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America's Cup 1987-1988,
the cup goes home

It is Dennis Conner’s patriotic Stars & Stripes that wins the challenge against the Australian Kookaburra III

Home race America's Cup 1987-1988,
the cup goes home
America's Cup 1987-1988,
the cup goes home

The first America’s Cup with the Americans in the role of challengers began in winter 1986 in Fremantle, 20 km from Perth, the capital of Western Australia. A completely different world from the cocooned Newport, where time had come to a standstill. And even the setting for the regatta was a far cry from the light breezes and the fog of Rhode Island: when the ‘Doctor Fremantle’ blew, the dear old 12mRs looked like crates taking on a lot of water and ending up under the waves.

Contrary to what many people believed, the start of the ‘circus’ in distant waters was a huge success, with many applicants. The novelty stimulated the interest of sponsors – thanks also to the television success – and from a sporting perspective, the fall of the legend was an invitation to have a try. So while the Australians battled to choose the defender – the Kookaburra III – a generous thirteen syndicates were engaged in the Louis Vuitton Cup: six from the United States (that was to be expected, but it was the last real high note of stars and stripes sailing), two from France, one from Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand. Italy faced two challenges, that of the Azzurra and the Italia.

America's Cup 1987-1988, the cup goes home

Dennis Connor "Stars and Stripes". May 23, 1987. (Photo by Brendan Read/Fairfax Media via Getty Images


Italians with a thousand problems

The Azzurra was no longer the glorious boat of 1983. The tsunami in the years before Fremantle brought about delays and changes high up, to the detriment of the preparation, first the torpedoing of Mauro Pelaschier, who was replaced by Stefano Roberti, who in turn was replaced by fished-out Pelaschier. Guru Cino Ricci was forced to resign and his successor Lorenzo Bortolotti arrived with the crew set against him. The Azzurra 4, which was supposed to be the flagship boat, was after just a few disappointing tests set aside as a wreck, but the Azzurra 3 also had difficulty finding a decent trim.

The new syndicate Italia – which had started off quite well, winning the world 12-Meter championships on the Costa Smeralda in summer 1984 – faced rather similar problems. The helmsman Flavio Scala was exonerated, Roberti was hired after he left the Azzurra but ended up on a dinghy following the regattas. In the end the Neapolitan Aldo Migliaccio was promoted skipper, it being understood that the brothers Enrico and Tommaso Chieffi would be in charge. As if the team squabbling were not enough – racing for the Italian Yacht Club of Genoa – there were additional boat problems too, including the demasting of the Italia I and the semi-destruction of the Italia II during a haulage. The former was used in Fremantle, and it was fixed practically during the competition.

The revenge of Big Dennis

Errors were paid with interest: the Italia ended seventh in the Round Robin selection, the Azzurra eleventh. The favourites reached the semi-finals: the New Zealand with Chris Dickson at the helm; Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes; the USA of his eternal rival Tom Blackaller and the French Kiss led by the oceanic legend Marc Pajot. Contending for the Louis Vuitton Cup were the surprising New Zealanders, still with a full score, against Conner’s ‘guys’.

The master proved himself worthy of his nickname: 4 to 1 and the Kiwi sailors returned to Auckland, yet with the awareness that they had already become super competitive. This is also because they invented a technical novelty, one that was contested but nevertheless revolutionary: their Plastic Fantastic hull - designed by a trio of geniuses such as Laurie Davidson, Bruce Farr and Ron Holland - was built in fibreglass and composites.

The America’s Cup number 26 started on 31st January 1987: there was no match between the Stars & Stripes and the Kookaburra III, with Peter Gilmour at the helm. 4-0 in just a few days and the trophy returned to the United States. Not in the New York Yacht Club display cabinet, but instead in the San Diego Yacht Club, the club that chose Conner for the reconquest. Increasingly hated by members of the Big Apple club.

A farce in San Diego

This was how the revolution brought by the New Zealanders was described. They had a lot of imagination and very few qualms. A new syndicate, again headed by Michael Fay (a publishing magnate), found an interpretative loophole in the rules and issued a challenge a few weeks after Conner's victory. To do this, he created a yacht club of no fixed abode: legend has it that the Mercury Bay Boating Club was an old Ford Zephir parked by the sea in Whitianga, and that the first members were local sheep farmers.

But Fay was not joking, and according to the Deed of Gift that regulates the America’s Cup, he built a 36.5-meter sloop. The New Zealand, hugely inspired by the Libera del Garda Class vessels, is a maxi – in carbon fibre and Nomex – that recalls the boats of the first America’s Cup: it boasts a 46.78-metre mast and has a crew of 40. Given the short time allowed by the regulation, and being unable to compete with an old 12-metre or build a boat of similar size, Conner responded by interpreting the deed of gift once more: the result was a rigid wing catamaran. Fay immediately filed an appeal with the New York Supreme Court, which ruled impartially: "Do you have your boats? Then use them. As for who takes the Cup home, we’ll have to wait and see!”.

In front of San Diego, on 7th September 1988, the most absurd edition of the America's Cup began: the Stars & Stripes ‘toyed’ with its opponent, setting massive deficits because a 60-foot catamaran is unreachable by a single-hull, even if it is the size of the New Zealand: 18 minutes in the first regatta, 21 minutes in the second. Conner added another notch on his belt but he understood two things: from now on, the courts had become more important than in the past and New Zealanders had everything it takes to win.

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