Up, Cup and Away

updated 03/09/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

JACK KEITH SELDOM SAILS AND BARELY knows a jib from a jukebox, but he has a claim to fame that even the saltiest yachtsman can't match. As Dennis Conner and a host of superskippers compete in the elimination rounds that will lead to the America's Cup races off San Diego in May, Keith, 72, has already spent more time with that famous trophy than any sailor likely ever will. And he has done it without getting wet.

Keith, a former FBI agent, is the bodyguard, baby-sitter and regular traveling companion of the 27-inch silver cup that has been on display at everything from sailing regattas to rodeos during the past five years. The coveted cup was first won in Britain in 1851 by Yanks, who brought it home; six years later it was on display at the starchy, members-only New York Yacht Club. There it remained for 126 years, until Australian Alan Bond became the first non-American to win it, in 1983. He lost it four years later to Conner, who was sailing the Stars & Stripes under the colors of the San Diego Yacht Club. "The club decided from the moment Dennis crossed the finish line that we were going to show it to all the world," says club spokesman Tom Wilson.

Hired out of retirement, Keith flies first-class with his charge, strapping the cup into the window seat beside him. Equipped with its own traveling papers and a $35,000 Louis Vuitton carrying case, the cup gets priority boarding privileges ("like families with small children," notes Keith), earns frequent-flier miles (at least 200,000 so far) and has traveled better than Keith's wife, Anne, 72, who, when she accompanies him, sometimes flies coach, since the yacht club doesn't cover her ticket.

For security, Keith locked the cup overnight in a Monaco jail cell on one trip, in an English wine cellar on another. His main worry, though, is well-meaning cup admirers. Once, in Virginia, he nervously watched as a tipsy, evening-gowned woman staggered up. "Just as she came to the red velvet cord around the display, she tripped," he recalls. "I caught the cup first, then her."

Priorities, after all.

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