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Sailors and Spies Vie in San Diego

America's Cup racers have one eye on the prize, the other on competitors' secrets

IN one cluster, five sailboats from around the world, their spinnakers puffed out like pillows, dart around yellow buoys in a mock race. Not far away, two scarlet-hulled yachts from New Zealand dance downwind in a competitive ritual of their own.Tacking in between, testing his boat and tweaking his rivals, veteran skipper Dennis Conner sails his 75-foot Stars and Stripes. "These guys are serious out here today," says yachtsman Thomas Ehman Jr., watching the practice from a bobbing boat. In the cobalt waters off San Diego, the men in their multimillion-dollar sailboats are congregating in greater numbers. The practice races grow more competitive and the training more frenetic in preparation for yachting's most prestigious championship, the America's Cup. With less than a month to go before the Cup trials begin, skippers are honing final strategies, scientists are applying calculus to hulls and keels, and aquatic spies - yes, spies - are everywhere. Each day that the racing teams set out to sea, they are shadowed by a flotilla of chase boats and helicopters bearing rivals with cameras the length of masts. In a sport where a minor change in sail configuration means victory or defeat, national honor or punctured pride, the observers circle the boats like gulls, trying to fathom competitors' tactics and technology. To foil spies, the teams' own chase boats get between yachts and photographers. (Even our vessel, mistakenly thought to be on a cloak-and-dagger mission, was chased off several times.)

Rules for 'espionage' The friendly espionage has become so intense that the racing syndicates have set rules on how close observers can come to the sailboats. At least one foreign team has suggested, only half jokingly, that the Americans may be using the US Navy to do underwater surveillance. "In this technological game, any time you can learn something and leapfrog forward without spending time or money, it's great," says David Rosow, executive vice president of the America3 Foundation, one of two United States syndicates vying to defend the Cup. "So we all watch each other." That the shenanigans and seriousness are picking up is probably good for the race organizers and San Diego. The extravaganza that local boosters had hoped would do for their city what the 1984 Olympics did for Los Angeles has been struggling to generate corporate support and local zeal. "It has been tough," says Mr. Ehman, general manager of the America's Cup Organizing Committee (ACOC). "But it is going better now than this summer." Part of the problem is the timing. Until the trials begin in January, culminating in the Cup finals in May, there is little for people to get excited about. It is, as one local helmsman put it, like watching spring training without the baseball games. The biggest challenge, though, has been mounting a major sporting event with the economy in a half nelson. The recession has affected business contributions to the ACOC and the city's ability to stage parties and parades, not to mention Mr. Connor's hopes of building a second boat. The pinch has been the most pronounced at the organizing committee. Already carrying a debt from Connor's 1988 Cup victory and the legal battles surrounding it, the ACOC lost money on a warm-up regatta in May. Since then, amid charges of overspending and miscalculation, it has scaled back its ambitious plans for the race. The committee trimmed $5 million from its budget, licensed out operations, canceled galas, and laid off 11 workers. It is still nursing a $1- million-to-$2-million debt and looking for more major sponsors. But Ehman predicts the ACOC will end up in the black and the region will get a major economic boost. Although estimates of the number of visitors have been scaled back from 1.1 million to 220,000, that may still be enough to generate $500 million for the local economy - far more than the 1988 Super Bowl here. "That is nothing to sneeze at during a recession," says Ehman. "The contribution to the local economy has already been large." The 1992 field will be the most international of any in the 140-year history of the Cup, though not the largest: 10 challenge syndicates from nine countries, as well as the two American defenders, Team Dennis Connor and America3. Most of the foreign challengers have arrived - New Zealand, Italy, France, Japan, Spain, Sweden, Australia (two teams) - some as long as a year ago. Not yet here is the team from war-torn Yugoslavia, now being called the Slovenian-Croatian challenge, and one from the former Sovi et Union, representing the Ocean Yacht Club of St. Petersburg. Neither is expected to be competitive but their mere presence would be a moral victory. Lacking carbon-fiber technology, the Slovenians built a wooden boat. It is being worked on in Italy, outside of gunshot of the Yugoslav civil war. The Soviets, despite some internal squabbling, are still expected to show up as well.

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Two teams will emerge To determine a Cup defender, Dennis Connor will go head-to-head with America3 skipper Bill Koch in 3 1/2 months of skirmishes beginning Jan. 14. The foreign syndicates will compete among themselves to produce a challenger. The two teams that emerge will meet in a best-of-seven series starting May 9. All are one-on-one races. Handicappers here say that, though Mr. Koch will be putting two boats against Connor's one, the odds are about even. No one underestimates the wily Connor who, with four victories, is the most experienced America's Cup skipper in the world. Ever the mind-tweaker, he recently showed up for a practice race open only to foreign boats by putting a Swedish insignia on his sail and dressing his crew in blond wigs. Not everyone was amused. Among the challengers, New Zealand and Italy are considered strong; Fran ce, Japan, and the Australians may be tough, too. The racing syndicates around the waterfront here occupy compounds as secure as the Pentagon. When the yachts are hoisted out of the water at night, in walled-off pens, the keels are covered with skirts. Some teams have painted graphics on their hulls to reflect in the water so the image of their keels won't be as visible from hovering helicopters. With so much history, national pride, and money at stake - the Italians alone are spending a reported $60 million - it is not surprising that surveillance and security have become as important as science and skill. Last week, Connor's crew used kelp poles to chase away two divers near their docked boat. They left behind a sophisticated underwater measuring device.

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