Conner storms into history

A near-miracle put the doyen of the America's Cup in the final. Stuart Alexander reports from San Diego
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The big man, Dennis Conner, is back in the America's Cup, producing on the trickiest of courses off Point Loma both one of the biggest comebacks in cup history and a rich testimony to his determination, despite a boat which could barely match the pace of his two rivals.

Not only did he consign to the deep the dreams of the 15 women and one man on Bill Koch's Mighty Mary, he also deep-sixed his old collaborator, John Marshall, and Kevin Mahaney, who started the Citizen Cup as favourites in the gloriously painted Young America - Roy Lichtenstein's Mermaid adorning the hi-tech Pact '95 boat. They could only sit and watch in disbelief as their fate was decided without them.

Anything can happen on a yacht-race course as fluky as San Diego, but even the most cautious observers thought Conner was being highly optimistic when he said "this is going to be a great comeback" as he rounded the fourth mark 3min 31sec behind. Nothing had changed by the time he started the sixth and last leg - three miles downwind - 4min 8sec down. "This race isn't over yet," he said.

And he was right. As most were just waiting for the formality to come to an end and were beginning to gear themselves up for another showdown between Pact and America3, who had been doing all they could during the past few days to help each other oust Conner, the drama started to unfold.

Cubed ran into a patch of light breeze, the canny crew on Stars & Stripes saw what was happening, and made sure they stayed in better conditions to sail past a crew who were probably already savouring a celebration.

It did not end there, however. Stars & Stripes' spinnaker then blew out and, as the crew hastily hoisted a new one, the ripped sail drifted down into the water, causing a major drag effect on the boat until they let the halyard run free out of the mast and the sail drifted free. They managed to recover yet again and went on to win by 52 seconds, a five-minute gain that will go down in history.

Conner has cast a giant shadow over the America's Cup for 21 years, sometimes darker and chillier than was welcome, but always as a formidable competitor with a deep understanding of what it takes to tune a complex machine and keep it on course for a long time.

His victory neatly reversed the drama and poignancy an earlier pair of races had excited. The women, back in the days when they were an all-woman crew, won the first race of the series against him on 12 January. And they beat him again - as 15 women plus Dave Dellenbaugh - in what was supposed to be a sudden-death effort at the end of the semi-finals on 4 April.

That was the date of the compromise which saw all three defence syndicates go though to the final. Conner put up the best record, scoring six wins to two defeats. But part of the deal was that Kevin Mahaney's Pact '95, clear leader after the semi-finals and America3, originators of the compromise, received one point bonuses. Another part of the deal said that in the event of a three-way tie, Conner would automatically be eliminated.

So Conner's effort brought about a triple whammy, knocking out both his opponents in a single blow and winning the Citizen Cup into the bargain. However, the result is that the two quickest boats have also gone, although probably the most skilled crew has survived.

Of central importance has been Paul Cayard, a late addition to Conner's afterguard, who has been steering the boat more and more. With Conner, tact

hskilled as any. What remains to be seen is whether negotiations now take place to allow Conner to sail one of the other two boats.

The New Zealand government anounced yesterday they will give Team New Zealand NZ$500,000 (£212,000) to support its bid to win the America's Cup, the trade minister, Philip Burdon, said yesterday.

CITIZEN CUP Defender series final: Stars & Stripes (D Conner) bt America3 (L Egnot) by 52sec. Stars & Stripes qualifies to defend America's Cup against Team New Zealand, 6 May.