Cup Sailors Know Rigors--and Dangers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The impression of America's Cup racing is of polite gentlemen in pressed pants and starched jackets sailing serenely around.

The reality: sailing can be hazardous to your health . . . teeth . . . ribs. Actually, an America's Cup boat is no place for the faint of heart or weak of limb.

For French grinder Thierry Chappet, down the hatch meant broken ribs.

A designer for the New Zealand Challenge team was hit by a broken boom last fall and spent time in the hospital with internal bleeding.

For Team Dennis Conner's Bill Trenkle, a flying winch meant flying teeth.

Conner's tactician, Tom Whidden, once caught a broken part in the face, nearly losing an eye. Another crew member, Scott Vogel, was once hit by a broken spinnaker pole, and this spring arthroscopic surgery on an injured knee has kept him from his normal climbs up the mast.

Even Conner himself was not above injury. Though he mans the helm and is generally out of the way of the most frantic action, Conner was beaned by a block last month when his mast snapped. Two weeks ago, he has limped into post-race press conferences after hurting his right knee when he slipped and fell on the boat.

John Spence, a grinder on America 3, slashed his hand 10 stitches worth when he had to cut a tangled sail loose in the defender finals.

Listen to Trenkle, who was talking through four broken teeth and 20 stitches in his lip last January: "We know (the danger) all the time when we race these boats. Actually, (America's Cup) is a mill pond compared to the real high-risk stuff. There are places where we race at night, race in very rugged conditions way out in the ocean. Most of those boats carry their own doctors."

Trenkle, Conner's port tailer and operations manager, had just returned from his honeymoon for pre-Cup practice in January when a winch blew up and shot a gear into his face, knocking out four teeth. His new wife was nearby, watching the sudden, bloody mess.

"She said, 'At least we got our wedding pictures taken already.' I missed one day of sailing, then I was back out the next day," Trenkle said. "I could sail, I just couldn't talk very well. Actually, I've been pretty injury-free."

Trenkle has been luckier than Ville de France crewman Chappet, who was sidelined with broken ribs after falling into an open hatch. In the midst of some hectic action, Chappet said the hatch was covered when he first went past it. On his way back, someone had opened it and Chappet wasn't looking.

Being on the disabled list was nothing new for Chappet, who was in the wrong place during Cup trials in Fremantle, Australia, in 1986, when a mast cracked. Chappet was trapped under a boom and unable to move and the mast fell on him, crushing his pelvis.

Chappet had eight operations, spent six months in the hospital and two more in rehabilitation. It took another year before he returned to full strength. He watched the Cup on television.

"Same thing now, I watch TV," he said with a broad grin.

Ironically, the husky Chappet was the physical trainer for the now-departed French team.

"In France is very difficult to find big guys to work on the boat," he said. "We're small guys but in good shape. During a tacking duel we can fight anybody.

"I see small injuries, but not many. Do I have bad luck? Yes, maybe. Mine is strange story, no?"

The International America's Cup Class yachts are so pretty and sleek that it's easy to forget the tons of sail, rigging, heavy parts and brittle 110-foot masts that are constantly in motion or being maneuvered.

"Most of the injuries I've seen are the afterguard guys," said Trenkle, adding that sailors have daily aches and pains "like lots of sports--you hurt your knees, hurt elbows, lots of little things. You see a lot of back injuries down in the sewers trying to move those heavy sails."

New Zealand grinder Andrew Taylor can tell you about backaches. Taylor hurt his back in pre-race training last fall and tried to continue. He found being a grinder was no bargain with two herniated disks. It finally got so bad that Taylor had surgery last December. He was back in training in January, and returned to race action.

"I had a couple herniated disks in the lower back and they were pushing against nerve roots, sending pains and numbness down my leg," Taylor said. "It got to a stage where I couldn't cope with it. I had surgery five days before Christmas. Now it feels fine."

Taylor, 28, a veteran of three Cup competitions, said constant physical training and race experience help America's Cup competitors avoid even more accidents.

Said Trenkle: "What happened to that French guy (fall down a hatch), I've seen that happen. Masts fall. Luckily so far in the Cup nobody's gotten hurt real bad."

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