Dennis Conner's team has agreed to an America's Cup showdown in huge boats against New Zealand next summer, but will it be a rematch or a mismatch?

No one who saw it will soon forget the pitched Conner-Kiwi battle last winter in stormy seas off Fremantle, Australia.

Sailing roughly equal 12-meter boats, the Americans and New Zealanders met eight times. Final score: Conner 5, New Zealand 3, in the tightest, most contentious matchup of the five-month Cup season.

Conner went on to win yachting's crown and the Kiwis went home to sit out a four-year wait for revenge. Now New Zealand banker Michael Fay, by going to court with a different interpretation of the rules, has wangled a quick second shot, head-to-head, in a new class of boats twice the size of the 12s.

But from early indications, Conner's Sail America Foundation has no intention of allowing an even matchup that might cost them the Cup.

"One of Dennis' basic rules is: Never race with equal equipment if you can avoid it," said John Marshall, who is coordinating design of a boat for Conner to sail when racing begins next September.

And Conner's chief designer, Britt Chance, maintained that under the loose, 100-year-old Cup rules, he can draw a boat so different and so much faster than New Zealand's, it could be closer to a rout than a race.

Marshall, Chance and the rest of the Conner design team are studying a spate of radical hull designs, some of which have the potential to match world speed sailing records of 40 knots, Marshall said. That's almost twice the theoretical top speed of the New Zealand challenger, according to Kiwi designer Bruce Farr.

Fighting Fair?

Farr thinks the response is unfair and violates the spirit and the letter of the rules. His understanding when he drew the challenger's fairly conventional lines was that the defender, challenged to a match race, had to respond with a boat of roughly the same shape.

"They're not trying to meet our challenge," he said. "They're trying to kill it."

But Chance, Conner's chief designer, said, "My reading of the rules is that multihulls {trimarans and catamarans} are legal, and any reasonably informed person would say they perform better" than single-hulled designs like New Zealand's.

"Against a conventional monohull," said Chance, "it's no contest." Conner would love nothing better than a good rout of his nemesis Fay, but whether he can get away with a Cup mismatch -- either in courts of law or in what one U.S. official called "the court of world opinion" -- remains to be seen.

"The U.S. seems to think they can meet the challenge of a single-shot pistol with a high-powered rifle at 500 yards," said Farr. "They could be a very unpopular winner if they basically played dirty tricks to win."

Farr hinted that by threatening an embarrassing mismatch, Conner's forces may really be trying to discourage Fay from pressing his rematch at all.

"They may just want us to call the whole thing off," he said. Or, he said, Conner's Sail America Foundation may be angling for negotiations to pave the way for a long delay before the racing resumes.

Conner didn't want to sail for the Cup again until 1991 off San Diego, in traditional 12-meters against a field of 20 or more challengers from around the world.

But when Sail America dawdled in announcing its plan, Fay filed a challenge based on the letter of the antiquated Cup Deed of Gift and won a rematch on 10 months notice. His challenge was upheld last month in New York State Supreme Court.

Fay's people are busy in Auckland building his boat -- an ultralight fiberglass sloop 90 feet long on the waterline, far bigger than any sailboat actively raced in the last half-century.

New Zealand thus has a head start in the essentially untested waters of modern "super-maxiboat" design, but the timing is turning out to be not entirely in its favor, for several reasons.

First, in making his challenge, Fay assumed next summer's racing would be off Conner's home port, San Diego, where the wind is light. He had Farr draw the boat's lines with that in mind.

Now Conner's forces are talking about Hawaii, where the wind howls every day, and mapping their boat-design strategies accordingly.

Farr may have to adapt his light-air boat to a heavy-air configuration, which is never as good as designing a boat for conditions from the start, he said.

Moreover, Fay in his challenge was required to disclose certain dimensions of the challenging boat, including its waterline length and a maximum width (beam), which Farr set at 26 feet.

Locked into the beam measurement, the New Zealanders are precluded from building a multihull or radical monohull to match what the Americans might bring, which might be 60 feet on the beam or even wider. Farr "painted himself into a corner," said Chance.

Once Conner's forces decided reluctantly last week to accept the challenge, Marshall began analyzing space-age sailboat designs. He thought he'd be scrambling to catch up.

But preliminary work indicated he could commission a multihull or an extremely radical, winged, planing monohull capable theoretically of skimming atop the water at up to 40 knots, with a crew of 40 balanced precariously on the outboard edge of its wings to hold the vessel down.

Marshall said he sees no reason why his team should be restrained in design work by any voluntary measurements the challenger adopted. "They started with a clean sheet of paper and so do we," he said.

Others in the game think Sail America is playing with fire if it comes to the regatta with a mismatch.

"San Diego will be obliged to race in a boat of like dimensions," said Briton Peter deSavary, who wants to get into the regatta, too. "If Fay has to go to court, he will.

"Why would San Diego want to belittle themselves and win by underhanded methods, anyway?" asked deSavary.

DeSavary is one of a half-dozen potential challengers who want to compete with Fay for the right to race Conner next summer.

But, although Fay welcomed additional competition and backed a challenger sail-off, Conner's forces again slammed the door.

Sail America says it will race only New Zealand, exercising its right under the Deed of Gift to deny a substitute challenger from the other interested countries -- Australia, France, England and Japan.

Said Marshall: "Fay swatted us with the glove. Now we're entitled to a match with him one-on-one, with no stand-ins. We want Michael Fay."

That decision disappointed even some Conner partisans, who saw the potential for a stirring, multinational sail-off in a variety of hull designs.

"I'd like to see wide-open, multiple challenges," said Chance, "but San Diego wants to dispose of this challenge as expeditiously as possible" and get back to its plan to sail for the Cup in 12-meters in 1991 in a regatta worth an estimated $1.2 billion to the city.

Danger of Second-Guessing

If it all smacks of a one-sided America's Cup beheading, Marshall said he still has concerns.

"We have to sort out through our velocity prediction programs what hull shape has the optimum potential," he said, "and with the amount of time we have, the figures better be right."

And Chance worries that if races are held off Hawaii, a heavy-air breakdown could deep-six what seems a guaranteed victory.

"I think we have a big challenge in front of us. We were caught by surprise and the net result is the design team starts cold turkey.

"The hardest thing now is engineering and logistics. The danger is that we build an unsuitable boat. Execution is going to be very, very critical."

What does Farr see eight months down the road?

"I see {Sail America director} Malin Burnham with tears in his eyes, handing the Cup over to Michael Fay because his catamaran broke in half the first day in heavy weather off Hawaii."

Seriously?

"Seriously, I hope we'll see a good yacht race between relatively well-matched, maybe even slightly similar boats off California," he said, "because that's what the America's Cup is all about."

If anything seems certain, it's that the Cup over the next several months will become a political battleground, which is nothing new.

New Zealand won't sit still for a mismatch, and if faced with one will likely take its case to the courts, contesting the legality of a radical defense design, and to the court of public opinion.

"There's the matter of America's place in the world," said Farr, a New Zealand expatriate who lives in Annapolis. "Can the might of America not defeat 3 million sheep farmers without resorting to dirty tricks?"

On the other hand, Sail America is unlikely to willingly jeopardize its billion-dollar prize in a hurried, head-to-head showdown of relatively evenly matched boats.

Farr hopes the impasses will be resolved in negotiations between Fay and Sail America this week, but, so far, signs of a Sail America willingness to bargain are few.

Could the bad blood ruin the Cup?

Not likely, said Marshall.

"You're talking about rich, powerful men, money and the pretty girl {the Cup} that everyone wants," he said.

"The more controversy, the more money, the better it gets."