Conner set fair for his America's Cup destiny

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The Independent Online
SAILING The America's Cup is due to start today, even though sun-drenched has turned to storm-tossed in California.

More 25-30 knot winds could force a postponement and even if that does not happen, a week of buffeting will leave big Pacific seas as a mountainous legacy. Every effort will be made to organise the opening duel between the man who has made the cup his career, Dennis Conner, and those whose new careers are being made by the cup, the all-woman America3 .

In the great scheme of things, the first day will not make much difference. The America's Cup sprawls over nearly 18 weeks, so there is plenty of time to catch up. And despite having three years to plan, nearly every syndicate looks as if they may need it. Yesterday even Conner's right-hand man, Tom Whidden admitted: "We are not as well organised as we would like to be."

In the cases of the Pact `95 syndicate, whose boat and sail loft was damaged by a storm last week, and the French, who dropped their new boat when launching it just before Christmas, any extra respite would be welcome. Pact have already been excused fromracing for the first three days of the Citizen Cup defender trials to mend holes - up to eight feet by four - in their hull.

The inevitable focus is on the battle to defend the cup, which will be fought between Bill Koch-backed women's team and two male syndicates, Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes and his old side-kick John Marshall's Pact '95.

The women are capable of handling their boat well enough but, in theory, should be beaten by the others' newer boats - until their new one arrives in February. If it is quicker than the others, they may be able to catch up. If it is not, they will be washed away.

If the boat merely matches the others, we will see whether the women can out-think and outmanoeuvre the opposition.

Yesterday Paul Cayard pointedly said: "Really the game is the long game. The crew perceives what is going on and develops the tool to win the cup over a five-month period." By that he meant that the crew's experience, which is lacking in the women's boat, can make the difference.

Cayard's own role is now tactical, but Whidden made it clear that Cayard will also be seen on the helm, perhaps even at the vital starts. The women will rotate the roles, just as Koch did when winning the cup in 1992, and one of the leading figures, JJ Isler said: "There will probably never be a skipper." She will start and be a tactician, Leslie Egnot will do a lot of the steering, Courtney Becker will be navigator, and Dawn Riley will also be doing some helming.

Pact '95's Kevin Mahaney says he will skipper and steer throughout, with John Kostecki, Kenny Read and John Hopkins forming an impressive afterguard.

Most of the challengers will work in the same way. It is the settled, conventional approach, but it can prove inflexible when difficult decisions for change have to be made.

Of the seven challengers for the Louis Vuitton Cup, the banker to go through is John Bertrand's oneAustralia. The two Kiwi syndicates, France, and Japan should chase the other three places in the semi-final. Changes in the rules, which allow new boats and major modifications throughout the series have made it more difficult to sort out who will progress in the 29th America's Cup.

At least the odds are not so heavily stacked against the challengers this time. In the past, the defender was able to keep his choice of yacht secret until the morning of the first race, while the challengers had to reveal theirs three months

earlier.

Now there is a common declaration date of 9 April and those syndicates with two boats, like Peter Blake's Team New Zealand, who have boats for differing wind strengths will be able to pick and choose during the round-robin stages.

The results in the early skirmishes will probably bear little resemblance to what happens during the crucial high scoring later rounds. It would be nice to feel that the 1995 America's Cup is wide open. But the hard reality is that American technology isstill going to be awfully difficult to beat.

AMERICA's cup contenders THE DEFENDERS AMERICA3

The Women's Team. All women on the race course, perhaps, but backed up by the scientists, engineers and managers who crafted victory for Bill Koch in 1992. The new boat will not be available until mid-February and it is on its superior speed that hopes are pinned. The crew are fit, hungry and well-drilled, but short on experience.

STARS & STRIPES Dennis Conner has all the necessary experience and guile, a strong crew who can anticipate, react and recover, and the best afterguard (Tom Whidden, Paul Cayard and Jim Brady) in the fleet. Should win in an even race, so the only questionis whether the designers have come up with a fast enough boat.

PACT '95 YOUNG AMERICA The key man here is John Marshall, taking part in his eighth Cup, who has put together what may be the best-managed research programme. The set-up means that the skipper, Kevin Mahaney, is left to concentrate on sailing the boat, on which he is backed up by a strong afterguard. John Kostecki and Kenny Read are smart sailors, John Hopkins and Andreas Josenhans provide a steadying influence.

THE CHALLENGERS ONEAUSTRALIA John Bertrand has put together the classic America's Cup campaign, recruiting the right people early, securing the financial package, using technology from all over the world, and appearing to have developed a fast boat. He will drive the boat downwind, his co-helmsman Rod Davis will be in charge at the starts and on the upwind legs. A tight team.

SYDNEY '95

Syd Fischer may have a quiet smile in the knowledge that he has a fast boat out of the same stable as Bertrand's thoroughbreds. This is his fourth appearance in an event that has brought frustration for him and it offers a British-born helmsman, Chris Law, who sailed for the UK in Fremantle in 1986-7, the chance to sail for Australia, having made his home there. Difficult campaign to evaluate.

FRANCE AMERICA Marc Pajot has had to negotiate some tricky financial twists and turns, before turning a two-boat programme into reality. He has Harold Cudmore and the Australian David Kilponen to bring an international feel to a campaign which relies heavily on the flair of designer, Philippe Briand.

NIPPON CHALLENGE In San Diego for the past year, a tactic the other syndicates eschewed, their programme was disrupted by the dismasting of the first of two new boats soon after it arrived. Makoto Namba is now confirmed as skipper in preference to Manchester-born John Cu lter. Had been expected to use some daring engineering but now leaning to cautious conservatism.

TEAM NEW ZEALAND Just the sort of professional and talented crew that any football manager would give his eye teeth for. But this is an equipment-dominated sport and, having rejected Bruce Farr, the co-ordinator, Tom Schnackenburg has placed a big burdenon the multi-national design team of Lawrie Davidson (NZ), Doug Peterson (US) and David Alan-Williams (GB). The skipper, Russell Coutts, and his navigator, Brad Butterworth, are tenacious fighters. They may need to be.

TUTUKAKA YACHT CLUB Shark grey is the colour and "don't crack under pressure" the slogan. Chris Dickson is not so much the dark horse as the dangerous predator of the challengers, enjoying a partnership with designer Bruce Farr that has come up with a boat firmly placed at the light end of the wind scale. They may have to take some beatings for that early on, but could be the surprise package.

BAYONA-VALENCIA The Spanish are back with a low-budget challenge and an admission by skipper Pedro Campos that they are gambling on a light-wind series. "I don't mind losing half the races by half an hour if I win the other half even by only a few seconds," Campos says.

British involvement through coach Eddie Warden Owen.

THE RACES The courses for the trials are of six legs, three to windward and three, including the last, downwind. The first and last legs of the trials will be 3.25 miles each, the other four are each three miles. In the America's Cup the first two legs are 3.25 miles, the rest are three miles.

CITIZEN CUP (Defenders): Round-Robin 1: 12-20 Jan (1 pt per win). RR2: 29 Jan-6 Feb (2 pts). RR3: 14-22 Feb (4 pts) RR4: 2-10 Mar (7 pts). Top boat carries two points forward, second one, third nil. Semi-final: 18-31 Mar. Each races the other three times, one point per win. Final: 10-22 April. Best of 11

LOUIS VUITTON CUP (Challengers): RR1 14-20 Jan (1 pt). RR2: 29 Jan-4 Fe. (2 pts). RR3: 14-20 Feb (4 pts). RR4: 2-8 Mar (5 pts). Top four to semi-final each racing the other three times. Final: 11-22 April best of nine.

AMERICA'S CUP: 6 May. Best of nine.

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