Team Dennis Conner was dead. Gone. Buried. The crew of Stars & Stripes could only look ahead to the humiliation of suffering the most lopsided defeat of the America's Cup defender final series. With less than one lap remaining Wednesday, the race against Mighty Mary was hopelessly lost and so was Conner's 1995 campaign.
However, the voices aboard the boat, though laced with a blend of frustration and resignation, remained eerily focused on wind shifts and strategy.
Conner, bidding to be skipper in the America's Cup finals for the fifth time, was gazing at the horizon.
"It's gonna be a miracle comeback," he said.
Conner's remark was aimed at no one in particular and seemed too far- fetched to even acknowledge, much less absorb.
But Stars & Stripes made what might be the most improbable and dramatic comeback in the 144 years of America's Cup racing. Behind by as many as 42 boat lengths and trailing by 4 minutes 8 seconds at the last rounding, Team Conner literally and figuratively blew past America 3's Mighty Mary to advance to the America's Cup finals against Team New Zealand.
"It was a miracle," Conner said, "but a well-deserved miracle."
He may have understated it. Stars & Stripes really had no chance going into the final downwind leg. Mighty Mary was headed for a sail-off against PACT 95's Young America to determine the American defender. ESPN signed off on its coverage, effectively signing off on Conner's chances.
Conner was headed for more disappointment in his home waters. He had been the Cup defender for San Diego in 1988, but that was the maverick New Zealand challenge in which he defeated a 120-boat with a catamaran. In a real America's Cup in 1992, he was defeated in the defender finals by America 3.
And that same syndicate, headed by Bill Koch but occupied mainly by females, was thoroughly trouncing him in a race he had to win . . . or else.
"Maturity and experience put us in good stead," Conner said. "We never let our heads get down."
Right from the start, a most dismal start for both boats, Stars & Stripes was behind. Both boats were over the line early, but Dave Dellenbaugh was able to bear off toward the right end and get Mighty Mary onto the course only 10 seconds late. Stars & Stripes had to loop back and started 34 seconds late, an instant deficit of 24 seconds.
In America's Cup racing, a 24-second deficit at the start is virtually a death knell. However, Stars & Stripes was able to chip away on this leg and trailed by only a boat length nearing the mark, Mighty Mary rounding with a 20-second lead.
Over the next two legs, Mighty Mary added to its lead as Conner's hopes waned and the drama drained. When Mighty Mary increased its lead by 2 minutes 43 seconds on the fourth leg--the second downwind--the margin was 3:31 and growing.
"The winds were getting lighter and flukier," said Paul Cayard, Stars & Stripes helmsman. "The guys did a nice job of staying focused."
It must have been difficult to stay focused with such a monumental deficit going into that last downwind. To put it into perspective for San Diego, simply recall how many people were paying much attention to the Super Bowl entering the fourth quarter. Conner's position was every bit as hopeless as the Chargers' had been.
But Stars & Stripes had one thing going for it: the wind. A shifting wind can change the nature of a yacht race, though a margin of 4:08 would be difficult to erase in a hurricane.
What happened on this incredible downwind was that Conner was able to make the huge disadvantage work in his favor. The reality is that boats so widely separated can encounter completely different wind conditions.
When Cayard brought Stars & Stripes around the last mark, Mighty Mary was well down the course and staying to the left. Stars & Stripes took a flier to the right, since it really had nothing to lose, and Mighty Mary was totally out of touch with whatever conditions Conner's team might be finding.
On its continuing journey down the left, Mighty Mary hit a dead spot on the course, getting hardly a gust of wind. Its insurmountable lead figured to be secure, but. . . .
Stars & Stripes was making progress and, suddenly, as the two boats converged with a little more than a mile remaining of the three-mile leg, they were shockingly side-by-side. Conner had come from out of nowhere.
When Mighty Mary's skipper, Leslie Egnot, tried to jibe, the light winds forced her into a looping turn. Stars & Stripes did not jibe, but rather charged through. It was at that moment, after that amazing comeback, that Stars & Stripes' spinnaker blew.
In that tense moment, Mighty Mary was trying to regain momentum after the looping jibe and Stars & Stripes was trying to replace a tattered sail. Stars & Stripes' new spinnaker was flying in less than a minute, but Mighty Mary was still disoriented.
"I thought it was a miracle that the guys got the spinnaker up so fast," Conner said. "That's what won the race."
There was still the pressure-packed run to the finish line, because Egnot had Mighty Mary back on course. Mighty Mary jibed behind and to the right of Stars & Stripes and seemed to be gaining. Mighty Mary, stalking, jibed behind and to the left. The finish line was looming and Cayard aimed just inside the committee boat on the left end, squeezing through with the victory.
Tumult broke loose on a boat that, perhaps 30 minutes earlier, was headed for mothballs.
"Is that the race of a lifetime . . . or what?" blurted Cayard, maybe as much in awe as in excitement.
The women (and Dellenbaugh) aboard Mighty Mary were dumbstruck as they crossed the line. It had to be impossible to believe, much less understand, that their campaign was over so close to that final showdown with Young America. They had had to make one final jibe to hit the line, and the ensuing 52 seconds must have seemed like 52 years.
"My hat's off to Stars & Stripes," Egnot said. "They never give up."
Stars & Stripes caught a break, of course, to get into the defender finals when the three-way format came out of a compromise. It did have to give up two points to PACT 95 and one to America 3in those finals but overcame the deficit with a 6-2 record. The other two boats were 3-5.
The final race on that final day actually managed to overshadow the latest political maneuvering, the last of which went against Stars & Stripes on Wednesday morning. The rules of the regatta called for the last race to be completed Wednesday, which would have left Conner as the defender if weather had caused Wednesday's race to be abandoned. However, the Defense Committee came up with an interpretation that would have extended the competition beyond the preset deadline.
Team Dennis Conner, thus, went to the line in a must-win situation. It could not back in, courtesy of quirky rules. In retrospect, Stars & Stripes would not have wanted it to happen any way other than the way it did.