Battle of the Hall of Famers

Published on November 29th, 2018

Before their induction in the National Sailing Hall of Fame, Dave Curtis and Dennis Conner were adversaries in the Etchells Class. Dennis had won his first Etchells Worlds in 1991, but as Dave sat that one out, Dennis was eager to topple his foe the following year. Here’s the story from The New York Times by Barbara Lloyd (Sept. 20, 1992):

It has been years since Dennis Conner worked the streets of Newport, R.I., on a regular basis. But he was back there this summer with a mission in mind. It was a goal as far different from the America’s Cup campaigns he waged in Newport during the 1970’s and 1980’s as a wave is to a ripple. Yet Conner sees a challenge in both.

The San Diego yachtsman used Newport as a practice site for the 1992 Etchells World Championship, which is scheduled to begin today at the Larchmont Yacht Club in Larchmont, N.Y. A field of 67 skippers, including five former world champions, is expected at the starting line in the six-race series. Conner is the defending champion, having won the 1991 regatta in San Francisco.

It is very likely that most eyes will be focused on two boats in the fleet: Conner’s 30-foot Etchells, and a similar boat belonging to Dave Curtis, a 46-year-old yachtsman who manages the North Sails loft in Marblehead, Mass. Curtis has won the Etchells worlds six times. The contest is being touted as the D. C. vs. D. C. matchup, and it’s hard to say who wants to win it more.

“Dennis likes to brag that I’ve won six times because he likes to put pressure on me,” Curtis said in a recent telephone interview. “But it’s just a way of playing mind games on each other. He’s very good, and isn’t going to make many mistakes. But normally, I don’t make many mistakes either.”

Conner’s intensity showed itself in the schedule he kept in Newport during the first week of September. He and two crew members left the dock each day at about 9 A.M., and sometimes didn’t return to shore until 7:30 at night. They spent each day testing new sails.

“This is fun,” said Conner during a recent early-morning interview on the porch of the Ida Lewis Yacht Club in Newport. “I don’t get anything for winning the Etchells championship, but I’m here practicing anyway. Fleet racing is my favorite. There’s more of it than match racing. It’s what people do.”

Conner, who turned 50 last week, was wearing a white T-shirt with U.S.A. Yacht Club printed on the back. The club, which is based at North Cove Yacht Harbor in New York City, is backing Conner’s plans for sailing in the 1993-94 Whitbread Round-the-World Race.

The 32,000-mile ocean race is being attempted for the first time by Conner, whose sailing fame is most notably attached to his six campaigns as an America’s Cup skipper.

But for the time being, he seems content with lesser conquests. Tantamount to vacation

Preparing for the Etchells regatta might seem like work to some sailors. But for Conner, who lost to Bill Koch’s America team in the 1992 America’s Cup defense trials last spring, a summer on the water in the Northeast is the San Diego sailor’s idea of a vacation.

“I’m using my free time to go racing,” said Conner. “I’m taking the summer off. I’ve worked hard the last four years, so I don’t think anyone begrudges me the time here.”

He has spent time sailing in other Etchells regattas this summer, in races on Long Island Sound, in Newport and in Marblehead. Conner and Curtis sailed against each other in most of the competitions, which one or the other usually won. “It’s definitely D.C. vs. D.C. in my mind,” Curtis said, “and he’s definitely made me work hard.”

The relentless fine-tuning that makes Conner’s championship bids formidable is combined with a personal style that pays attention to the slightest details. This meticulousness extends to the very hair on his head, as he revealed in his new book, “Sail Like a Champion,” which he co-authored with Michael Levitt.

Conner will often wait to get a haircut, he wrote, until just before an important regatta. “This allows me to better feel the wind on the back of my neck,” Conner wrote. “Sometimes I let my hair grow long before a really big series, then on race day, I’ll have it cut short. This way I’m even more sensitive to the feel of the wind.”

Curtis is as aware as anyone of the lengths Conner will go to excel. “For sure, Dennis has made it a crusade to win this thing again,” said Curtis about the pending regatta. “That in itself makes him, for me, the prime candidate. But he hasn’t sailed an Etchells a lot in light conditions, the way we have around here.”

Conner conceded that weather could make a difference. “You have to get a good start and go the right way,” he said. “But there are 30 people who could win the race.”

Editor’s note: But only one would win, and it was one of these two Hall of Famers. Curious? Click here.

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