It's Smooth Sailing for Stars & Stripes : Defenders: Conditions suit Conner's boat perfectly, and it beats America 3 for the first time.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dennis Conner, described as a master of timing by rival Buddy Melges, picked Friday the 13th to launch his comeback, beating America 3 for the first time in the America's Cup defender trials by 1 minute, 5 seconds.

That's Bill Koch's better boat, fit for a king--exiled King Constantine of Greece was the idle 17th crewman Friday--but, presumably, not Koch's best boat. The fourth one, pushing its luck, arrived by air early the same, superstitious morning and will be raced in the fourth round of trials starting March 28.

Black cats? Ladders? Four boats? A king? Bring 'em on. Raise you an ace. To Dennis Conner, it's only bad luck when his mast falls down.

The man takes chances. The first thing he wanted to do when he returned to the dock was to watch his mast fall down again. He plugged in a videotape for his first look at Tuesday's race--the Trauma Off Point Loma--when his world came crashing down around his head as he trailed the same America 3 by only 35 seconds.

"Rats!" Conner exclaimed as he watched--only he didn't say rats. "We could have beat 'em in that race, too."

There was a feeling that Conner would recover somehow. The mystique lives, at least a little longer.

"It's gotta make them think a little bit about where they stand versus us," said Stars & Stripes navigator Lexi Gahagan.

It was Stars & Stripes' first victory in seven races against America 3 and broke a four-race losing streak. Conner can clinch second place and a bonus victory for the fourth round starting March 28 by beating Koch's lesser boat, Defiant, today.

Wednesday, after replacing his mast overnight, Conner lost to Defiant by 23 seconds but sailed out without knowing the trim tab on his keel had been jammed from towing the crippled boat home backward the day before.

"Given what we've gone through in this series, it's a great win," Gahagan said.

With Melges steering America 3, Conner controlled the start by luffing up to the line in the 8 knots of wind, forcing America 3 off to the right side away from the stronger breeze and an anticipated shift.

At the first crossing a few minutes later Stars & Stripes was three boat lengths ahead, and the king didn't have to ask Queen Victoria's legendary question: "Who is second?"

Stars & Stripes showed such superior speed on each of the three upwind legs that it was able to hold off America 3's downwind edge, and America 3 even gave up on its flashy liquid crystal headsail partway up the third upwind leg.

At the finish there was a subdued celebration aboard Stars & Stripes--actually, more of a sigh of relief that they're back in the running.

Conner conceded that Friday's moderate breeze and smooth water were ideal for Stars & Stripes, while America 3 likes choppy conditions. But Conner will have more time to tinker after winding up the third round today. Possibly, he'll subject the elegant lines of his boat to--be strong--a nose job to conform with the blunt bows of the latter generation creations.

"With the changes we have in mind, we have a fighting chance of pushing them pretty hard," Conner said.

Under pressure Friday, the America 3 faltered at moments--ragged sail handling, a spinnaker pole in the water.

Conner said, "When you're ahead like that it pushes the crews a little more, and we noticed that they had some problems in crew work that they don't seem to have when they're in a comfortable position well ahead. So I think this type of close racing will help the ultimate defense."

Melges said, "I guess everybody at America 3 was a little over-excited this morning. We had another lovely thing show up in our yard. Maybe we didn't get our head in the right boat today."

Koch, who steered only part of the first leg, said, "We were getting a little cocky. This is good for us to get beaten up."

Gahagan said, "Everybody was in tune today. I can't name a (wind) shift we missed. (Tactician) Tom (Whidden) and Dennis were in phase, J.B. (tactical strategist John Bertrand) was looking up the course, and we didn't miss much."

Stars & Stripes grinder Jim Kavle, a veteran of Cup campaigns, said, "It's not like winning the America's Cup, but it's nice to know it's possible to beat America 3."

Conner: "It was great to show that USA 23 is not invincible."

But what about USA 28, the newest boat? Koch hopes to have it sailing within eight or nine days and offered a few clues about its appearance.

"I don't think it will look at all like the Kiwi boat," he said of New Zealand's little red sled. "It's white and it has an eagle on the side (as do his other boats). It's not at the light end of the spectrum. I'd say it's at the heavy end."

Maybe it was the America 3 that needed a lift by the end of the day.

"Dennis worries us," said Koch, who wasn't talking like that a couple of weeks ago.

Melges said, "We saw a little of Dennis at the top of his game out there today--and that's what we want to see."

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