"I'm sure the Cup is safe," Ted Turner told American's Cup selection committeemen the day they told him he wouldn't be defending it this year.

Today, the day after the first race of America's 24th defense of the Cup, those words seemed pitifully inadequate.

If the America's Cup isn't safe there are no hills in West Virginia and rubber won't bounce.

"What do the Australians have to do to turn it around?" an out-of-towner wanted to know.

Their best bet now, he was told, is to put their yacht on a freighter and take it home.

On Tuesday, Dennis Conner's swift, blue 12-meter yacht Freedom sailed away from the snow white Australia like a swan escaping a farmyard duck.

Late in the first race of the 1980 defense, though, Australia made up time and distance on the American boat. Today the news emerged from the secretive depths of the Freedom camp that during that stretch the U.S. boat was sailing without steering gear after a chain in the linkage broke.

Conner had been silent about the problem during interviews after the race, though he was asked if he had any gear trouble.

During nine miles of racing, it turned out, he steered the boat with a jury-rigged rope around the winch, with the use of a trim tab and by adjusting the sails. During that stretch Australia gained 14 seconds, losing the race by a final margin of 1 minute 52 seconds.

Today the Freedon camp was buzzing as the full complement of crews from her and her sister ship, Enterprise, set to work on a major maintenance check of the blue boat.

John Sparkman, working in the sail loft, said onimously, "Because of the problem yesterday everyone is afraid that something may have been overlooked."

And a Freedom source explained, "It would be pretty embarrassing to lose a race by a breakdown. Off the record, that's the only way we could lose."

The incredible preparedness of Freedon is only beginning to strike home in the face of this moderately significnt gear problem.

Conner himself concedes that the foulup was minor in that it did not keep Freedom from finishing and winning.

Yet today the 22 crewman were running through a 20-page checklist of maintenance tests extending from the top of the mast to the below-decks fittings. The boom was off the boat being disassembled on sawhorses. Winches were torn down to the bearings. The dock where Freedom rests was closed to the press and public.

"We're not going to check the keel boats, though," said Sparkman.

He said the two-stage checklist system has the regular Freedom crewmen inspecitng all his maintenance stations first; then his counterpart from Enterprise, Freedom's trial horse, double checks each pressure point.

Said Sparkman, "I's like looking at your kids. You see them every day so you don't notice them growing. But somebody else notices changes right away." y

Conner co-wrote a book a few years ago called "No Excuse to Lose. He is applying that philosophy mercilessly to this America's Cup campaign.

He accepts no intrusion -- even the intrusion of facts -- if it threaten victory.

Thus he explained his silence after the race on the subject of gear failure.

"Anything I say can only help the Australians," he said. "I's not going to help us a bit if they know anything about what's going on on Freedom."

The Australians hardly have time to pay attention to the opposition's dogma.

They called for an off day today to repair a problem with their experimental masts and to recut sails. The mast was pulled last night and reinstalled this morning and they were out to sea for more last-minute testing most of the day.

They are still seeking the proper sail combinations for the bendable mast they installed 11 days ago and have since pulled for repairs and reinstalled four times.

The Aussies have shown little threat on the water and Conner believes Australian syndicate manager Alan Bond is trying to achieve through psycholgical warfare what he can't muster in a race -- distracting the single-minded Freedom skipper.

Last night Bond accused Conner of violating a "gentleman's agreement not to use radios to receive information from the yachts' tenders within 20 minutes of the start of the race.

Bond said he'd overheard Freedom's tender advising Conner to switch on his hand radio 12 minutes before the start of the race.

Conner called the accusation "predictible." He said, "The agreement of the skippers was to turn off the radios after the all-clear was called at the start" and the race was on.

"Bond just fabricated that 20-minute figure out of his own imagination," said Conner.