It feels like the end of an era, but the main attraction won't bow out.
"I'm not sure if this is my last time here," said icon Dennis Conner to a hushed crowd at an America's Cup news conference after his Stars & Stripes was eliminated Friday from the 31st Cup. It seems unlikely. As long as a bilious brew is bubbling in the world's most famous silver sporting cauldron, Conner keeps a hand on the spoon, and stir he must.
At 60, he no longer sails the boat. He doesn't sail much at all, except for pleasure in a three-man Etchells, in which he placed seventh in the world championships last month. His America's Cup duties are mostly fundraising and administrative. To fill the time he's taken up odd hobbies ashore.
At Conner's behest, the Stars & Stripes compound has a chicken coop for fresh eggs and a couple of dozen tomato plants, which he tends lovingly. He cooks burgers and beans on the grill for his sailors and makes chili. He runs a gift shop where his own paintings are sold, along with Stars & Stripes T-shirts, planters and costume jewels.
It's more than 15 years since Conner won the Cup. He hasn't had a fearsome contender since. Many believe while he's still in the business of the America's Cup, he is no longer in the business of winning it.
Yet Conner managed to convince the New York Yacht Club to back his $40 million campaign this time, and now, even after his team was eliminated in a 4-0 sweep by rival OneWorld on Friday, he and NYYC are challenging OneWorld's right to carry on, claiming the Seattle syndicate violated Cup protocol in the design process and should be disqualified.
If OneWorld loses the debates before an arbitration panel and an international jury next weekend, its victory on the water could be reversed and Stars & Stripes would be back in the game. Conner said his sailors will keep training this week, just in case.
Out on his ear in an overmatched boat, the big man claws at straws. It's reminiscent of the stand he took when an earlier Stars & Stripes was on the verge of ouster from defender trials in San Diego in 1995. At the hour of defeat, Conner cobbled an agreement with rival syndicate chiefs Bill Koch and John Marshall to expand defender finals from two boats to three, putting himself back in.
Asked his reasoning then, Conner famously said: "It's hard to fight when you're dead." Events proved him right. He won the three-boat final, but then lost the Cup to Team New Zealand.
There are similarities today. Conner thinks his team and boat are better than they looked against OneWorld. Preparations fell behind when the race boat sank off California in July and had to be rebuilt. It wasn't fully repaired until this month. It's an unusual hull, extremely narrow, and time was short to figure it out.
"I think the boat is a good boat and still has more to go," he said. "I am disappointed in our results because we could have done better."
Still, the likelihood is slim that Conner's team, with half the training time and half the budget of top contenders Oracle/BMW, Alinghi, OneWorld and Prada, could seriously challenge for the Cup. Why bother to sully the event with rancorous litigation when prospects of ultimate success look so slim?
One answer comes from New York Yacht Club spokesman David Elwell. "As a club that's been involved with the America's Cup for 150 years, we feel these allegations had to be taken to the appropriate tribunal and resolved," said Elwell. "It will be a disservice to the event as well as OneWorld for these issues not to be cleared up."
As for Conner, insiders say he feels an obligation to show Stars & Stripes in a better light than its OneWorld flop, both for his reputation and for the benefit of sponsors who backed the campaign. And, of course, as he declared in another time and place, you can't fight when you're dead.
A warm, spring sun shone over Auckland today after a week of gray, grainy skies and fitful winds. Top challengers Alinghi and Oracle/BMW continued training for their best-of-seven showdown Dec. 9. Under a new format, the winner of their match advances to the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger finals while the loser gets a second chance.
The second semifinal match is between lower-seeded Prada and OneWorld (assuming OneWorld survives protest hearings). The loser of that match is eliminated while the winner goes on to race the loser of Oracle-Alinghi in a repechage.
Meantime, litigation hangs over the event like a dirty cloud. OneWorld, a Cup newcomer backed by West Coast billionaires Craig McCaw and Paul Allen, is accused of having secret design specifications from rivals Team New Zealand, Prada and 2000 contender America True in its possession when the lines for its Cup boats were being drawn. Sharing technology is strictly forbidden by Cup rules.
OneWorld admitted some indiscretions and was penalized a point in early trials by the Cup arbitration panel. Stars & Stripes, joined by Prada in one of its requests for redress, wants a fuller hearing including testimony from former OneWorld operations chief Sean Reeves, who filed a damaging affidavit that has never been considered.
The timing rankles OneWorld. Stars & Stripes and Prada "clearly have not respected the efforts we went to last year," said skipper Peter Gilmour. "It's surprising to me that they'd do it on the eve of when we'd have to race the two of them, and I would just like to think inside of me that it's not the sailors."
Dennis? "For me to say anything about it at this point is not wise," responded Conner warily, "so I don't choose to answer your question."