Return of the Wave Warrior

updated 02/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Dennis Conner lost the America's Cup in 1983, he wept at the post-race press conference, then conceded graciously that he had lost to a better boat, Alan Bond's Australia II. He then prepared to spend the rest of his life as a pariah. Dennis—and almost everyone else—assumed that he would be forever branded the Great American Loser, the man who lost the Olde Mug after 132 years of U.S. domination, the man who had achieved the equivalent of "losing Mount Rushmore to the Russians in a crap game," as one writer put it.

But it didn't work out that way. Within a month Conner found there was not only life after losing, but a pretty nice life at that. "I won the Cup twice before," he said back then, "and I didn't get 10 letters a day. Now that I've lost, I'm getting 50,100, sometimes 200 a day, from Iowa, from Wisconsin, from everywhere. And they're 100 percent nice letters. It would have been easy for people to kick me when I was down, but it didn't happen."

What did happen was that Dennis Conner rose revitalized from the ashes of Newport and has spent the last three years leading one of the most intense, painstaking, expensive, obsessive and (so far) successful Cup campaigns ever. At the helm of a dashing 30-ton 12-meter yacht called Stars & Stripes, Conner has swept to victory after victory in the 1987 America's Cup trials in the tempestuous waters off Fremantle, Australia. The races began way back in October with no fewer than 13 challengers lined up to try to take the Cup away from the Australian defenders. As the elimination process went on and on and on, Conner and his boat kept getting better and better, until two weeks ago they knocked off the last and the best of the challengers—the nearly invincible New Zealand boat, Kiwi Magic.

That means that Dennis Conner gets the chance to avenge his agonizing '83 defeat this week in a best-of-seven series against Kookaburra III, the quick-tacking Aussie defender. Since Conner is universally judged to be the best 12-meter skipper on earth, one might assume that his Fremantle triumphs came easily. They did not. Conner is a compulsive nitpicker, a worry-wart and a workaholic, a man driven by a fanatical desire to win. "It's important to leave no stone unturned," he has said. "Not doing everything you can gives you an excuse to lose."

Conner owns a thriving drapery business in San Diego, and he likes to call himself an "amateur" sailor. That is absurd. He has spent practically every waking moment since 1984 in his quest to regain sailing's grail. He moved full-time to Honolulu two years ago to train in boisterous wind and waters similar to those off Fremantle. He built four different 12-meter boats, worth $3 million, named all of them Stars & Stripes, painted all of them blue and stamped their sails with the same number—US 55—so that none of the many spies he knew were watching could tell which boat was which. Early last year he moved to Fremantle and there picked the best of his four boats and rejected the others.

When Conner wasn't sailing, he was back in the U.S. scrounging for money from corporate mover-shakers and millionaires. Most sailors find the money-raising process demeaning, but Dennis thrives on it. "I love flying with the corporate eagles," he says. "I come from modest beginnings, and I like to see how they operate up there."

Now 44, Conner was born in San Diego. His father was originally a commercial fisherman, and there was no money for a yacht club membership. That didn't stop Dennis. He hung around the San Diego Yacht Club, pestering everyone to let him sail until, at the age of 11, he was given a special dispensation to compete in junior regattas. He was a brilliant racer, but couldn't afford to buy his own boat until he was 27 and put up $1,700 for half-interest in a 31-foot sloop. After that he won an Olympic bronze medal in 1976, plus two America's Cups, in 1974 and 1980.

He is a boyish-looking man, given to fat and strong drink. He has a light voice and an ingratiating smile, yet he can be as mean as a wounded bear. At a press conference in Fremantle, he barked at a persistent reporter from New Zealand, "Are you stupid or are you just a Kiwi?" During a technical controversy over the legality of Kiwi Magic's one-of-a-kind fiberglass hull, which Conner believed violated the complex formula governing a boat's legal entry weight, Dennis snapped to a roomful of reporters, "If you want to build a glass boat, why would you do it unless you wanted to cheat?"

He is roundly disliked by the more easygoing members of the sailing fraternity because of his full-time, no-fun, high-stakes approach to racing. Tom Blackaller, the San Francisco 12-meter skipper whose USA yacht lost devastatingly to Stars & Stripes, has said of Conner, "He approaches competition as the Pentagon would approach designing a weapons system—years of testing, everyone going around saying, 'Yes sir' and 'No sir.' I think the type of person who operates like that and thinks it's fun is a very boring person."

Maybe, but there is nothing boring about the final test Conner faces this week. Around Australia he is known as Big Bad Dennis—or just B.B.D. for short—and no one in that wagering nation is betting much against him. Of course B.B.D. himself has never had any doubts about whether or not he will bring the America's Cup back to America. Months ago he told an Aussie reporter, "We are going to win. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever in my mind about that. You know why? Because we're the best there is. We're the standard by which everyone else measures themselves."

True enough. And now that he has the Cup almost in his grasp once more, it is hard to believe that Dennis Conner's standard will be anything less than a winner.

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