Conner maintains lead

Reigning Etchells champion looks set to defend his title

Saturday September 7th 2002, Author: Rich Roberts, Location: United States

Dennis Conner, with crew Al Pleskus, rides the crest of a swell past the windward mark. Crew Peter Burton not shown.

In a notoriously predictable venue that has thrown a kaleidoscope of conditions at competitors in the 2002 Etchells North American Championships this week, a veteran sailor from San Diego has emerged as the most reliable factor in the 38-boat fleet.

Dennis Conner, with Peter Burton and Al Pleskus as crew, finished sixth and then first Friday when the famous Long Beach sea breeze that was AWOL the previous day returned with 20 knots of vengeance before fading to 6 or 7 at the end of the racing day. By then Conner, the defending champion, was securely in first place with 8 points, followed by another San Diegan, Andy LaDow, 14,and Peter Duncan of Rye, N.Y., 16.

"Not bad for an old guy," smiled Conner, who will celebrate his 60th birthday in New Zealand Sept. 16 when he rejoins his America's Cup team for the start of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger trials for the America's Cup Oct. 1.

Three of the strongest contenders---Dirk Kneulman of Burlington, Ontario; Jud Smith of Marblehead, Mass., and the Mark Thornburrow/Tim Parsons duo from Hong Kong--- veered off the radar screen with finishes of 19, 20 and 32 in Friday's second race when a significant wind shift on the first downwind run caught them on the wrong side of the course. Conner was sailing a conservative course in the middle.

"I was ahead so I just tried to sail smart," Conner said.

With the wind still holding at 20 knots, Conner had jumped into the lead with a pin-end start that allowed him to port-tack across the fleet.

Smith had won Friday's first race, with LaDow second by half a boat length and Conner sixth, by overtaking Doug Jorgensen. The La Jolla sailor had jumped out to a solid lead with a starting coup similar to Conner's, but a spinnaker sheet snapped on the run to the finish.

"It was an eight-year-old sheet and it just broke in all that wind," said Jorgensen, who sailed with Jon Bell and Brian Warren aboard. "We had to douse the chute, tie [the sheet] back together and rehoist. We were lucky to lose only two boats."

Otherwise, he had an excellent day with a third and a fourth that left him in fifth place. Duncan, who was ninth in last year's North Americans at Holland, Mich., had the best day with a 4-2, while LaDow posted a 2-6.

"Today was a really weird day," LaDow said. "It was just Jud and us on the last run. We were surfing like crazy in those big waves. Billy [Bennett] does a great job of positioning us so all I have to do is steer."

Barney Flam's race committee had hoped to run three races Friday for a total of four that would have made it an official regatta, but they ran out of time when the wind faded.

They should manage one race for the windup today, but Smith, Kneulman and Thornburrow/Parsons, among others, are hoping for two because five races in
the books would allow them to discard Friday's clinkers.

The leaders (after 3 of 7 scheduled races):

1. Dennis Conner, San Diego, 1-6-1, 8 points.
2. Andy LaDow, San Diego, 6-2-6, 14.
3. Peter Duncan, Rye, N.Y., 10-4-2, 16.
4. Jud Smith, Marblehead, Mass., 2-1-20, 23.
5. Doug Jorgensen, La Jolla, Calif., 16-3-4, 23.

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