Conner's newest yacht sinks off Long Beach

Posted: Wednesday, July 24, 2002

SAN DIEGO -- Dennis Conner's newest America's Cup yacht sank Tuesday in the Pacific Ocean about a mile off Long Beach, just before it was to pick up a group of sponsors for an afternoon sail.

Everyone aboard the 80-foot Stars & Stripes was rescued and salvage efforts began immediately. The boat was raised at about 7:30 p.m. PDT, a little more than six hours after it sank. It was taken by barge to Conner's compound on Terminal Island.

Conner said he's confident the high-tech, $5 million sloop can be repaired in time for the start of the America's Cup trials Oct. 1 off Auckland, New Zealand.

''The good news is no one was hurt,'' he said by phone from his team's compound. ''The crew hardly got wet.''

Conner, who was not on the boat, said it sank in 55 feet of water in about four minutes after the rudder shaft broke and tore a hole in the carbon-fiber hull.

''If you want to talk about luck, we're normally sailing where it's 2,000-feet deep,'' he said. The keel bulb settled into 2 1/2 feet of mud, which acted like a shock absorber, Conner said.

While some of the crew tried to stop the flow of water, others were able to take down the mainsail and jib before jumping on tenders that are always nearby. All that was visible afterward was about 60 feet of the 110-foot carbon-fiber mast sticking straight out of the water.

Stars & Stripes, sail number USA-77, had 15 crew aboard and had completed a morning testing sail with its stablemate, USA-66, also named Stars & Stripes.

''No question it's repairable,'' he said, adding that the crew got a good look at the damage before the boat sank. ''We'll be sailing again before the trials and everything will be fine. We're extremely fortunate.''

Conner rarely sails on his America's Cup boats anymore, instead spending time raising money for his $40 million America's Cup budget.

The 59-year-old yachtsman, arguably the world's best known sailor, has won the 151-year-old America's Cup four times, but not since 1988.

USA-77 was christened in Long Beach, joining USA-66, which was launched in February. This is the first time since the 1986-87 America's Cup that Conner has been able to afford two new boats.

His crew has been training off Long Beach for the competition since February.

The team will miss just two days of testing, Conner said. Their two-boat testing program in Long Beach was to conclude Thursday and one of the yachts is scheduled to be shipped to New Zealand next week.

America's Cup contenders can race only one yacht at a time, but it helps to have a backup boat, just in case.

The only other America's Cup yacht to sink was oneAustralia, which cracked in two and sank in 950 feet of water about five miles off San Diego during a challenger series race on March 5, 1995. All 16 sailors were rescued.

That yacht was never recovered, but oneAustralia had a backup boat.

Three weeks later, Conner's yacht took on water due to keel damage and had to be towed back into its San Diego Bay compound with pumps on board and flotation buoys attached to the hull and the top of the mast.

In 1999, the hull of one of Young America's two boats buckled in a race off Auckland and nearly sank.

America's Cup yachts weigh about 25 tons, with the bulk of the weight in the 20-ton lead keel bulb that hangs about 14 feet beneath the water line, giving them stability when sailing upwind.

The America's Cup match will begin in February between two-time winner Team New Zealand and the winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup for challengers.

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