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A crow's nest view of yachting

One definition of a yacht racer is someone who likes standing in a cold shower tearing up $1,000 bills. Yet every three years off of Newport, R.I., sailors do compete in sleek 12 -meter sailboats for what has become regarded as an emblem of supremacy in the art of shipbuilding, designing, and seamanship -- a silver trophy called the America's Cup. For the winner there is almost a sense of inevitablity that eventually a faster yacht and a better captain and crew will take the trophy away."

Even the closest spectators at these events are so far away they need binoculars to see what's happenning. However, this Sunday PBS will air a documentary that gives a crow's nest view of what makes a racing yacht tick ("Freedom's Defense," PBS, Sunday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings for time and date).

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For those whose closest encounter with the sea is in Herman Melville novels, Robert MacNeil (MacNeil/Lehrer Report) gives a brief introduction to sailing, utilizing his son's sailboat. But even for those whose eyes glaze over upon just hearing sailing terms such as jibe or alee will appreciate the documentary for the nearly balletic way it presents 60-foot yachts surging through the seas off of Newport. The 12-meter yachts are probably the ultimate in sailing design and the film capitalizes on this trait.

As "Freedom's Defense" rightly points out, the racing is only one of the reasons sailors from around the world congregate at Newport every three years. The parties and social events also make up a part of the milieu. It is a chance for the rich to show off and invite their friends out on their yachts. Although the film doesn't point it out, yacht racing is a very elitist sport.

However, serious sailers will be interested in how and why the US successfully defended the cup for the 129th year. The documentary spends most of its 60 minutes explaining how Freedom and her skipper, Dennis Connor, were chosen to race against another 12-meter yacht, Australia, in five races off Newport. To earn the right to defend the cup, Freedom had to beat Ted Turner and his boat Courageous and 24-year- old Russell Long and his boat Clipper.

In a summer of match racing, pitting boat against boat, crew against crew, skipper against skipper, Conner accumulated a 44-4 record and was chosen to defend the cup. At the same time, the Australian yacht, Australia, defeated French, British, and Swedish yachts to become the challenger for the cup.

Even though Australia won one of the races, Conner, representing the New York Yacht Club, holder of the trophy, had no trouble defending. Conner had no trouble winning, as one of the crewmwn points out, because they had worked harder and longer in preparing for the races. In fact, Conner had sailed Freedom for 300 days before the races and spent $2 million. His crew worked over a year preparing for fewer than 50 races.

If money could buy the cup, a Frenchman, Baron Marcel Bich, who gave the world the ballpoint pen, would have had no trouble winning it in 1980. Over the past six years he has spent over $15 million trying to take the cup.

However, until this year america had maintained the edge in sail and hull design. The New York Yacht Club had insisted that the challengers' boats be outfitted with parts made in their own countries. In 1982, for the first time in the cup's history, challengers can use made-in USA sails and parts. This is certain to equalize the races.

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Exactly why grown men wish to spend so much time and money on an event so few will see is explained early in the documentary by Mr. MacNeil, the narrator, who states that it is part of an "obsessive behavior." Sir Thomas Lipton, of tea fame, was so obsessed that he spent 31 years and millions of dollars building and racing yachts in an effort to win the cup for England.

The documentary was produced and directed by Dick Enersen for Offshore Productions. Mr. Enersen, who crewed in 1964 in a cup defense, has captured the spirit of the America's Cup defense and made the film entertaining. It should help make a cold winter's night go by faster.

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