America's Cup legend Dennis CONNER today showed he is still a formidable force in international yacht racing when he outsailed a huge fleet of 84 boats in the ACE Etchells World Championship invitation race off Mooloolaba on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.
The 62-year-old yachtsman from San Diego, obviously was delighted to be 'on the pace' going into tomorrow's first of eight races to decide the 2004 championship by standing up and doffing his cap to the Race Committee and spectator boats even before he crossed the finish line.
Steering Menace, the two-times former Etchells World Champion (not to mention his America's Cup, Olympic and other World championship victories) was at his tactical best in the light 8-10 knot north-easterly seabreeze.
Conner led the fleet over the first legs of the 10 nautical mile course, then lost first place to Sydney yachtsman Michael COXON, steering North Sydney, but regained the lead on the final windward leg to the finish. Third place went to Odyssey, steered by Julian PLANT from the Pittwater fleet.
Conner said the conditions today were similar to his home waters off San Diego,California, adding I felt comfortable."
"There is luck involved and I was fortunate to be on the correct side on the first beat,"
he said. "Coxon sailed a good race and could have won today if the breaks had gone his way,"
While the Maroochy Shire invitation race does not count towards deciding the 2004 Etchells Champion, the gamesmanship of a good win today must boost the American's confidence after mediocre results in the pre-Worlds regattas.
And there was the added pleasure of seeing his America's Cup 1983 nemesis, John Bertrand , finishing 15 in the fleet. On the other hand, a couple of strong contenders, in Cameron APPLETON from New Zealand and Noel Drennan from Melbourne, pulled out during the invitation race while Brisbane's Mark Bradford was disqualified for being a premature starter.
Of the other major contenders for the Etchells World title, former champion Cameron MILES improved during the race to finish fifth, while fellow Pittwater fleet representative Rob BROWN placed eighth.
The Sunshine Coast lived right up its name today, with a warm winter sun sparkling on the Pacific Ocean and a light north-easterly breeze providing the 260 sailors crewing the 84 one-design yachts perfect sailing conditions.
The start was delayed for 50 minutes, initially because of a general recall, then a change in wind direction before the seabreeze settled in from the north-east at 8-10 knots, without much change in direction or strength for the three hour races over 10 nautical miles well off the coast.
With an excellent starting line set by Principal Race Officer Arthur Hodge for the second start, the fleet got away cleanly with the exception of two boats boats which were called OCS (on course side) and disqualified - Racer X, skippered by Mark Bradford from the Brisbane fleet, and the Melbourne boat Barry White, with Damien King at the helm.
Dennis CONNER, representing the San Diego fleet, showed he is right back on the pace, steering Menace out in front of the fleet over the first two legs before being overtaken on the second beat to windward by North Sydney, skippered by Michael COXON, from the Sydney fleet.
Conner and his crew turned in a brilliant role tack nearing the top mark to leebow starboard tacker War of the Roses, skippered by David ROSE from the Brisbane fleet.
A fast spinnaker hoist between the two windmark marks, enabled the US boat to jump away from the fleet, with War of the Roses being followed by The Bottle, skippered by Richard Coxon, the former Olympic sailor and elder brother of Michael, and another American boat, Carina, helmed by Jonathon Nye from the Greenwich fleet on Long Island Sound. Nye dropped back during the race to finish 18th.
As the huge fleet came powering into the windward mark, many on opposite tacks, the International Jury had plenty of work as "whistle blowers", as they saw apparent racing rule infringements in several close encounters.
With this new rule for this regatta, the Jury hopes to encourage offending boats to take 720 degrees turn penalties and while they will not lodge protests themselves, Jury members will be available to give evidence at protest hearings after each race.
Jury Chairman Ronnie MCCRACKEN said that there had been 25 whistle blows during the race, most of them at the first weather mark with the fleet bunched together. Several boats took 720 degrees turn penalties but no protests were lodged after the race.
Michael COXON was in fifth place at the first windward mark and moved up one place on the spinnaker run with Conner extending his lead to five boat lengths, with Richard Coxon in second place, followed David ROSE.
At the end of the spinnaker run the fleet has the choice of rounding two marks, with Conner electing for the port-hand rounding mark, and Coxon the first in the fleet to go for the starboard-hand rounding mark.
This took him to the inshore side of the course and when the leaders neared the weather mark for the second time, Coxon was in front, to windward of Conner, and forcing him to sail right to the layline, rounded comfortable in front.
Coxon and Conner covered each other, gybe for gybe, on the final spinnaker run but at the end of the run they split, Conner again taking the offshore side of the course, Coxon going for the opposite inshore side. The American gained a little more pressure to seaward and came out a clear winner, crossing line about 300 metres ahead of the Australian.
Full results are available on the event website at the address below.