Sailing: Conner, defender of the faith: The old master is preparing for another assault on the America's Cup. Stuart Alexander reports from San Diego

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The Independent Online
MANY people were surprised when Dennis Conner entered the Whitbread Race, but few were surprised that he did not have the time to take part in all the legs. His co-skipper, Brad Butterworth, starts the next leg from Auckland to Punta del Este, Uruguay, on 20 February lying third in the W60 class, waiting to pounce on any mistakes by the leaders.

Meanwhile, Conner is working flat out to be top of the roost in the event that dominates his life, the America's Cup. It is over 10 years since DC went through the nightmare of being the first American in 132 years to lose the America's Cup. He has also won it four times - the most notable, perhaps, being the way he won it straight back four years later.

Now he is back on the trail and he knows that, at high noon on 6 May next year, the man staring him coldly in the eye could be the man who denied him the great prize once before: the Australian, John Bertrand.

However, for Conner, that is an incentive. For him there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like the America's Cup. He may have turned 50, but his enthusiasm is undiminished. He knows he is in for a fight and coming up against the only man to have beaten him in five defences just makes the adrenalin run harder.

With less than 12 months to go to the next parade, he is already in overdrive. The crew selection trials are already under way, the dark blue Stars and Stripes is out sailing. Plans for a new boat are being drawn up by the design team, including the tandem keel specialist, Alberto Calderon.

Most importantly, the money is almost in place. This time Conner should not have the frustration of seeing the job of defender go to a new boy, Bill Koch, with apparently limitless millions of finance.

This week, in Chicago, Conner launched not only his new sponsor, Sears Roebuck, but the new line of Stars and Stripes clothing that will sell in their 800 stores and be available by mail to their 52 million customers. Conner is reaching the heartland of blue collar America and, in addition to dollars 1.5m ( pounds 1.03m) of sponsorship, is establishing an important line of constant cash flow.

For the 1992 tournament, Conner struggled at first to find enough money. His spirited fight against all the odds won him respect, but the financial support it also generated came too late to allow Conner to build the boat he then knew he needed.

When answering questions on his future plans after arriving in Auckland at the end of the third leg of the Whitbread Race last week, his intentions were immediately obvious to all the old hands. 'I could sail every leg or sail none of the (remaining three) legs. I will go back to San Diego and check into real life, look at my opportunities and decide on my priorities based on what is best for me,' he said. In other words, the America's Cup comes first.

Whether it is Whitbread or America's Cup, Conner brings the same process of analysis to every campaign. In Auckland he was ready to put in a six- hour stint of one media interview every 15 minutes on behalf of Winston at the hospitality tent which is erected at every stop-over.

However, he has also been studying the opposition that will line up against him, first to rival his claim to be defender, and then, more importantly, the eight challengers who will try for only the second time in history to take the cup away from the United States.

The only time that happened, in 1983, Conner went to Australia and won it back. He felt pretty confident then, and he feels confident now. 'The challengers have not been able to mount for 1995 the kind of serious effort they did in 1992,' he says. 'But my campaign is further along by a good deal than ever it was at the same point last time. So, relative to each other, we are stronger.

'For instance, John Bertrand's One Australia challenge is having to build its trial horse. We already have one and we know how fast it goes, we know all about it. So when we look at the big picture, as far as the Dennis Conner programme is concerned (he often refers to himself in the third person) it's much stronger. But the overall American position is not necessarily stronger, because we won't have a Bill Koch spending dollars 85m.'

Conner makes Bertrand, the man who beat him in the seventh race of a best of seven with a winged keel under an old-style 12-metre hull, the favourite to beat all the other seven challengers. 'He has unlimited budget, the money is in hand, he has been able to plan on that budget, so he was able to hire the right technicians,' he said.

Bertrand has been able to hire some of Koch's people, like the designers Reichel and Pugh, and the skipper of the New Zealand challenge, Rod Davis, the American turned Kiwi now resident in Australia.

'So, he has the right people in the right jobs from a design standpoint and is well-funded, well-organised for a veteran campaign with a boat sailed by people who know how to get the job done,' Conner said.

From there, Conner sees a 'fair step down' to the others but feels the Japanese have been underestimated. 'If they have a fast boat, they could be a factor, and they have the potential from a technology standpoint and technology matters.'

He wonders whether the New Zealanders are as strong. While their skipper, Russell Coutts, can sail a boat superbly, it is yet to be seen how he runs a major programme like an America's Cup campaign, and Coutts himself rates Team New Zealand no higher than mid-pack.

The Americans have huge resources when they want them and Conner's team is getting better and better at marshalling them. His dilemma is that he knows the long-term future of the cup would be better outside San Diego, the home town he loves, since the event would almost certainly benefit from a fresh marketing impetus. He once wrote a book titled No Excuse To Lose. At this stage, he looks too good to lose.

(Photograph omitted)

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