NEW YORK -- The gripe against Chris Dickson in the America's Cup was that he was too tightly wound -- so intense even devout fans of his New Zealand effort expected him to crack under the pressure of the world's most prestigious sailing event.

If he came unglued, it would have been in the January series against Dennis Conner that ended New Zealand's halcyon season. Dickson had gone 37-1 as New Zealand's skipper, best record ever in trials, but ran into Conner's Stars & Stripes juggernaut and lost the right to sail for the Cup, 4-1.

Yet, by any account it was a spectacular showing for a first-time skipper on a first-time team, particularly one so young. Dickson was barely 25. So what did it do for him?

For starters, it cost him his job.

Dickson was here last weekend to sail in the Liberty Cup, one of a series of international match races in which he competes. He was skippering a Beneteau 30 with a pickup crew, including two of his countrymen.

What else is he up to?

"Just what you see," said Dickson defiantly. "Wandering around the world sailing little boats."

Why isn't he home, gearing up for the next Cup?

Dickson wouldn't say it, nor will his former boss, New Zealand financier Michael Fay, but there's bad blood between the two -- so bad that when Fay sent New Zealand's Cup entry on to Sardinia in June for the 12-meter world championships, conspicuously absent from the crew were Dickson, his America's Cup tactician, Brad Butterworth, navigator Mike Quilter and bowman Erle Williams.

It was like taking apart a baseball team that had lost the World Series by firing the star pitcher, team captain, cleanup hitter and leadoff man.

Sources say relations are so strained between Fay and Dickson that the two barely have spoken since their Cup ouster, and the likelihood Dickson ever again will sail for Fay's team seems remote, at least at the moment. Dickson himself conceded he may be frozen out of the next Cup.

All of which would mean little if this were a case of just another skipper out of a job. But Dickson proved in Australia he was something special. Conner himself conceded that, when he was Dickson's age, he couldn't have carried the New Zealander's foul-weather gear.

How good is Dickson? To get a glimpse of the supposedly tyrannical master at work, I wangled a crew position aboard his Liberty Cup entry for a day last weekend. It wasn't easy. Dickson objected, and when I showed up at the dock he offered the following guidelines:

"Okay, no cameras, no questions and no journalists!"

He was only half kidding. To sail with him, the message was, I'd better devote full concentration, without lapse, to the business of speed through the water and tactical advantage over the other guy.

This I learned with finality during the day's second race, when Dickson, in a bid to extend a substantial lead over Canadian Terry Neilson, cut a corner too tightly and ran over the anchor line of the committee boat, fouling his keel. Suddenly we were going sideways. I looked back to see why, momentarily abandoning the duty of the moment.

"Weight up!" Dickson shrieked, encouraging me to get my head back over the rail to help hold the boat level. "We're racing!" he howled. "Nothing else."

That, happily, was about the extent of his bad humor on a day that proved frustrating.

Dickson was over the starting line early against Briton Eddie Owen, then retired from that race when his bowman set the spinnaker incorrectly.

"Peter," Dickson said evenly to his mate before the chute went up in tangles, "are we all right up forward? I see a huge {problem} coming up."

Yet when the big sail went aloft in a hopeless mess, there was not a word of recrimination.

"All right," said Dickson simply, "let's forget that and get ready for the next race."

Two races later, with howling gusts pushing sheets of rain down the East River past the twin towers of the World Trade Center, he was steering downwind when a 30-knot puff caught him off guard. Dickson felt the rudder go slack in his hand and knew the boat was out of control.

"Hold on, guys," he said, and a few seconds later the boat had careened onto its side, the top of the mast was practically in the water and crewman Jeff Merrill hung onto the liferails on the low side, awash in water up to his knees.

You looked at Dickson and saw, for the first and only time during racing, a mad and mischievous grin that devolved into fiendish laughter. Survival conditions, and the man was laughing.

"There comes a time in a broach like that," he said later, "when there's nothing you can do, so you might as well sit back and enjoy it."

Here are some impressions of Dickson after a day's sailing: Self-control. This was clear in Fremantle, when he swore off socializing for month-long stretches to devote himself completely to sailing. Not easy for a 25-year-old. On the boat in New York, time likewise fell into two distinct categories. When not racing, Dickson is sociable. When he says, "We're racing," no distractions are tolerated. X-ray vision. Dickson has a total understanding of the workings of the boat and oversees his job and everyone else's with a constant and unnerving clarity. If you do your job, you will not hear from him. If you do not, you will hear instantly. How does he see so much at once? Aloofness. "As good as he is," said Merrill, "he never really gives you the pat on the back when you do something well. Maybe he just expects perfection." Intensity. One look at his ice-blue eyes and you know.

No one with first-hand knowledge ever has said publicly what happened in the final races against Conner. There were wild reports of Dickson cracking up, his hands clamped white-knuckled on the wheel as he refused to respond to his tactician's calls. There were reports of blows struck on the boat, chaos.

But when it was done, the crew closed ranks and divulged nothing. "When this thing is over," Fay had said, "I'll tell you things {about Dickson} you won't believe." But even he never did.

Fay won't rule out using Dickson at the helm again, saying only that he will use "whoever is best on the day."

But for now, Dickson wanders the globe, hunting a race. Rumors had him offering to sail for the Japanese in their budding Cup challenge, but his fee of several hundred thousand dollars a year reportedly was too high.

Cup rules permit anyone to sail for any country if he has resident status and two years living there. Will Dickson sail for the United States, Great Britain, Australia? No one at all?

"If you want my opinion," said veteran U.S. 12-meter sailor Gary Jobson, "Michael Fay never should have let him go."