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Think this is ugly? You should have seen 1988
Story and photos by Rich Roberts
(February 12, 2008) - If you think the America's Cup has turned ugly in 2008, consider this: it's been tea at the Ritz compared to the '88 defense in San Diego. On the 20th anniversary of courtroom collisions, mudslinging and name-calling cloaking the mismatch between Michael Fay's 130-foot monohull, KZ-1, and Dennis Conner's 60-foot catamaran, Stars & Stripes, the current dust-up is a faint echo of that fiasco.
In '88, following Fay's rogue challenge, it quickly became the Acrimonious Cup. When New York Supreme Court Justice Carmen Ciparick (1988's Herman Cahn) had dissected the Deed of Gift and decided she had heard enough legal squabbling she told the adversaries to try to settle it on the water --- and then come back to court if they still had a problem.
Describing the actual racing as a mind-numbing bore would be generous. It entered America's Cup lore as the "Coma off Point
Loma." While reporters and photographers on press boats nodded off through the best-of-three series, the cat swept the Kiwi colossus by just over and under 20 minutes in two races over a 40-mile course.
But Fay appealed his defeat, so . . . hello, Justice Ciparick, here we are again, back in the AC's glorified protest room. Six months later Ciparick stripped Stars & Stripes of its shallow victory and awarded the Auld Mug to New Zealand. Later, that call was switched back to S&S, but by then nobody cared because all of the wonderful vibes from DC's glorious victory at Fremantle in '87 that had lifted sailing to new heights of interest and enthusiasm in the world---especially America---had died of disenchantment.
As the racing of 2007 is dying now.
The 1988 drama hit its low point at the final press conference which ended with Bruce Farr, who designed the New Zealand boat, calling Stars & Stripes design chief John Marshall "a liar" and Conner calling Farr "a loser."
Eight of the main players were seated on the stage, with the unflappable Bruno Troublé in the middle, serving not so much as moderator as referee. Conner was to his immediate right and Fay and Farr to his far left. Following some pleasantries, notably from Conner about his respect for the Kiwi sailors being "good sports [who] sailed their boat well" and how he regretted the animosity involved. But the mood turned mean when a reporter asked Fay to restate his determination to protest the catamaran back to the New York court.
Before Fay could respond, DC pulled a letter from his pocket. "While we're politicking here, Michael . . . " he said.
Fay interrupted: "I haven't started politicking yet, Dennis."
Conner read the letter Fay wrote to the SDYC on July 23, 1987, extolling the virtues of big boats, then said, "I'd like to suggest that's what you challenged us with, and that's what we responded with."
Fay: "I think, Dennis, I was describing a monohull, not a catamaran."
Conner: "It doesn't say anything about monohull or catamaran, Michael."
Fay: "Did you pick up the first letter on July 23 or did you pick one up on July 17?"
Conner: "I'm just a carpet salesman, Michael."
Fay: "OK, I'll tell you about the one on July 17. Remember it said . . . `keel yacht.' That's the boat we challenged with."
(And you thought the issue of a "keel yacht" was new in 2008?)
Marshall, who had suggested the catamaran defense, then said, "If it was a mismatch, it was because the challenging yacht was not fast . . . and it's ridiculous to ask myself or any designer to match a yacht that's not fast."
At the other end, Farr winced. Conner then responded by mimicking archrival Tom Blackaller's reaction at Fremantle in 1986 to DC calling the Kiwis cheaters for sailing a fiberglass boat: "Whoops, I wouldn't have said that."
Then Farr said, "I find it quite disturbing that the gentlemen on my right, who are supposedly professionals in their work, can sit in a press conference and tell lies. None of the other designers who have criticized the boat---particularly those representing the people on my right---have had the guts to come out and design one to race against us. Until they do that, we're the fastest 90-foot waterline boat in the world."
Conner alluded to "loopholes" in the Deed of Gift governing Cup competition, which Fay was charged with exploiting.
Fay said, "Just read the deed, Dennis."
Conner started to respond: "Michael . . ." --- then turned to the audience and said, "It's hard to believe that I really like him."
Fay: "What do you do to people you don't like?"
At last, as the conference broke up and New Zealand skipper David Barnes stepped past Troublé to shake hands with Conner, Farr stepped past both of them and said to Marshall, "You're a liar."
Conner said to Farr, "You little ----, you're a loser. Get out of here."
Quickly, a Stars & Stripes security man stepped between them and escorted Farr off the stage.
So it was in '88. Hey, Alinghi and Oracle, do you really want to go there?
Keep in mind that in '88 the teams were more or less still representing yacht clubs, not rich guys who bought the the clubs' patronage and not the way George L. Schuyler's Deed of Gift suggested it should be---even though Fay's Mercury Bay YC was a derelict car on a New Zealand beach. But that naïve concept, like "friendly competition between foreign countries," now lies scuttled on the bottom.
By the way, when was the last time anyone heard from the leaders of the Golden Gate YC or Switzerland's Société Nautique de Genève? They must be very proud.
Rich Roberts covered the six ACs from '83 through 2000, and and wrote the original LA Times text that contained the '88 quotes above.
L-R is Peter Isler, John Marshall, Tom Whidden, Dennis Conner, moderator Bruno Trouble', NZ skipper David Barnes, Peter Lester, Bruce Farr, Michael Fay.
Michael Fay speaking to reporters.