Backed into a corner by a pair of old rivals, Dennis Conner reached deep into his seabag Saturday and pulled out a clutch performance to successfully defend his Etchells North American Championship.
Conner led all four days of the regatta, but after the first of two races Saturday in picture postcard conditions his lead had shrunk to one point over Jud Smith of Marblehead, Mass., with a handful of competitors including Canadian Dirk Kneulman within striking distance. Conner responded with a daring start in the final race that led to a second-place finish one minute behind San Diego's Artie Means but warily ahead of Kneulman in third and Smith in fifth.
New Zealand's Aaron McIntosh, an Olympic gold medallist on a Mistral sailboard in 2000, was fourth after winning the previous race. In the final tally, including a discard of his worst finish, Conner's record was 1-6-1-(19)-2 for 10 points. Smith had 14, Kneulman 19, San Diego's Andy LaDow 22 and Hong Kong's Mark Thornburrow/Tim Parsons entry 24.
Means, who was eighth overall, said, "There was quite a race going on back there, which helped us a little."
While Conner, Smith and Kneulman tangled tactically behind him, at one time running downwind virtually three abreast, Means was able to sail freely and stretch his lead throughout.
It was the prettiest sailing day of the week, but although it delivered 8 knots of steady breeze building to 14 by day's end there were a couple of glitches. The first came seconds before the first start when a pilot boat escorting commercial ships into Long Beach Harbor ordered the race committee to move the weather mark because it was in the shipping lane.
Principal race officer Barney Flam moved the course downwind about half a mile, but that may have been at the expense of the usual right-side bias of the local venue by placing boats sailing along the breakwater to the right corner in an adverse current. Conner was among those who noticed it.
"The right side never did pay off today,"
he said. "It doesn't happen here very often but it did today."
Otherwise, conditions were ideal, except for a 15-degree shift that hung Conner and several others out to the wrong side midway of the first race, sending him back to 19th place in the 38-boat fleet and dashing any hopes he had of wrapping up the regatta early.
Given that setback, he led a charge for the pin end of the line in the second race and timed it perfectly. If he had been one second earlier he would been over early and probably lost the title.
"Dennis got a great start,"
Smith said. "He took a chance, which he's not afraid to do."
Conner, who called it a "killer start," sailed two minutes on starboard tack, then tacked to cross most of the fleet and followed Means for a few minutes before returning to mid-course to cover Smith and eventually locking up with Kneulman, as well.
"I couldn't stay there and let him have a lane,"
Conner said. "It was no time to mess around."
Kneulman, a two-time Etchells North American champion, as is Smith, still came out of the week a winner. The only Etchells builder in North America noted that Conner will turn 60 on Sept. 16 but has no plans to quit the class. When they met on the dock immediately after the regatta, Conner gave Kneulman an order for a new boat to be delivered before the 2003 NAs at Annapolis next spring. With that, Kneulman was at a loss as to how to stop him.
"Maybe wait until he's 75,"
Kneulman said. "Trouble is by then I'll be 15 years older, too."