The news from Down Under is that Alan Bond's Australia III is plenty fast and most likely will win the right to defend the America's Cup off Perth in January. But against whom?
The early line had the New York Yacht Club's America II syndicate favored among 14 challengers from six countries, and America II remains a strong, well-financed contender. But she was a disappointing third in the 12-meter worlds last month off Perth, which Australia III won easily.
Now, attention is turning to the silent progress of Dennis Conner, victim of Bond's winged-keel, Australia II juggernaut in 1983 and the man who ended the longest winning streak in sports history by losing the cup the U.S. had held for 132 years.
While America II, Australia II and III and 11 other sailboats raced around in the Indian Ocean last month, Conner and his battle-scarred band were sequestered in Hawaii, as they have been since September, testing a fleet of four boats with which he hopes to recapture the cup.
The closest Conner came to Perth during the races was in a TV advertisement for the Western Australia government, touting its $250,000 lottery. "Hi, remember me?" he says, grinning. "I'm the guy who lost the America's Cup . . . "
Jokes aside, Conner wants the cup back and reportedly is so pleased with his two new boats, Stars & Stripes '85 and Stars & Stripes '86, that he's arguing against building anything else.
"As a research scientist, I'm pushing to build a final boat," said Conner's design team director, mainsail trimmer and all-around right-hand man, John Marshall. "But Dennis feels what he has now is already awfully fast, and that we'd be better off optimizing it than building something else.
"Dennis is historically tough. When he tells me, 'I think we're there,' well, that's a great feeling."
"What interests me is how quiet he's been," mused Gary Jobson, veteran of three cup campaigns and longtime Conner-watcher. Jobson says Conner has become "the man to beat. When things are going badly, he lets everyone know. But when you don't hear anything, you start wondering if he has something to hide."
Speaking of hiding, four months ago Conner was inviting the world's sailing press to Hawaii to increase his visibility in the quest to raise $15 million for his campaign.
But that was before launching Stars & Stripes '85 in November and '86 in January. Now, ink-stained visitors to the Conner camp say the head man is positively standoffish, even though he's still only halfway home in his fundraising effort. Responded Conner by phone: "We spent $3.5 million and a year of our lives trying to come up with a faster product. You don't think we're going to show it to just anybody?"
Is Conner where he feels he needs to be to win?
"We feel we have a significant technological edge" over 1983 champion Australia II, said Marshall, who believes no one else can make that claim.
No one outside his Sail America camp knows what advances Conner's team actually has made, if any, and no one inside is saying. "All I can say about our edge," syndicate chairman Malin Burnham told contributors at a recent meeting, "is that it's bigger than a breadbox and smaller than a house."
What is known is that Conner has retired Liberty, the boat in which he barely lost to the Aussies in 1983, and is on the verge of retiring Stars & Stripes '83, a copy of Australia II. Those were his benchmarks for testing new boats, and he doesn't need them any more. Wanna buy a 12-meter?
Conner's $3.5 million design program relied on computer analysis, tank testing and the input of space-age scientific firms such as Boeing and Science Applications International, a defense consultant, to scheme ways to advance the winged-keel concept.
With seven months left to go before competition begins, it is clear every boat in the running will have wings. Australia II rewrote the book on underwater 12-meter hull design with the swept-back appendages she kept secret throughout the '83 campaign. The wings improved speed and stability in certain conditions and maneuverability in all conditions. Now, it's a question of who carries the technology forward the most.
Trials to select a defender from the four Australian syndicates and a challenger from the 14 foreign syndicates will begin Oct. 5.
Most observers at the worlds, which ended Feb. 20, agreed Australia III and her syndicate sister, Australia II, were unlikely to be unseated by any other Australian group. "In a word, they were powerful," said Jobson, who will serve as a commentator for ESPN when it televises the races next winter.
"The sailors worry only about sailing," he said. "The syndicate is well-financed. They have Australia II as a benchmark and Australia III is clearly faster. There were no crew or tactical problems and they won three of the last four races on Australia III. They got stronger every race."
Conner rated Australia III and Australia II as two of the three fastest boats in the regatta, with the new French boat French Kiss in the middle.
America II, sailing the older of its two new boats, was plagued by crew errors. The boat lost a man overboard in one race and had to go back and retrieve him, wrapped a spinnaker so badly it had to be cut away in another race and ripped the mainsail in the final contest.
It was unexpected trouble for the New York Yacht Club group, supposedly the best-prepared after two years of almost nonstop practice.
But America II mainsail trimmer Larry Leonard said he had "no problem" with the results. "We won two preliminary races," he said.
America II will launch its third new 12-meter May 16 in Newport, R.I. Conner's group will decide on March 24 whether to build another boat. Three other U.S. groups -- Rod Davis' Eagle syndicate, Tom Blackaller's St. Francis syndicate and Buddy Melges' Heart of America campaign -- are all essentially one-boat efforts with vessels just launched or on the verge of launching. The sixth and final U.S. syndicate, Leonard Greene's Courageous IV, is lurching along after finishing 12th in the worlds.
Other tidbits from Perth:
NEW ZEALAND -- Finished second and seventh with two new boats, the first fiberglass 12-meters ever built. It was an impressive showing for a group with no previous cup experience, but veteran observers say the boats lacked breakaway speed.
FRANCE -- French Kiss was fastest in the fleet in certain conditions, particularly upwind in heavy air, and was fifth overall in the regatta, "but the French have very little experience match racing, and frequent crew and tactical problems held them back," Jobson said.
ITALY -- Disappointing, as Italia tied South Australia for eighth place and Azzurra was 10th. These were groups Conner initially picked as top challengers because of financing, experience and organization.
AUSTRALIA -- The Kookaburra group, widely regarded as top challenger to Bond's Australia III for the right to defend, did not compete. Kookaburra is a two-boat operation that sparred with America II before the worlds. She remains a mystery, although America II officials say the existing Kookaburras are plenty competitive, and a third is in the works.
CANADA -- True North was sixth in fleet but showed promise, finishing third and fourth in the last two races after Terry McLaughlin, who was struggling, was replaced at the helm by 47-year-old international Soling champion Hans Fogh.