Conner faces woman trouble

America's Cup '95: An all-female crew this week begin their quest to re present the USA. Stuart Alexander believes they can win
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The Independent Online
NOW in his fifties, Dennis Conner may consider himself the grand old man of the America's Cup and its rightful defender. But that honour does not come easily, and this year is no exception.

For the first time in the 143-year history of the competition, all eyes will be on an all-woman team determined to rock the establishment and every unreconstructed male ego from California to Tokyo. If they have their way, Conner's Stars and Stripes willalso be a victim.

It has been some time since the choice of the defender has diverted attention from the competition that the rest of the world battles out to be the challenger, but this time, especially from February onwards when the women's new boat arrives, there will be a rush to San Diego, where the three defence syndicates conduct their seemingly endless selection races.

Sailing insiders are cautious about prospects for the women's challenge on America3, which is backed by the millionaire Bill Koch, not least because few people believed him when he put technology and teamwork above yacht-racing experience in the 1992 America's Cup. With a conventional all-male crew he beat an underfunded Conner to the defence, which was no surprise, but even the experts were caught unawares when he and his skipper Buddy Melges trounced the Italian challengers 4-1 in the fina l. And PaulCayard on Il Moro di Venezia was lucky to score the one.

Now, when he says he is empowering women and that only 20 per cent of any race is physical, cynics are slower to smile sceptically. Koch undoubtedly has other agendas, such as a wish to be centre-stage and the fulfilment of charitable trust tax requirements, but at a warm-up regatta in November, sailing the boat that won the last competition, the women's team held their own, showing they could handle the 75-foot yacht and its huge sail area around the course.

Koch has recently increased the squad to 28, with the brains still being the local sailor Jennifer "JJ" Isler, whose husband Peter will be commenting for American cable television, and the Kiwi Leslie Egnot. In the middle of the boat Koch has a quartet of US Olympic rowing medallists. They are strong, athletic and learning to cope with doing the donkey-work of winding the winches around which the sail-control ropes are pulled.

Conner has the man who has been at his right hand for many years, the president of North Sails, Tom Whidden, calling tactics and the 1992 silver medallist Jim Brady navigating. For good measure, Cayard, who would rather be skippering his own campaign butprefers to be involved somehow rather than not at all, holds the somewhat vague title of "tactical strategist".

On paper, Conner must be favourite: in the middle of the boat he has strong, athletic men of between 15 and 16 stone; all around him he has thousands of race miles; and behind him he has plenty of money. He knows how to run a long campaign, and is as canny as Koch when it comes to intelligence-gathering.

Conner has had his design team working since 1992, hints at gains to be made from research into carbon-fibre hulls by the US Navy, and took delivery of his longer, leaner new boat early in order to test a variety of new configurations. Surely that shouldmatch anything that Koch's boffins can concoct?

Only maybe. When Koch says that after tank-testing 40 new hull shapes, one of five or six brainstormed off-the-wall ideas came up trumps, and adds that his new boat will be as radically different from the 1992 winner as that boat was from the opposition,everyone pauses for breath.

If the third defence syndicate, PACT '95, feel their Young America challenge is being a little ignored, they will have their chance to prove themselves when the races start on Thursday.

But for now, the hypesters are in a no-lose situation. If Conner wins the right to defend the America's Cup, they have their established star; if the women win then they have the biggest story sailing has seen for decades. And if the only man ever to take the trophy away from America, Australia's John Bertrand, wins the right to challenge for it again, the circus will go mad.

Charting the challenge: The competition format and the four main contenders Before the 29th America's Cup can begin, the three American boats must race for the right to defend their title and the seven boats from the rest of the world must compete for the right to challenge. The defenders' series, called the Citizen Cup, begins on Thursday while the challengers start racing two days later for the Louis Vuitton Cup. All the races are held in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego.

Citizen Cup: The first round comprises nine races in which the three boats race one another three times. The boat that wins the round is awarded two points, the second boat one, and the last none. The semi-final has the same format as the first round andthe two boats with the highest aggregate points advance to the best-of-11 final.

Louis Vuitton Cup: The seven challengers race each other individually four times in the first round. Progressively increasing points are awarded for each of these rounds robin, the top four boats advancing to the semi-finals. They face one another in three rounds robin, the best two boats advancing to a best-of-nine race final.

The America's Cup proper, which is decided over nine races between the winners of the Citizen and Louis Vuitton Cups, begins on 6 May.

John Bertrand oneAustralia The Australian is returning to the America's Cup after winning it with Alan Bond in 1983, and he has the technology, money and management to give the Americans a run. Protests that he had found a way of beating the limit on twonew boats per syndicate by collaborating with Syd Fischer have come to nothing. His first boat showed speed last November, and the second will be ready in February. In the helmsman Rod Davis, an Olympic gold medallist, he has a powerful ally.

Russell Coutts Team New Zealand Managed by Peter Blake, this Kiwi challenge has built two new boats after extensive tank testing by Laurie Davidson in Southampton. They have bags of savvy and cup experience, but will need to be on the pace. Unlike 1992, when they were beaten finalists in the Louis Vuitton Cup, they will be based in San Diego, rather than isolated across the bay in Coronado. But they have taken a big gamble in dropping Bruce Farr as their designer for this series.

Chris Dickson Tutukaka Yacht Club This Kiwi challenge may prove the dark horse of the competition. Dickson has linked up with Bruce Farr, who came up with the twin rotating keels on New Zealand's 1992 boat. Fears that he would not have enough money to complete development of both sails and the keel and rudder were dispelled by backing from Tag-Heuer watches. Dickson's near win in his first Whitbread Race last year showed his pedigree and Farr is hungry to have this trophy in his locker.

Marc Pajot FranceAmerica After all the usual uncertainty about finance, Marc Pajot can concentrate on the positive. He has had designer Philippe Briand and a team of 12 permanently working on this challenge since the end of the last cup. A rival French syndicate has folded and Pajot's two problems now are to ensure that his boat has enough speed and to bind his team of talented individuals together. The prize is not just glory for France; a win would engender great interest all over Europe.