FREMANTLE, Australia — Dennis Conner was beating him this way and that way, in heavy winds and light winds and tacks and tactics, and then — just when things couldn’t possibly get worse — a rubber boat pulls alongside Iain Murray’s Kookaburra III and tells him there might be a bomb on board.
“What did you do?” Murray was asked after his boat lost its third straight race of this America’s Cup final to Conner’s Stars & Stripes, this time by one minute, 46 seconds. “What was your reaction when they told you about the bomb threat?”
“Our first reaction,” he said, “was, ‘What’s the bad news?’ “
What’s the bad news? Really. How much worse could it get? Kookaburra was already on the final leg of another awful loss, this time in conditions that were supposed to be more favorable than in the two previous defeats. The first race was a blowout and the second race was a blowout and the third race was a blowout. Now, a blowup. Sure. What’s the bad news?
“Weren’t you frightened?” someone said.
“Well, they asked us what we wanted to do, so we considered our options,” Murray said. “We realized that if a bomb went off, it still wouldn’t affect the outcome of the race.
“Then we thought, maybe this is our chance to see what life is like after 12-meter racing.”
And, oh, don’t laugh, for that must have been tempting. This America’s Cup final has hardly been what Murray or Australia or the world waited three years to see. The grand event of yachting has turned into a mop job, unconditional slaughter, Ivan Drago against Apollo Creed. Stars & Stripes has outperformed her rival in light winds, heavy winds, fluky winds.
The only way Kookaburra could win now is if the next sail it hoists reads
“STP.” Misfortune was Murray’s law It was somewhere early in Monday’s race that Murray turned to his mainsheet trimmer, Peter Gilmour, and said, “I think we’re in trouble.” History will show the Cup won on another day. But this was the day it was lost.
This was the race in which Conner simply tore the fur off Kookaburra, a dead-heat start that led to an early tacking duel, a watery version of flying fists — one boat cutting off the other, slicing behind, jockeying for better position.
This was supposed to be Kookaburra’s strength. Mix it up in light winds. And for several snapshots, the Australians were ahead. “KOOKA!” the crowds on the spectator boats yelled, for their country trailed this best-of-seven series, 2-0, and Murray, the beleaguered young skipper, had predicted Kookaburra would have to “go all out” if it were to have a chance. “KOOKA! KOOKA! . . .
And then Conner pulled a move truly worthy of Converse High Tops. In boat talk, he “ducked the stern and beat the slam dunk.” In plain English, he pulled up short, cut behind Kookaburra, then forced her away, cut in front, stole her wind and stole her position. Good night, Kooka. Each successive leg was like hitting the gas pedal.
“No one has ever done that to us before,” said Murray, shaking his head.
“Not all summer.”
And then, someone made a phone call somewhere, and the rubber boat showed up with news of a bomb. A bomb? On a boat? Come on. What’s the bad news? You had to pity him Murray squeezed his lips tight. His hair was wind-whipped and his skin deep brown from sun. Three races, three defeats, and a bomb scare. Watching him answer questions across the table from Conner — the skipper who was burying him at sea — it was impossible not to feel something for the guy. This is the first man in history to defend the America’s Cup for Australia, and he is on the lip of losing the duel without firing a shot.
In three races, he hasn’t won a leg. Not one. It’s like losing every game in a tennis match, or being outscored from the opening tap in basketball. Kookaburra’s success in getting here — a stunning 5-0 sweep of Australia IV, the defending syndicate — is now considered no more than a small fish beating the whole small pond.
“What’s the difference between this and the defender trials?” Murray was asked.
“We had the faster boat then,” he said.
It was a funny answer. He was not laughing.
This was not the way it was supposed to happen. Not the way Murray and his crew wanted to return to shore after the races. Along the jetties Monday stood thousands of Australians, waving and applauding, appreciating the effort if not the results. But the men aboard Kookaburra only looked down into deep blue water as they sailed past. No answers there, either.
Three races, three defeats, and a bomb scare. Iain Murray ran a fist through his hair and sighed. “We won’t give up,” he said, but those were merely words. What’s the bad news? This is the bad news. The bomb stuff was merely redundant.
They had already been blown out of the water.