SAN DIEGO -- The America's Cup has sailed through hard times before. The glory years were the 1930s, after all, when titans named Sopwith, Lipton and Vanderbilt lavished fortunes on towering J-boats while a world struggled to eat.

Now come the 1990s, blighted early by recession, repression and war, and the Cup is back, bigger than ever with a record number of nations challenging.

The first of the new 75-foot America's Cup Class boats are here or on the way from Italy, France, Japan and New Zealand to begin training. In less than a year, up to a dozen challengers from 10 nations will begin the five-month quest for yachting's crown jewel on the Pacific off Point Loma.

If the Cup has lost any of its regal shine, it isn't showing. Among key figures for the '92 regatta are two kings and a knight; one of the wealthiest men in Europe and one of the wealthiest in the United States; the mayor of Paris; two bare-knuckle Australians; the first Japanese, Soviet, Spanish and Yugoslav Cup sailors and the big man himself, Dennis Conner, whose red-eyed, fearsome visage redefined yacht racing in the 1980s.

Conner was the first American to lose the prize when his plum-red Liberty fell, 4-3, to winged-keel Australia II off Newport, R.I., in 1983, ending the New York Yacht Club's 132-year stranglehold on the trophy. Conner stretched nothing when he called that "the yacht race of the century."

Four years later he outdid himself, leading a gritty band of Americans to the storm-tossed Indian Ocean off West Australia for a five-month assault that brought the prize home to his San Diego Yacht Club.

From that height, Conner and New Zealand arch rival Michael Fay dragged the Cup to a new low. Fay made a surprise challenge in a huge, 132-foot boat under 19th century rules. Conner responded to that with a hastily built, flyweight catamaran that sped to easy victory in 1988, and they all wound up with three rounds in court, Conner the victor on final appeal.

Catamarans and megaboats and the mismatches they spawn have since been banned by general accord. Meantime, Fay has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth for service to "banking and yachting," a practical combination. The honor should put him in good company for the '92 regatta.

When he isn't bedeviling Conner with tricks and tirades over the next 17 months, Sir Michael can hobnob with such blue blood luminaries as King Juan Carlos of Spain, a keen yachtsman who actively supports the first Spanish challenge (his son is honorary chairman), and King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, another avid sailor who stepped in to help when the Swedish challenge fell short of a required Cup bond payment in September.

When he tires of royalty, banker Fay can mix with fellow contestants of surpassing wealth, such as Italian billionaire Raul Gardini, who heads the stylish Il Moro de Venezia challenge, or America's defense candidate Bill Koch, heir to a petrodollar fortune who's single-handedly backing the America 3 campaign, pledging purity with no advertising on sails, hull or uniforms.

Politics? The Cup has had its share, but now comes a partisan twist: Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris, has finagled $9 million in public funds to revive a flagging French entry that will be renamed, suitably, Ville de Paris.

Why, in austere times, would big city money go to a sailboat race? "Chirac is the leader of the opposition" to French President Franc ois Mitterrand, said Ville de Paris skipper Marc Pajot. A Cup association would raise Chirac's profile among sailing-mad French voters, would it not? "Yes, it is true, exactly," said Pajot.

So war, pestilence and disease be damned. The America's Cup is rising up shining, complete with pricey new boats whose masts alone cost $600,000. Make way for wretched excess!

Up to eight contenders could be on hand for the America's Cup Class World Championships this May, with more to follow before Cup trials begin Jan. 10, 1992. U.S. defenders, outnumbered 12 to 2 by challenger hordes, will have their hands full hanging onto the prize when the best-of-seven Cup final rolls around in May 1992.

The new class of carbon-fiber boats approved by all competitors are lighter, faster and, at $2.5 million a pop, three or four times as costly as the 12-meters they replace; the venue for the first time is a big, sophisticated city of light winds, where beds of snake-like kelp pose a waterborne menace; advertising will be plastered on hulls and sails; ESPN is planning a 100-hour-plus blitz of TV coverage.

But as always, the most interesting thing about the Cup will be the players, and the latest bunch is as intriguing as the Liptons, Turners, Baron Bichs and Alan Bonds they succeed. Here, then, is a look at the '92 crop of contenders. The U.S. Defense

It started auspiciously enough with an all-women's challenge, another led by the Beach Boys musical group, a grass roots Midwest syndicate, another from Boston and a handful of other prospects, but hard economic times have taken a toll and just two defense groups remain.

Stars & Stripes: Cupholder Conner has taken his case to corporate America with limited success. After two years, he's landed three major sponsors -- Cadillac, Pepsi and American Airlines, at $3 million each.

If that sounds substantial, it's just one-third the cost of a fully funded Cup effort and a fifth or less of his best-heeled rival's budget. Conner is making use of his lifetime pass on American Airlines to fly to East Coast money centers and plead for more.

Still, anyone who knows his background knows the burly Conner, 48, is most dangerous when cornered, and with four campaigns behind him, no one has more experience at the Cup game.

Conner has a boat under construction in Bristol, R.I., due for delivery in April, and hopes to build one or two more before racing begins. His design team includes veterans David Pedrick, Bruce Nelson and Alberto Calderon.

Financially, "We're pressed to the limit," says operations chief and headsail trimmer Bill Trenkle, "but we're still on target. We need to cross the next fund-raising hurdle to keep our research and development going full speed."

When she hits the water, Stars & Stripes will be royal blue instead of the old gunsmoke blue, with a wide, white stripe below the deck line where key sponsors' names will be emblazoned. The boat will carry corporate logos on the hull sides and big ads on mainsails or spinnakers.

Some call it a floating billboard approach, but "the opportunity to have signage on the boats is fantastic," said Conner, who campaigned hard to bring advertising to the Cup. If it hasn't won him all the cash he needs, that's nothing new. "We've been hard-pressed since I started {Cup racing} in 1974," said Conner. "We've never had enough, but we've always put together a program that was sufficient. We have an austere program, a frugal program."

America 3: On the flip side of the fiscal fence sits industrialist Bill Koch, who caught the Cup bug after his new 84-footer, Matador 2, burst on the scene last year to take top honors in the hotly contested maxiboat class, playground of multimillionaires.

Koch's Matador design team spent years analyzing hull shapes, keel shapes and other variables to come up with a breakthrough design, and he believes the technology is transferable to the much lighter, slightly smaller Cup boats.

Maybe so, but his biggest strength, Cup followers agree, is a nearly unlimited budget backed by his personal fortune. He's already corralled a team of top designers -- Heiner Meldner, Gerry Milgram, Doug Peterson, John Reichel, Jim Pugh -- and bought the French challenge's first boat and renamed it US 2. He and crew began training on it off San Diego this month.

Whatever America 3 needs, it gets, down to comfortable crew quarters, snow-white uniforms, specially prepared health foods and top physical training facilities. As Koch sat waiting at the dock before a recent outing, he chatted with a continental-looking fellow. A visitor asked a crewman who the boss was talking to. "That's our wine consultant," said the crewman with a facetious chuckle. "Doesn't every team need one?"

Koch also has a boat under construction in Rhode Island, due for delivery by April, and will build two more before racing begins. But he'll enter the ex-French boat in the Worlds in May, "so we can measure what everyone else has without showing what we have."

Koch has top sailing talent aboard -- Annapolitan Gary Jobson, Ted Turner's Cup tactician in 1977 and '80, and Olympic gold medalist Buddy Melges. But he hopes to steer the Cup boat some himself, the way Baron Marcel Bich did with his French challenger in the 1970s. The prospect leaves professional skippers in rival camps grinning with anticipation.

Koch's entry buoys U.S. chances, Cup observers agree, but they voice a unanimous concern: "He has the money," said one, "but will he spend it on the right things?" The Challengers

Never has the United States faced so worrisome an array, with three serious challengers standing above the rest: New Zealand, with superstar designer Bruce Farr apparently in harness and a battle-scarred crew of Cup and Whitbread 'Round-the-World racers; Italy, with a $40 million to $50 million budget and a hired-gun helmsman; and the Japanese, newcomers to the game who have been testing their two new Cup-class boats in home waters for six months.

The details:

New Zealand: Fay's lads have taken up residence on Coronado Island, across the Bay from San Diego, with two Farr-designed boats in hand, another en route and plans to build one or two more. Skipper is David Barnes, backup helmsman for Fay's near-miss 1986-'87 Cup campaign in Australia and skipper of the 132-footer in the '88 debacle here.

Fay kept a high profile in his previous efforts, but the New Zealand boats and crew arrived without him this time, and without a news release, announcement or the faintest toot of a horn, leading observers to conclude Fay wants one thing only from this effort -- the trophy. "Either that," said a wag from another camp, "or he's running out of money."

New Zealand has no corporate sponsor yet, but the new boats are painted fire-engine red, the same color as 1990 Whitbread Race winner Steinlager II, leading to speculation the beer company will soon come aboard for a Cup ride. Barnes says only that sponsorship is eagerly sought.

Added Barnes: "We know we're the big story here and people will watch us regardless, so there's no need to draw attention to ourselves. We know what we need to do to win the America's Cup and we're on track."

Italy: Billionaire Raul Gardini's expansive Il Moro de Venezia campaign features the grandest shoreside facilities here -- a 4.3-acre complex near the San Diego Yacht Club that's been razed and rebuilt to his elegant specifications. Conner calls it "the Taj Mahal."

Previous Italian entries brought style to the Cup, then fell short on performance. Gardini's megabucks effort evidently brings substance, as well. He hired U.S. superstar Paul Cayard as skipper two years ago; Cayard now has lived in Venice long enough to meet Cup residency requirements and will sail as an Italian.

Gardini's first two salmon-colored boats arrived this month by freighter to begin training. He will build two more, at least, with transplanted Argentine designer German Frers at the drawing board.

Japan: The Nippon Challenge's flock of 30 major corporate sponsors puts it in the financial black for the foreseeable future, and the Japanese have had more training time in Cup class boats than anyone. They are due here with two boats in February.

Japan never has sailed for the Cup before, so Nippon scored an early coup by hiring New Zealander Chris Dickson as skipper. He shocked the world by manhandling all opposition except Conner as Fay's skipper in Australia four years ago, when he was just 25. Dickson brought a handful of New Zealand compatriots to Japan with him; all have fulfilled residency requirements and could sail for Japan in the Cup.

Nippon has another boat under construction and a fourth likely before racing begins Jan. 10.

A Japanese effort from the Bengal Bay Yacht Club evidently has fallen on hard economic times; its participation is questionable.

Australia: With Cup stalwart Alan Bond's businesses largely gone belly-up, 1987 Cup defender Iain Murray has turned to a "people's challenge," seeking individual donations from the public. It is predictably underfinanced. A one-boat, late-arriving campaign seems likely, with veteran helmsman Peter "Crash" Gilmour at the wheel.

Also, three-time Cup contender Syd Fischer represents Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron in a second modest Aussie effort, with '87 Cup skipper Colin Beashel at the helm.

Spain: The maiden Spanish entry got off to a rocky start when the bottom of the keel fell off its brand new Cup boat last month. The yacht rolled onto its beam ends, was towed back to port and divers spent two weeks dredging up the lost 18,000-pound torpedo of lead from the sandy bottom off Palma de Mallorca.

Still, with another boat in the works, the King's strong support and Spain's interest in promoting the 500-year anniversary of Columbus's voyage to America during the regatta, Spanish involvement should prove interesting.

France: Designer Philippe Briand's first effort proved faster than either of the two Italian boats in brief trials in the Mediterranean, but the French had to sell the boat to Koch to raise funds to build Briand's second-generation design. Now, with the $9 million infusion from Paris, skipper Pajot says things are looking up.

Soviet Union: Leningrad's Red Star Syndicate is battling U.S. Navy and Coast Guard officials, who insist the Soviets base their operations in neighboring Mission Bay rather than San Diego Bay for security reasons, San Diego being a major Navy port.

The Soviets want to be with everyone else in this, their first try at capitalism's gaudiest contest. They've built an aluminum Cup-class boat, which unfortunately is not allowed under Cup rules, and will fly it here for training in March while a carbon-fiber replacement hull is built back home.

Yugoslavia: The Yugoslavs have finished a wooden boat, of all things, which interestingly enough qualifies to race under Cup rules. They too, intend to build a second-generation carbon fiber boat, but are underfinanced and are scratching to bring their first Cup showing to fruition.

Britain: Veteran Cup competitor Peter de Savary has a deck under construction but no hull in the works yet, and could come up with a one-boat effort if finances appear.

Sweden: With the King's prodding, several Swedish corporations are said to be weighing contributions to bring the Stenungsbarden Yacht Club's challenge up to budget. Negotiations reportedly are under way to buy one of the three existing New Zealand boats as a trial horse.

Which completes the picture. It's the broadest field of international competitors ever assembled for a Cup campaign, proving that even in these hard, harsh times, the Cup still attracts the world, like bugs to a white-hot flame.

America's Cup fans get a preview of racing when as many as 10 Cup aspirants square off May 4 at San Diego to start the week-long America's Cup Class World Championships, with the finals to be televised live on ESPN. Cup trials begin Jan. 10, 1992, and follow this schedule:

Jan. 10-23: Round 1, challenger trials.

Jan. 14-26: Round 1, defender trials.

Feb. 2-12: Round 2, challenger trials.

Feb. 8-20: Round 2, defender trials.

March 1-15: Round 3, challenger trials.

March 3-15 Round 3, defender trials.

March 28-April 12: Challenger semifinals.

April 1-12: Defender semifinals.

April 18-May 2: Defender final trials.

April 21-30: Challenger final trials.

May 9-21: Best-of-seven Cup match.