They called Dennis Conner "The Machine" during the long America's Cup summer. They called him "Mr. Predictable" because he never said anything new.
Now Conner, flushed with victory and at long last safe from the sniping of an insatiable press and his sailing arch rival, Ted Turner, can relax and be himself.
Intense, machinelike and predictable.
"I'm kind of taking the year off," said Conner, in town recently to plug a PBS television special on his 1980 America's Cup victory. "I'll only sail about 150 days."
That's a lot of sailing for most people. It's half-time for Conner, who sailed 300 days in preparation for the cup campaign. The sailing was only half of it. "I thought about the cup 10 hours a day, 365 days a year for two years," he said, glaring across his coffee at the National Press Club.
Conner hurried home from the cup summer to race his own boat, Dust 'Em, in the 1,000-mile Mazatlan race, which he won. He passed through Washington on his way to the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit in Florida, the most prestigious annual ocean racing series in the world. He will be sailing Williwaw this winter and he intends to win the SORC.
"I know I'm a good sailor," Conner said. "I'm probably the best in the world. Look at the record. I've won three of the last four SORCs."
Nobody doubts Conner's credentials any more. The question asked these days is whether the grueling cup campaign was worth it, and whether he'll do it again.
They ask this of a man who ate five meals a day for seven months to gain 50 pounds so he'd have an advantage in heavy winds at the 1977 Star-class world championships, which he won. To this man the cup campaign was worth it, whatever the cost.
"My friends told me: 'Go for the cup; it's special.' They were right and I'm glad I did it. But now they're saying to me, 'Why go back? You'll never be able to overwhelm everyone the way you did.'
"The only problem is that I liked it. It was fun."
And he did have the satisfaction of proving he was better than 1977 titlist Turner. "I'm a better sailor than Ted. I know it and he knows it."
So will he come back for the next cup competition in 1983? Conner won't say but the odds clearly are that he will. And his next campaign would be every bit as intense as the first.
Conner set a standard for waging a cup defense when he tested two boats against each other for two years and spent millions guaranteeing he had a flawless, fast boat and crew. He blew away the American and foreign competition. But now the world knows his program and intends to match it or better it. Mounting a cup defense will get harder from here on in.
"In order for me to do it right, I've got to feel right about it. Otherwise I'd never be able to generate the motivation, the desire, the ideas, the willingness to sacrifice. It wouldn't be fair to the boat designer, the crew or the syndicate to do it any other way," Conner said.
Then he set off to address a luncheon group and told them all exactly the same thing in exactly the same words.
The machine is intact.
The PBS special, 'Freedom's Defense, America's Cup 1980," is an hour-long documentary that will be telecast at 4 p.m. Jan. 31 (WETA-TV-26). hIt is high-class stuff, and includes simultaneous film footage from aboard Courageous and Freedom during actual racing, cheery interviews with skippers and crew and a generally easygoing approach to the competition.
The narration by Robin MacNeil of MacNeil-Lehrer report is comprehensible even to nonsailors. It's a good production all around and worth a look despite the unusual time slot.