For more than two decades there has been one constant theme in the America's Cup: Never count Dennis Conner out. But despite some stirring theatrics, Conner hasn't won the prize in 12 years and many considered his glory days over, his fire dimming.
"Some people say it's just a halfhearted effort," said longtime navigator Peter Isler of the latest Stars & Stripes campaign, a low-budget, one-boat effort that barely made challenger semifinals here this week. "But even though he's not on the boat any more, his will permeates the camp. We had a gathering before the semifinals and he painted a picture as only he can. It was a classic motivational speech: He'd done all he could to give us the equipment and personnel to win. Now go get 'em!"
Under helmsman Ken Read, Stars & Stripes has responded by whipping out back-to-back upset wins in the first two days of the 10-day round, convincingly beating top-ranked Prada and third-ranked Nippon to go into today's racing the lone undefeated contender at 2-0.
Cup fans were keen to see if the record could go to 3-0 today, but racing was scrubbed after a two-hour delay caused by winds up to 30 knots and rainstorms that swept the course. The postponement put off until Wednesday a long-awaited matchup of regatta co-favorites Prada and AmericaOne.
The unexpected day off will give Prada's crew time to wipe away the taste of their bitter defeat Monday to Stars & Stripes. That race was a classic.
The Italians, who came here with a $50 million budget, two gleaming new boats and a cast of hundreds to work them up, were simply outsailed in strong winds and choppy seas by the $10 million Stars & Stripes group.
Read carved out an equal start, crossed the line with speed at the gun, forced Prada to tack away and followed orders as Conner's longtime tactician, Tom Whidden, called the shots perfectly, tacking to cover Prada on a favorable wind shift to grab a two-boat-length lead, then blocking all avenues for Prada to pass.
On a day when Prada's crew mishandled spinnakers, broke a boom vang and sailed erratically, Stars & Stripes was flawless and won by a comfortable 1 minute 7 seconds.
In the race just behind, the other regatta co-favorite, AmericaOne, a high-profile, two-boat campaign under San Francisco's Paul Cayard, self-destructed against America True. AmericaOne's jib blew out of its fastenings on the forestay two-thirds of the way through the race, destroying enough gear that Cayard couldn't set a replacement and had to sail one entire upwind leg without a headsail.
America True shot ahead for an easy win.
As a result, instead of all Auckland being abuzz about Wednesday's long awaited matchup between season-long front-runners AmericaOne and Prada, the buzz is of Stars & Stripes's remarkable rising fortunes and the chance Conner's team could go 3-0 with a win Wednesday over Le Defi Francais, which is 0-2 in the semifinals.
Only two boats advance to challenger finals Jan. 25 and only eight races remain to claim a spot.
What's the key to Stars & Stripes's late success? "There's an X factor here," Isler said. "We had some new-generation sails out there today that were certainly not slowing us down at all; we've made some subtle changes to the boat both above and below the waterline and the crew is sailing well. Dennis gave us a very inspirational speech to kick off the series and it's done the trick so far."
"We may not have the lightest boat," said Whidden, who at age 52 has been calling the shots for Conner's team since 1980, "but we're pretty confident we're not going to break down. Because we started late, we made our boat a little more bulletproof than some of the others. We have a strong mast, a good strong boat and we made our sails extra strong."
All of which makes it sound like a boat that won't do well when the wind goes light. That's where the X factor--and luck--may come in. Stars & Stripes is widely considered a heavy air speedster, and so far in these semifinals, the wind has been moderate to heavy. Tuesday's forecast was for strong winds, just what today's Stars & Stripes foe, the French, doesn't want.
How far the luck will carry is a good question. Winds are supposed to lighten as the Southern Hemisphere summer progresses. But these semifinals are only 10 days, two of those are gone and the forecast still calls for a solid blow.
Anything can happen, and if the past is any indication, it's a mistake to count out Conner.
Semifinals at Auckland, New Zealand
Team W L Pts
Stars & Stripes 2 0 2
America True 1 1 1
Prada 1 1 1
AmericaOne 1 1 1
Nippon 1 1 1
Le Defi Francais 0 2 0
(Each team sails against the others twice. Victories are worth one point each. The top two boats will advance to the best-of-9 finals to decide who takes on defender Team New Zealand in February).
Stars and Stripes def. Prada by 1 minute 7 seconds.
America True def. AmericaOne by 2 minutes 23 seconds.
Nippon def. Le Defi Francais by 38 seconds.