Friday, November 12, 2010

Tribute to a Fine Boat and a Great Story

The story of Stars & Stripes 87 and the 1987 America's Cup is one of the great stories in sailing. The boat was built in 1986 as part of Dennis Connor's campaign to reclaim the America’s Cup from the Royal Perth Yacht Club of Australia. Built at the Derecktar Shipyards in Manaroneck, NY, she was the culmination of the team’s 12 Meter design advances, the fifth boat in the Sail America Foundation stable, and the third of the new boat designs by Britton Chance, Bruce Nelson and David Pedrick, with John Marshall, Conner's mainsheet trimmer on board Liberty in the '83 campaign, acting as the design team coordinator. The boat was created to excel in the heavy seas and strong winds expected in Gage Roads off Fremantle. The hull shape with its snub nose entry was not the most aesthetic of designs, but she sailed as though she was longer at the waterline, adding to her speed. Her keel had a bulbous entry and wings that extended off the aft-most third of her keel. The boat was competitive in 10 to 12 knots of wind, but was designed to excel in winds of 16 knots and more.

Dennis Conner crew trained and sea trialed the boats against each other for two years in the Pacific waters of Hawaii, taking advantage of the steady 18 to 25 knot trade winds off Waikiki. He declined to participate in the 12 Metre World Championships held in Perth in the winter of 1986, and in fact his was the last syndicate to arrive in Fremantle. The three newest hull designs made the trip down to Perth, where the in-house competition between boats continued, with Stars and Stripes 87 (US 55), receiving the nod over Stars & Stripes 86 (US 56) just a few days prior to the start of the challenger round robin series.
Stars and Stripes 87 was a clear contender from the start of the 1987 Louis Vuitton Cup regatta, winning 11 of 12 races in the first rounds robin, including the only rounds robin victory of any boat over Kiwi Magic (KZ 7). The second round was a period of concern. Conner's boat was optimized for heavy airs, and suffered from a shortage of sails for lighter breezes. When a spell of Easterlies settled over Western Australia she was caught out of her element and dropped a disappointing four races. She lost to Tom Blackaller and USA in 5 to 10 knot winds, and the following day to the Kiwis, even though the breeze had picked up to 22 knots. On the ninth day she lost again to the British team White Crusader in 4 to 6 knots breeze, and the following day to Canada II, whom she had led around the final mark but was caught out when the breeze died away. Aided by between rounds changes to her keel wing-lets and the more consistent presence of the "Fremantle Doctor" in late summer, the third round saw her come to form, with significant improvement in her upwind performance. The final rounds robin she lost only to the top boat, Kiwi Magic and the always competitive USA. Coming into the Louis Vuitton Cup finals she was the second highest point scorer, and was set on a collision with long time rival Tom Blackaller, and USA.

The shocking surprise of the Louis Vuitton Cup were the Kiwi's, who seemingly came from no-where to produce a very fast boat that was well crewed and well raced. Chris Dickson was a confident, cocky young man, and sailed to victory after victory in the regatta. The tremendous effort put in by all comers made the seemingly effortless success of the Kiwi's seem suspect, especially in light of the fact that they were the only competitor to build their boat from fiberglass. In the end the testing confirmed the hull thickness was consistent and met the 12 Metre regulations.

Dennis Conner believed Liberty reached her maximum speed potential too early in their efforts during the 1983 Cup defense. One of the goals of the Stars and Stripes camp was to increase boat speed throughout the campaign to peak going into the finals.

All boats competing underwent changes during the challenger and defender series, some successful, some not. Changes made on Stars & Stripes 87 consistently resulted in a step forward in boat speed. This was largely thanks to Marshall, whose technical, sailmaking and organizational skills allowed Stars and Stripes to coordinate an enormous amount of technical assistance, resulting in boat changes that were consistently successful. The greatest increase occurred with the re-working of the boat's keel between the second and third round robins. Close competitor Tom Blackaller felt the boat had found two tenths of a knot increase in Vmg (Velocity made good) when sailing to windward as she entered the third rounds robin. The final tweak before the finals was the application of a space age shark skin like riblet covering applied to the boat hull prior to the Challenger finals to reduce drag.
Stars & Stripes and Kiwi Magic race to the windward mark.
KZ 7 was the top qualifier of the round robins, followed in the points competition by Stars & Stripes 87, USA and French Kiss. In the Challenger semi-finals KZ 7 easily defeated French Kiss 4-0, with none of the races closely contested. A far more spirited competition occured between Stars and Stripes 87 and USA, with USA leading all of the first race till the final mark. In the end though Tom Blackaller couldn't quite find the speed he was looking for, and the result was Stars and Stripes 87 winning the semi 4-0. Tactitician Tom Whidden offered the following on the team's progress:
"The low point was when we lost those four races in November and we really didn't set our boat up very well for that. The high point was beating Blackaller, four-zip. That was quite an accomplishment because he was extremely fast."
Going into the Louis Vuitton Finals, Kiwi Magic was the favorite. She was clearly a fast boat in both light and heavy air, had beaten Stars and Stripes 87 twice, and had won an incredible thirty-seven of thirty-eight match races. But Stars and Stripes 87 was showing her best form of the regatta, particularly in heavy winds above 20 knots.

The first two races played out as Conner wished, with Stars & Stripes going out on a long beat to the lay line and taking an early lead to the first windward mark, then holding that lead throughout the rest of the race, holding ground on the downwind legs and extending it on the beats. The third race started out much as the previous two, with both boats taking a long tack out to the left hand side of the course in what Dennis Conner termed a "speed test". Stars & Stripes 87 rounded the first windward mark 26 seconds ahead when trouble started. A snap shackle failed, causing her spinnaker to drop into the sea. The Kiwis closed the gap, gibing back and forth across Conner's stern until they achieved what they were looking for, an inside overlap on the bottom mark. With right of way the Kiwis were able to slide ahead on the turn about the mark. Once there the Kiwis proved a very difficult boat to get past. On the second beat to windward they covered every move of the gunsmoke blue hulled boat, keeping Conner at bay with a tight cover. Next came the two reaching legs, which never allowed room to get around a competitor. Thus the boats reached the bottom of the third and final beat to windward in the same position. This was one for the record book. Conner threw 55 tacks along with two false tacks in an effort to break away. The New Zealanders covered each move in one of the most exhausting and tense beats to windward in America's Cup history. The result was a win for the Kiwis, and a match series now close, with Stars & Stripes up by a single race, 2-1.

The fourth race saw fortune make a complete turn. Now it was KZ 7 that experienced a number of uncommon structural failures, all of which snowballed by the actions of the skipper and crew, culminating in Kiwi Magic blowing her backstay in an abrupt gibe. The race was lost to Stars & Stripes by 3 minutes 38 seconds.

The fifth race was extremely competitive. Stars & Stripes 87 took the initial lead on the first windward leg as she had in the first four races, but on the second beat to windward her Number 6 genoa blew to pieces, giving the Kiwis a chance to close down the gap and overtake Stars and Stripes. All hands went forward to clear the wreckage, bringing to deck and hoisting the Number 7 genoa before Kiwi Magic could slip by. From there on Stars & Stripes held on to the slimest of leads throughout the next four legs. Rounding the final mark with a six second advantage, but here Dickson made one of the rare mistakes of his summer and struck the mark while rounding. The infraction required KZ 7 to come about and round again, the resulting time loss ending all hope the New Zealanders had of overtaking Stars & Stripes in the final beat. Stars & Stripes 87 took the series, four races to one.

Michael Fay summed up the New Zealander's effort:
"We did the best we could. We couldn't beat the other guy on the day, and we've got to shake his hand and say 'Well done' because that's what happened. They did a very good job and they beat us."
With the challenger selected, the America's Cup was entered into with much hope for the Kookaburra squad who had raced intensely for months, beating out Australia IV and the Alan Bond syndicate with the help of a late round keel modification that finally gave Kookaburra III a clear edge in speed. The first race was in light airs, thought to be the Kookaburra's best conditions. The defenders hopes were dashed, as Stars & Stripes led throughout and was never seriously threatened. After this first race it was well apparent that Stars and Stripes 87 had the edge in sailing to windward, and held her own on the downwind legs. The reminder of the Cup races saw the return of the Fremantle Doctor, and with it an ever greater difference in boat speed. The Aussies gave a great effort, but they simply lacked the boat speed to stay with Stars & Stripes, which showed a consistent twenty second advantage on each beat to windward. She won the series four races to nil.
Stars and Stripes 87 was not a light weather boat, nor was she as quick in stays as either Kiwi Magic or Kookaburra III, but in the heavier winds off Fremantle she could outpace any challenger in straight-line sailing to windward. She was equally able to foot for pace to escape a windward cover, or point higher to power away from an opponent on her windward quarter. Though both Kiwi Magic in the Challenger Finals and Kookaburra III in the America’s Cup Finals were sailed aggressively, the edge in boat speed held by Conner allowed him to overpower his competitors in a series of long drag races to the first windward mark. The challenger finalists and cup defenders were unable to engage him in a tactical race, where the slightly quicker Kiwis and Kookaburras held the advantage. Said Conner:
"It's a difficult problem when you have a boat like Stars and Stripes that won't play the match racing game. When we don't tack and we don't cover, it's pretty hard for them to be aggressive and exploit the fact that they do tack better and maneuver better."
Stars & Stripes 87 in Seattle on her return trip from Australia.
Conner believed his Stars and Stripes 87 held a 0.3 knot increase in up-wind speed over Liberty, the 12 Meter he had sailed in defense of the cup in 1983. This represented a remarkable increase in boat speed, and enabled Conner and his team aboard Stars and Stripes 87 to re-capture the America’s Cup Trophy.

Stars and Stripes 87 was the final 12 Meter to win the America's Cup, and as such she represents the zenith in 12 Meter design.  She is currently berthed on St Maarten in the Caribbean, where she can be sailed by the public as a 12 Meter match race boat.

This boat and the story of her skipper's determination to overcome adversity was a great tale. Her races at the 1987 America's Cup have been submitted onto Wikipedia, and can now be found here.


  1. This is very cool!

    Say, this wouldn't have anything to do with your interest in the movie Wind, would it?

  2. Interesting. Do you get to do a lot of boating in Oregon? Hope all is well! We miss you over at our humble Show.

  3. Coco, I do stop by and watch the express train roll by over there. You guys are doing great. I promise I'll try to drop a comment when I come by.

    Cathy - Wind is a fun kind of show in it's own right, though largely looked past. Parts of it are absolutely beautifully photographed, and then there are the scenes on the water, both in the International 14's and in the 12 Meters, and my favorite part is the pleasure of the ending. But the 1987 America's Cup is one of the great stories in sailboat racing. It all seems captured and frozen in time in my mind. It always was a faraway story that you could feel up close, and it still feels that same way to me today.