Dennis Conner – My personal hero

Published on September 22nd, 2020

With so much of life on hold, memories of the past keep us looking toward the future. German Andreas Borrink shares one of his cherished moments:

It was in the 1980s and match racing was only followed by a few enthusiasts in Germany. The America’s Cup was about circling lead-carriers (though most exciting for connaisseures!) and dominated by big, bad Dennis Conner and young Chris Dickson.

Along came this guy, Mücke, a member of our local sailing club, boasting about a match race event in the Baltic Sea he would organize in which Dennis was to come. It was so unlikely to be laughable, but sure enough Dennis came, likely due to the chance of winning the 100,000-DM cheque.

At the time, I was a mediocre Soling crew with an Olympic campaign for the 1980 boycot-games when Alex Hagen, at the time reigning Star European Champion, asked if I’d crew in the event. So to Niendorf we drove, which takes just an hour from Hamburg.

The boats to be raced were an ETAP22i – dodgy little cruisers with enormous space down below and accordingly very poor upwind performance. Strange little boats with a tiny crank to operate the lifting keel … reminded me of my boyhood fishing reels.. But there he was, Dennis Conner, out on the water, already practising with his German crew that included the notable Albert Schweitzer of North Sails Germany.

Our team made it to the Semis where we faced Dennis, and after a good start we, came first at the windward mark and held a marginal lead downwind. But then desaster struck, as some 100 meters from the leeward mark, the mainsheet block came loose from the boom. The splint disappeared in the sea – we should have checked it – with no tools or parts to make a repair.

As Dennis came closer, Alex grew nervous, and as we entered the 2-legnths circle to windward of him, he coming up with more speed from the lee, with us still holding a clear overlap for water at the mark. However, Dennis closed the door mercilessly on us, shouting “no overlap,” raising the Y-Flag he probably held on to since the windward mark.

We passed the mark on the wrong side to avoid a collision, came back with a quick tack and jibe, but by then he was well ahead plus that our mainsheet problem was still alive and kicking. Race over, good by 100,000-DM.

Later at the Niendorf Yacht Club, while socializing at the bar, Dennis was celebrating his clean sweep into the final. I approached him with two beers, saying, “Hey Dennis, wtf was that? We had a clear overlap and you know it!“

The big man turned towards me, took one of the beers and noted, “Next time you better check where the jury boat is as it was placed well out of sight to judge the situation. Plus umpires in doubt will always penalize the agressor, you know.”

I learned that lesson the hard way, but never found the chance to make use of my newly acquired knowledge. Much later I bought his book on tactics but could not find the chapter dealing with the positioning of jury boats.

Dennis would go on to win the event easily, but there was no cheque…..the organizer disappeared and was never seen again. Perhaps there is karma.

It was several years ago when I met up with Dennis again as he was the special guest commentator at the SSL City Grand Slam in Hamburg, and while getting an autograph for my cap, we rekindled memories from that event long ago. For me he is the greatest skipper of them all, and while sitting there in his San Diego Yacht Club blazer, he still showed traces of that boyish smile which made him so popular.

Good luck, Dennis – you made my day(s)!

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