SAILING: Koch courts a sexual controversy

Stuart Alexander reports from San Diego on the difference a man has made to the America3 challenge
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The Independent Online
"Read my lips," was one of the phrases which George Bush came to regret when he was accused of reneging on his "no new taxes" electoral pledge, and Bill Koch, the autocratic boss of the America3 America's Cup defence syndicate, now finds himself in much the same position.

In an interview with a Jim Kelly of ESPN, the sports television channel, on 6 March, Koch was asked of his all-women crew: "Will you ever put a man on the boat, anywhere?"

Koch: "No. I'm dedicated to a principle and we're gonna see it through, one way or the other."

Kelly: "And you've told them that?"

Koch: "Absolutely."

Kelly: "And they're buying it?"

Koch: "Absolutely."

Kelly: "And they've got no reason to doubt you?"

Koch: "No reason to doubt it."

Kelly: "You're committed?"

Koch: "I'm committed."

Kelly: "I can play this tape on the first of May and the answer's the same?"

Koch: "Same thing. You're gonna see nothing - you might see a 17th man as a male, but you will not see any males on that first 16."

The 17th man is a guest - often a sponsor - on board while the boat is racing, who is allowed to do absolutely nothing. That is the job of the crew - a maximum of 16.

On Saturday 18 March, 12 days after his interview, Koch announced that America3, the first all-women crew in 144 years of America's Cup history, would become co-ed. The red-bearded Dave Dellenbaugh, Koch's starting helmsman and tactician when he won the America's Cup in 1992, took over from Jennifer Isler to bring some much-needed experience to the back of the boat. The idea, Koch said, had come from a delegation of crew members.

The now mixed-sex America3 then lost their first race, because of what some saw as a tactical error, although the newly appointed skipper (another move Koch had said he was not going to make), Leslie Egnot, said the failure was more to do with a malfunction of the mainsail.

Accused of "deception", Koch rationalised. "We looked at it and said, `what are our objectives; what is our purpose here? Are we here to win; are we here to further women's causes; are we here to be nice to each other?' We went through a whole number of options and came to the conclusion that we're here to win, and to do the other things, but we're here to win first. My point has always been to win."

He could have added "the Koch way". In 1992 he believed that he could let a fast boat do the talking, and under-played the considerable skills of those sailing it. He hoped to do the same again in 1995, by showing that a crew of women, who readily admitted that they lacked experience of sailing at the highest level, could beat the best, because they had the best boat.

So it is arguable that it is not the American public who have been deceived, nor the sponsors who put up millions of dollars to back Koch's concept, but the women crew themselves. Koch said he has had to eat a little humble pie, but his detractors may find they have to do the same before this is all over.

At the moment, America3 need only win enough races in the Citizen Cup semi-final to go though to the final. They do not have to be ready to win that yet, much less the America's Cup itself, which does not start until 6 May.

Koch has a huge team of designers, coaches, technicians, boat builders and fixers, enough to keep two other trial yachts busy. He showed in 1992 his ability to keep driving boat technology forward, and he claims that the new boat he has built this time is two to three minutes faster around the course. Koch began to vindicate his move on Monday, with an important win over Dennis Conner's still far from glittering Stars & Stripes. He has also hired Harry Cudmore again to coach the defence.

Now, of course, the focus is on Dellenbaugh's contribution to that morale- boosting win. A self-effacing man, he was quick to praise the others, adding: "I had no desire to be on the boat with people who didn't want to sail with me and didn't want a guy on the boat, and I feel totally accepted by the crew."

There is still some unhappiness in the camp that the principle of an all-women challenge has been dispensed with, and some people who bought America3 clothing and other branded merchandise in support are asking for their money back.

But a few more wins - and Conner seems uncharacteristically ripe for the taking - and the tune may change.

There was no chance for any crew to notch up a win yesterday, bad weather put paid to racing.

CITIZEN CUP Semi-finals, day 3: America3 bt Stars & Stripes, 1min 36sec. Standings: 1 Pact '95, 3pt; =2 America3, Stars & Stripes, 1. LOUIS VUITTON CUP Semi-finals, race 2: Team New Zealand bt Nippon Challenge, 6min 14sec; Tag Heuer bt oneAustralia, 1min 19sec. Standings: 1 Team New Zealand, 2; =2 oneAustralia, Tag Heuer, 1; 4 Nippon Challenge, 0.