The revelation last week that Dennis Conner wants ex-New Zealander Bruce Farr to design his 1992 America's Cup defender hints at the pressure U.S. sailors are feeling as the regatta draws near.

It is less than two years before a U.S. defender takes to the waters off San Diego to face the best of an expected dozen or more Cup challengers in May 1992, and just 19 months before trials to pick a defender and challenger begin that January.

Yet while foreign efforts to spirit the Cup away build steam, U.S. efforts to retain it are sputtering. "The defense," said one worried Cup veteran, "is in shambles."

The problem is money and the disparities are alarming. At the moment, none of the eight aspiring U.S. syndicates has serious cash in hand, while some foreign challengers are rolling in it.

Italian businessman Raul Gardini has a $50 million budget for his Il Moro de Venezia campaign. He has a boat in the water and another under construction, with U.S. expatriate Paul Cayard signed to take the helm.

The Japanese Nippon Challenge has a $40 million budget, a stable of 30 corporate sponsors, a boat in the water and at least two more planned. The rival Japanese Bengal Bay Challenge just announced a plan to build three boats and has hired 1987 Cup superstar Chris Dickson as skipper. (Dickson left his native New Zealand to establish Japanese residency.)

Even the French are out on the Mediterranean testing a new America's Cup class boat. And Michael Fay, the cagy New Zealander who mounted the second-best effort at the 1987 regatta off Australia in his first Cup try, is gearing up secretively and expensively Down Under.

Meantime, no U.S. boat is in the works. The best-financed U.S. syndicate seems to belong to Conner, who said the other day he's 30 percent of the way to raising $30 million, but so far hasn't announced a single sponsor.

Rival defense aspirants Buddy Melges in Cleveland and Peter Isler and Larry Klein in Southern California are clawing for audiences with corporate executives, but the surfeit of defense aspirants isn't helping anyone get in the door. A newcomer, Southern California real estate developer David Lowry, is said to have a secret financing plan.

Potential defenders always maintained that once the New York court case challenging results of the contentious 1988 Cup race between Conner's catamaran and Fay's huge monohull was over, U.S. sponsors for '92 would pony up. But the court ruled five weeks ago in Conner's favor and no news is yet forthcoming.

The delay has put U.S. efforts behind the challengers in boat design. The '92 Cup by mutual agreement will be in a new class of modern, ultralight, 75-foot sloops designed to a complex formula replacing the old 12-meter rule.

The arrival of this new America's Cup class puts a premium on research and development; knowledgable observers say hull and rig design will be crucial and the chance of a designer producing a breakthrough boat capable of running away from the fleet exists.

Top foreign challengers have enjoyed a head start in the technological quest, because although U.S. bankrollers waited for a verdict in the court case, the challengers were gearing up for an event they knew was forthcoming regardless of the court's decision.

In light of the design deficit and continuing money troubles, some U.S. syndicates banded together five months ago in a group called Partners for America's Cup Technology, which is spending $1 million in donated funds and services to gather baseline data on hull shapes, keel shapes, velocity prediction programs and the like through computer work and tank testing.

Veteran U.S. Cup design team members Britton Chance, Bruce Nelson, Dave Pedrick and John Marshall were at a PACT meeting in Annapolis last week, analyzing hull shapes and concepts while the leading figure for the defense, Conner, wooed their arch rival, Farr. It was not a happy circumstance.

"It's not going to please anyone here that Dennis has given up on American technology," said one PACT member.

He said Conner evidently believes the year Farr's team has spent analyzing the new America's Cup class rule, coupled with Farr's wide-ranging success in similar big-boat classes over the last several years, make his services more appealing than anything that might emerge from the hurried, combined cooperative work of his own countrymen in PACT.

Under Cup rules Farr, an Annapolis resident for the last decade, could switch allegiances and design for a U.S. team rather than working again for Fay's team from his native New Zealand.

The unaddressed question is, what if Farr in the end says no to Conner and sticks with Fay?

That would force Conner to turn back to the U.S. designers he's snubbing, which makes his courting of Farr sound risky.

Then again, risk-taking always has been Conner's signature, and all the more so when time starts running out on him.