn’t have been rammed if its chase boat hadn’t been busy carrying mainsheet trimmer Vince Brun back to shore after he became ill on board.

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But, according to one source, it was the fifth such incident involving the Beneteau boat alone.

Trenkle really doesn’t blame anyone for being curious. But he says that a line needs to be drawn.

“A major portion of everyone’s budget is research and development,” he said. “You don’t want to just give it away. If a boat is similar to yours but is a lot faster, there must be something a little different and you want to check it out.

“Someone following in a chase boat or a helicopter, that’s (accepted) practice, if they’re not unusually aggressive. Standing outside our fences and watching our boats being hauled out, that’s OK, too.

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“But sending in divers and breaking into compounds, that’s out of bounds.” Most of the boats carry cellular phones. Trenkle said one day the Stars & Stripes crew overheard another syndicate--he wouldn’t say which--asking the phone company which frequency Stars & Stripes was using.

There also are free-lance spies who dig for information to sell. The America II syndicate from the New York Yacht Club, to its credit, turned such an offer into a successful sting operation in 1986.

“We’ve been approached by these kind of people,” Trenkle said. “We don’t pay for any photos. If somebody’s going to give us a copy of a photo that’s revealing, we’d accept it.

“Every sport is like that . . . football, race cars. Finding out what the other guy’s up to is important. Most people don’t seem to be pushing the edges.”

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Gary Jobson, the ESPN broadcaster who is a former Cup tactician, said it is all rather silly.

“If you took these boats out of the water today, the difference would be so small it would astound everybody,” Jobson said.

He called for the syndicates to “open up your doors. Lift your skirts. If you want to get the public interested in the event, those gates have to be opened some of the time.

“The whole system needs to lighten up a little.”

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