Type: 60-foot catamaran wing-sail
Program:Boat designers: Chance & Hubbard & Maclane
Owner: Sail America Syndicate
Hulls manufacturer: RD Boatworks, at Capistrano Beach, California
Wing designers: John Roncz and David Lednicer
Wing manufacturer: Scaled Composites, Inc., at Mojave, California
Year of building: 1988
“The boats are going to be very big, very radical, and very controversial. The contest will not be a sailboat race. It will be a design lottery in which the sailors will have little or nothing to do with the outcome. In one word, the 1988 America’s Cup challenge will be bizarre.” That was the assessment of Dennis Conner as published in an interview for the Australian review The Bulletin on December 15th, 1987. The facts would prove Conner right and the unsurprising victory of his small 18.30-metre LOA catamaran, Stars & Stripes, against the huge 27.43-metre LOA monohull New Zealand would remain forever the most incongruous America’s Cup.
The long silence of the San Diego Yacht Club following Dennis Conner's victory with the 12-metre Stars & Stripes on February 4th, 1987 in Fremantle is often cited as the reason behind the 1988 America’s Cup. Taking literally the words of the Deed of Gift, the New Zealand banker Michael Fay, impatient with American foot-dragging, sent a challenge contrary to all expectations on July 15th, 1987. His challenger would be a 90-foot monohull, pushing aside the 12-metre class that had been used in each Cup since 1958. Taken aback, the Americans rejected the challenge but Fay asked to the Supreme Court of the State of New York County to intervene. On November 25th, Justice Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick confirmed the validity of the challenge.
With just 10 months to prepare, the Defender decided upon a radical option. John Marshall, the chief of the Sail America Foundation design team, announced on January 22nd, 1988 that the defender would be a catamaran. The Americans had only eight months left to conceive, build and test a defender capable of repelling the assault of Fay's ‘Big Boat’. The American decision was simple on one level, yet at the same time was complex. It was obvious that the multihull choice was likely to be interpreted as a provocation and would generate a new legal conflict. But from a sailing point of view it was simple – the Americans didn’t have the time to catch up in conceiving and constructing a big monohull. Instead, it was easier to opt for a catamaran, which was sure to be faster, more elusive, and with a LOA limited to 60 feet (18.29 metres) it would be able to be built quickly.
On April 15th, 1988 (the immense monohull New Zealand had been sailing in the waters off Auckland since March 27th) John Marshall confirmed that two catamarans were in the process of being built. The first one would be fitted with a soft rig, the second with a hard rig. Conceived in record time, Stars and Stripes, the Defender catamaran was a successful marriage merging cutting-edge naval architecture with aeronautics. For this, Marshall co-ordinated a team comprising exceptional people like Gino Morrelli, who since his youth was fascinated by multihulls. He very quickly became one of the best American specialists and accepted without hesitation the challenge of the America’s Cup. With Bruce Nelson, Britton Chance and Bernard Nivelt, he drew up the catamaran. As expected, two 60-foot boats were built, one of them soft-rigged, following Morrelli’s design. The other one was hard-rigged with a winged-mast, a specialty of Dave Hubbard and Duncan MacLane (who had previously worked out this mode of propulsion on 25 feet-catamarans (7.72 metre) belonging to the C-Class, as the famous Patient Lady.
To scale up the concept of a mast-wing with articulated flaps from a 25-foot catamaran to a 60-foot machine, Marshall appealed to Burt Rutan's talents, the designer of Voyager, an ultra-light airplane that would make a round the world flight without stopping in 1988. Or so the official story goes, because in fact, it so happened that John Roncz and David Lednicer got involved first, designed the wings, and suggested that Burt Rutan build it. Within ten weeks, Rutan, Hubbard and MacLane, supported by a team of 40 people, succeeded in extrapolating the concept. It was an achievement “more difficult than with the airplane wing” Rutan would say later, because of the absolute constraint to save weight.
On May 24th, the first boat was launched and in June, Dennis Conner sailed with the hard-rigged cat. The team discovered that in light wind, the traditional soft rigging of the sister ship was more effective. But in more steady, stronger winds, the hard-rigged cat was faster but the risk of material failure was bigger. So Rutan and his team built up a new winged mast and delivered it at the beginning of August. This second structure was 40% bigger and far more solid than the first one. The mast measured 32.61 metres, 5.80 metres more than the first one, and thus the performance was there: the catamaran fitted with the hard rig was preferred to the classic soft-rigged boat.
Meanwhile, on May 5th, 1988, as expected, Michael Fay again asked for justice. He argued that the San Diego YC should defend the America’s Cup in September 1988 but with a 90-foot monohull. He noted the Deed of Gift required a match between “like and similar boats.” On July 25th, 1988 Justice Ciparick declared Fay’s argument premature and concluded: “The time has come for the sailors to be permitted to participate in the America’s Cup. The parties are directed to proceed with the races and to reserve their protests, if any, until after the completion of the America’s Cup races.”
The "bizarre" 1988 Challenge eventually was sailed on September 7th and 9th off San Diego. It would be useless to hold forth on the ‘mismatch’ on the water. The Stripes & Stripes crew won easily. One matter was certain, this dramatic turn of events put an end to the 12-metre era and opened the way for the present International America’s Cup Class boats.
The courts would rule again on the 1988 match, firstly on March 28th, 1989 to award the Cup to the New Zealanders and then on appeal to confirm the Stars & Stripes victory. Some months after the race, a Mexican yachtsman, Victor Tapia, acquired the catamaran. Excited by the prospect of watching the 1992 America’s Cup races, Tapia sailed the cat to San Diego. Ten years later, Stars & Stripes was sailing on Valle de Bravo Lake, near Mexico City. The last report we had of it, Stars & Stripes was for sale in Mexico.
Design team: John K. Marshall (coordinator), Bruce Nelson, Dave W. Hubbard, Duncan T. MacLane, Gino J. Morelli, Britton Chance, Jr., Bernard Nivelt.
Skipper: Dennis Conner
A chronology of the Stars & Stripes