Machines and salt water are not supposed to mix, but today the machine took a sea bath.

They call Dennis Conner the machine for his capacity to slice like a meat cutter through the opposition in his bid to defend the America's Cup. Today he made the final slice, eliminating Russell Long and his yacht Clipper from competition with a final, convincing victory.

His reward -- a dunking in the murky waters of Newport Harbor at the dock. Then the crew went in, then the families of the crew, then the sponsors of Freedom and the families of sponsors.

As hours blew, cannons blasted and champagne corks popped, the water around Freedom filled with bobbing heads of her victorious crew and everyone else who had a hand in Freedom's reign. It looked like a Washington, D.C., pool on the hottest August Saturday.

Conner was informed that he had been selected to defend the Cup by the America's Cup selection committee, which has watched him beat Clipper and Ted Turner's Courageous some 44 times this summer, while only losing four races.

The straw-hatted selectors arrived at Williams and Manchester wharf in their elegant motor yacht Hatterascal and chairman Robert McCullough reached out to shake Conner's hand.

"He said something like, 'It's a pleasure to tell you you've been selected to defend,'" said a dripping Conner when he hoisted himself from the water.

The Freedom crew knew it had been selected well before Hatterascal reached the dock. As they were coming in under tow, a flag suddenly appeared on the race committee boat near them. The flag was Freedom's flag.

Said Tom Whidden, a crewman of Freedom, "We had a pretty good idea then what was going on."

Did Conner bubble over at that point? "No," said Whidden, tipping a jeroboam of champagne. "He just said, 'Tomorrow we'll be sail testing.' We had to convince him to not go until 11 o'clock."

Conner has spent 1 1/2 years and more than $2 million of the Fort Schuyler Foundation's money to arrive at this juncture. But even today he maintained a cool demeanor.

"We talked about the fact that we were here to defend the Cup and we haven't done that yet," said Whidden. "He didn't really show anything outwardly, but I know Dennis very well. He was happy. When he gets really happy is when we pass the other boat."

On Wednesday Freedom lost the start to Clipper, but came roaring back on the first leg to pass her and never gave up the lead.

Today it was more of the same and then some. Clipper took the start and forced Conner over the line before the gun. Freedom had to circle around the committee boat and restart some 29 seconds behind. Halfway up the first windward leg Conner had retaken the lead, and when the race was over after 20 miles he led by more than 2 1/2 minutes.

Tonight the celebrations will not end early. Freedom's people may have to keep an eye on their watches.

Sail testing Saturday.

That's Dennis Conner.