Sailing is just the bottom line, like adding up the score in bridge. My real interest is in the tremendous game of life. -- Dennis Conner, in Time Magazine, February 9, 1987, shortly before regaining the America's Cup. (1)
b. September 16, 1942. San Diego, California
Humble beginnings in the sport
Dennis Conner grew up in the Southern California area, with a fisherman father in modest beginnings. The Conner of today was significantly different than the Conner of yesterday. He grew up hanging around San Diego Yacht Club racing small double-handed dinghies. Since joining the club at the age of 11, he has been a member for over forty years, eventually rising to the position of club commodore, and serving on the board of directors for nine years. He is the first to admit that the combination of circumstances and his talents caused him to focus almost entirely on sailing.
"I wasn't the smartest guy and I wasn't the best-looking guy, and I was batting seventh on the baseball team. The one thing I could do a little better than anybody else was sail. So I liked the positive rewards that I got by doing something better than the other people. And the more positive rewards I got, the more I gravitated towards it." (2)
Unfortunately, he acquired a reputation as being aggressive on the course. One song written in jest of Conner, "The Ballad of Dennis Conner" remarks that growing up "his favorite toy was code flag B"; in other words, he liked to drive aggressively, then protest his fellow competitors, using the rules and tactics rather than skill to win races. Nonetheless, he committed to sailing with all of his effort.
"I think it comes down to attitude and it's hard to perform at the top level of your ability if you're not committed to that. If you want to be the best father and best husband and best community leader, how can you be the best golfer in the world, because the best golfer is out there playing golf every single day? And that's where most people are, they're somewhere in the middle. There's very few people that really know what an all-out effort at one thing is." (3)
The all-out effort at taking the gun in every race continued when Conner left for San Diego State University in 1960. Although he majored in business, nobody speaks of his performance in his studies. Instead, Conner is mostly known for finishing third in the Intercollegiate Nationals with Robin Gales, leading the Aztecs to pewter for the first time in the Morss Trophy Regatta (Conner's alma mater would later win the trophy, the first West Coast team to do so, in 1968). Despite beginning his international sailing career with sucess his junior year, Conner graduated in 1964 without making All-American because no All-American team was selected until 1967. Twenty three years after his graduation, Conner was inducted into the Intercollegiate Sailing Hall of Fame in 1987. (4)
Onto the international scene
"If they can do it, I can do it too." (5)
After college, Conner saw opportunity in the then-wildly popular Star class. By 1971, he replaced the red star as the class icon on his mainsail with a gold star; he had become the Star class world champion. His domination of the class would continue in the 1977 world championships in Kiel, Germany where he won a record straight 5 races against 89 other competitors- an unheard-of feat in international one-design racing. (6)
Conner has launched several major campaigns, including two Admiral's Cup campaigns, and perhaps more importantly, an Olympic campaign in 1976 in the Tempest class. The result of the regatta in Montreal was a bronze medal for the United States and Conner. (7)
In 1979, Conner was the skipper of Williwaw in the Admiral's Cup, the principal of the three United States' entries. Going into the final race- the Fastnet Cup, the United States was second to Ireland on Irish home waters. At the onset of the race, winds were calm- no one noticed the barometer dropping extremely fast. The light breeze quickly built to a Force 10 storm. Two of the three Irish entries lost their rudders, but mercifully, none of the sailors lost their lives as did 19 sailors in the smaller classes. Meanwhile, Conner and the US lost the cup to the Australians who took a risk and flew heavy air jibs rather than storm sails as did the rest of the fleet. It was a victory that wasn't celebrated, as the traditional post-race party had been replaced by a memorial service and the decommissioning of many boats. (8)
Despite disaster at The Lizard Turn, Conner continued to ocean race. He has skippered two entries in the triannual Whitbread Round the World Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race): 1993-1994's Winston and 1997-1998's Toshiba. He is a four time winner of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference, and an active Pacific Handicap Rating Fleet (PHRF) racer, holding the speed record from the record-sized 500 boat Newport Beach to Ensenada and the 200 boat Newport to Ensenada races. (9)
"Simply the Best Class. Period."
Most recently, Conner has devoted most of his sailing to the one-design Etchells class keelboat. In 1994, he won the Australian National Etchells Championships. Later that year he won his first of two International Etchells Class Championships against one of the largest regatta fleets ever- 62 entries crowding the line in all. (10)
More recently, Conner has won the 2000 New Zealand National Etchells Championship- his third victory in that regatta (the other two in 1996 and 1997). In 2001, Conner won the North American Etchells Championships, then successfully defended the title in 2002 in home waters off Long Beach, California. As of this writing, Conner and his crew from Menace is ranked #2 in the world in the class. (11)
Mr. America's Cup
In light of all his successes in the Etchells class, international sailing, or as three-time United States Yachtsman of the Year, Conner will always be known as "The Man Who Won The Cup Then Lost It Then Won It Back Then Lost It Again", or its popular abbreviation: "Mr. America's Cup". He has raced in an unequalled nine America's Cup regattas, and won four of them. But to match his victories in 1974 (Courageous def. Australia 4-0), 1980 (Freedom def. Australia 4-1), 1987 (Stars & Stripes def. Kookaburra III 4-0), and 1988 (Stars & Stripes def. New Zealand 2-0), he lost in 1983 and 1995. (12)
As prolific as Conner has been in recent years, nowadays his role in the regatta for the Auld Mug has been aloof.
"He still drives the team," said Bill Trenkle, who's sailed with Conner since 1980 and is director of operations for Team Dennis Conner. "So much of being successful is the strategy and the planning and making good choices, and that's something that he's really, really good at. He's just not doing it from the boat." (13)
Or as his helmsman noted:
"At first, it was like Willie Mays patting you on the back and saying, 'Hey, can you take over for me in center field starting tonight?'" Ken Read said before another long day on the water. "It was a little nerve-racking at first because you're taking over from a legend. He made it really easy," the 40-year-old Read said. "Never any pressure, not even a threatening statement. I've never had a 'I don't think I'd do it that way' from him." (14)
That seems to be Conner's style, and he echoes it in his corporate motivational speaking tours. His idiom is based on the idea of recruit the best people you can, set broad objectives, and let them decide how to achieve them. Command by negation is his favorite mode.
"I really don't consciously give pep talks. I'm not Knute Rockne and I'm not Bobby Knight in there getting the guys fired up. I think that everyone has a little different style of getting the guys ready, and I prefer to have done my homework and make sure that they have a self-image of being ready by being the best they can be, and the rest seems to take care of itself. It's more lead by example, hard work and dedication and being ready, having covered all of our bases." (15)
And while he might adopt a harsh, salty attitude towards the media, he's notoriously willing to sign autographs for the fans and divulge his secrets to being a winning skipper in his ten books including No Excuse to Lose,Comeback, The Art of Winning, and Sail Like a Champion. He's even known for keeping his cool with the crew no matter what castrophes occur on the course.
"Sometimes people think better when they're not excited, and that's when they have the right mental level of anxiety. So, you can go yell and scream at a guy but that might make his performance worse, because he's already trying his best, and now you make him nervous. He's trying to get a piece of thread through the eye of a needle -- it's not necessarily going to help by having him under more pressure." (16)
Conner can't sail with the big dogs anymore. With International America's Cup Class (IACC) boats having crews of 16, and masts over 100 feet high, with thousands of square feet of sail area, Conner would be out of place on a "coffee grinder" winch or fighting a helm that isn't hydraulically assisted. But he's fine with that, so it seems. His corporation, Dennis Conner Sports, Incorporated raised over $40 million for the 2003 America's Cup campaign from only a few sponsors. Unlike most of the other syndicates such as Oracle Challenge and Alinghi sponsored by the billionaire checkbooks of Larry Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli, Conner has to raise the money himself- which makes him the underdog and crowd favorite.