Rhode Island Sound put on two of its ugliest faces today, dampening the heralded start of the final trials to select a U.S. defender for the America's Cup.
First it blew up a rolling sea and spat rain, then the wind quit entirely.
To Dennis Conner, the man everyone excepts to walk away with the right to defend the cup next month, it mattered not.
Conner's boat Freedom plowed past its opponent, Russell Long's 12-meter yacht Clipper, in two straight races. The first time out in a pitching sea and 18 knots of wind, Freedom nipped Clipper at the start and never relinquished the lead over a 15-mile shortened course, finishing 1 minute 27 seconds ahead.
Next time Clipper won the start. But when the wind quit almost entirely halfway up the first leg of the shortened race, Clipper bore off to seek new wind. When the two boats tacked back together it turned out that Freedom had found the wind.
"We all saw where the wind was coming from," Conner said after the race. We could see the French boat (on a different course) coming toward us and their chute was full.
"I can't imagine why Clipper steered off. Maybe they lost steerage way. Even then, when they did get steerage way they didn't come back.
"He didn't cover us in light wind when he had the wind. Those don't look like America's Cup tactics to me."
Conner added, "With a few more days like this, they're going to start looking for the selection committee."
The trials have been progressing off and on since June and in that time freedom has raced 36 times and lost only three races. Through it all the America's Cup selection committee, which must choose a defender by Sept. 11, has watched in silence.
At some time during these final trials the committee will announce to two of the three would-be defenders -- Clipper, Courageous and Freedom -- that their services are no longer needed.
Conner's allusion to the likelihood of that dismissal for Clipper was uncharacteristically rough-edged. It didn't stop there.
"Not only did they lose two races," said the suddenly acerbic Conner, "but they made tactical mistakes. They can't feel too good. (Tactician Tom) Blackaller and Russell looked like they were fighting over who was gonna steer the boat. It's a good thing they have two wheels aboard."
The day's results had to be a blow to Long, who has been banking on a strong showing in these August trials to hold off any early exit. This evening he accentuated the positive, citing Clipper's comparable boat speed despite her evident tactical mistakes.
On Monday Long offered this view of how the final trials might go.
"We stand a solid chance to knock off Freedom in the August trials," he said then. "We won't be beating them easily in the early August trials, but as they progress I feel we can beat them more than half the time."
In Connor's view, Long might not get that much time.
Elsewhere on the stormy seas today the French boat France III was winning its third race over the British Lionheart, and all but ending the Briton's hopes for a shot at the cup.
Unlike the U.S. trials, from which a defender will be chosen whenever the U.S. selection committee decides the choice is clean, the foreigners are on a rigid round-robin schedule, with winners of the four-of-seven series advancing.
The British and French boats are paired in the semifinals this week, as are the Australians and Swedes. The winners of these two semifinal series then advance to the finals, beginning Aug. 29.
The troubled Lionheart, operating under new skipper Lawrie Smith (his predecessor was fired) lost the start today by 40 seconds. Then, just before rounding the windward mark in the squally sound, bowman Richard Clampett tumbled overboard. It took 2 1/2 minutes to get him back on the boat. By the time the race was over the French had increased that advantage to almost 10 minutes.
The French now lead the semifinal series, 3-1. One more loss and the Britons go home.
Australia and the Swedish 12-meter Sverige took the day off today. The Swedes had asked for a lay day.
Australia leads that series, 2-0, and today Australian skipper Jim Hardie, a veteran of three past compaigns, said he is "no longer hopeful, I'm expectant."
The Swedes have had trouble with boat speed, their yacht being the most radically designed in the fleet, and finished last in the preliminary trials.
Australia, which was defeated by Courageous in 1977, is considered the strong favorite to advance to the Cup races again next month.
On Wednesday, Ted Turner's Courageous will race against Clipper and the Swedes and Australians will go at it. The British and French will have a lay day at the Briton's request.