Follow In My Wake: Dennis Connor And Stars & Stripes 1987

This story was originally published on Ecoworldly

While visiting Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, I had a chance to sail on Stars & Stripes 1987, the 12 Meter yacht that played such an important part in America’s Cup history. The story begins in Newport, Rhode Island. 24 times, the fastest yachts in the world converged on Newport, determined to win the America’s Cup. 24 times, they sailed for home disappointed.

america's cup

The Famous Winged Keel Controversy

In September of 1983, a team from Perth, Australia, brought their innovative yacht, Australia II, to Newport. Australia II was the first boat ever to have a so-called “winged keel.” It featured two surfaces jutting out from the bottom of the keel, one on each side. And it was fast. The New York Yacht, custodians of the Cup for more than 100 years, insisted that keel was illegal. Before every race, they filed a protest and every time the official measurer declared the boat complied with every jot and title of the rules.

Liberty, the American defender, was skippered by Dennis Connor and was noticeably slower than the challenger. Only by superior tactics and skill was Connor able to compete with the Aussie boat. At the end of 6 races, the series was tied — 3 wins apiece.

Going Off On A Flyer

America’s Cup competition is match racing — two boats, one course. First to cross the finish line wins. No tears. There is one cardinal rule in match racing. The boat ahead sticks like glue to the boat behind. Wherever it goes, the leader goes.

There is an old expression in sailing: We cannot control the wind. All we can do is adjust our sails. Wind is not a constant thing — it comes first from one direction, than a few seconds later from another. If you allow the boat behind to sail off all alone, it might find better wind somewhere else. That’s why a seasoned match racer never, ever, under any circumstances, lets the trailing boat get away.

In the seventh race, Liberty had a commanding lead rounding the next to last mark. The wind that day was light and flukey. In a desperate search for a stronger breeze, Connor decided to sail off in the general direction of Portugal. Australia II sailed straight for the last mark. When the boats came together, Liberty’s lead had evaporated and it found itself over two minutes behind.

The Man Who Lost The Cup

Connor immediately became “the man who lost the Cup.” He was shamed throughout yachting circles and vilified wherever he went. Some believe he lost the last race deliberately so control of the America’s Cup would be wrested away from the New York Yacht Club.

It was well known that Connor and the NYYC despised each other. Connor had many innovative ideas about how the America’s Cup competition should evolve in the future. The NYYC wanted no part of any such frippery and tomfoolery.

Undaunted, Connor immediately set about organizing a challenge to recover the Cup based at the San Diego Yacht Club. 4 years later, he went to Australia with Stars Stripes 1987, the 55th 12 Meter yacht ever built. It was designed specifically for the heavy seas and high winds found in the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Australia.

A Triumph For Dennis Connor

But before it could challenge for the Cup, it needed to win the challengers series against boats from other countries. Eventually it came down to two — Stars & Stripes 1987 and KZ 5, the challenger from New Zealand. In the final and deciding race, Connor was leading when the genoa jib on Stars & Stripes exploded. As Connor’s crew struggled to replace the jib, KZ 5 sailed on by, certain that victory was theirs.

Unbelievably, Connor maneuvered his crippled boat with such expertise that he surprised the Kiwis at the final mark and went on to win the race and the right to challenge for the America’s Cup. The series itself was anti-climactic. Connor and Stars & Stripes bludgeoned the Australians into submission, taking 4 races in a row to bring the Cup back to the US.

As a young man who grew up sailing on Narragansett Bay, I followed America’s Cup racing passionately. In the days before DVR’s, I was the only person I knew who stayed up until 3 am to watch the races live from Australia. When Connor and Stars & Stripes paraded back into the harbor after reclaiming the Cup I was ecstatic, although I never quite forgave Connor for losing it i in the first place.

Gary Jobson, a renowned America’s Cup sailor in his own right, said after the series, “The Stars & Stripes campaign of 1986-87 was the triumph of Dennis Conner. The events of 1983 were crushing. Dennis was hurt and vilified. He was made the scapegoat. To win after going through that was the story.”

The Sailing World Shifts On Its Axis

What happened next was the stuff upon which legends are built. Michael Fay, a wealthy industrialist from New Zealand, issued a challenge to the San Diego Yacht Club to contest for the Cup the following year. Ordinarily, the Cup races were scheduled 3 to 4 years apart. 21 syndicates had made their intentions known to compete in 1991, but Fay took his challenge to the New York Supreme Court which interpreted the original Deed of Gift to the New York Yacht Club in Fay’s favor.

The Deed specified only that the boats would have but one mast and be not more than 90 feet in length. Fay announced his challenger would be 90 feet long with one single mast. In fact, he already had the boat built and ready to race.

Connor and the SDYC were caught flat footed. They had no such boat ready and could not design and build one in time. But Connor, the wily strategist, had an answer. The San Diego defender would be a catamaran. Strictly speaking, it complied with the strict terms of the Deed of Gift.

Multi-hull Boats Rule The Seas

Connor beat the Kiwi boat and the era of multi-hull racing had come to America’s Cup competition. Today, as this is being written, catamarans representing Sweden and New Zealand will face each other for the right to challenge Team USA in the 2017 round of the competition. The old 12 Meter yachts had a maximum hull speed of about 17 knots on a windy day. Today’s boats are more like jet fighters than sailboats and can reach speeds of 50 knots.

The racing is exciting, intense, edge of your seat, stuff. And it exists because Dennis Connor went to Perth with Twelve Meter 55 — Stars & Stripes 1987 — and brought the Cup home in convincing style.

Standing In The Shadow Of Dennis Connor

I was thinking of all that history as I took the helm of 12 Meter 55 out of Harbor Town and sailed under reef through the waters of the Intercoastal Waterway. I stood where Dennis Connor stood. Put my hands on the wheel just as Connor had 40 years ago. The rest of the people on board were just tourists with no idea that the boat they were sailing on had once been a vital part of America’s Cup history.

But I knew. I could feel the energy field that still envelopes Stars & Stripes 1987. It’s there if you understand the history of the vessel and grew up steeped in America’s Cup lore. And while I sailed, I was channeling Jimmy Buffett: “Follow in my wake, there’s not that much at stake; for I have calmed the seas and smoothed the troubled waters…..”

I was sitting in a dentist’s chair in 1978, listening to a live broadcast of the race on the radio. When Connor sailed off toward the horizon and let the Aussies cruise home to victory, I almost bit the drill in half in anger and frustration. But now I have felt the aura of Dennis Connor and I just want to say, “Dennis, I forgive you.”

Everything Old Is New Again

There is a codicil to this story. The Herreshoff brothers, Nathaniel and John, designed and built a number of America’s Cup defenders at their boatyard in Bristol, Rhode Island. Hanging from the rafters in the Herreshoff Museum is a strange craft. It looks like a wooden pancake straddling two kayaks. It was built in 1898 and submitted to the New York Yacht Club as a potential America’s Cup defender.

The NYYC promptly ruled the design ineligible because it would too fast! The Herreshoffs, like Dennis Connor, were way ahead of their time.

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Catching Up With The Hanley Clan In Sydney

Carolyn and I spent most of January lolling on the beach in  Australia and visiting the Hanley clan at their digs in the Pyrmont section of Sydney. Mostly, we got to spend time with the two grandkids, Helena, age 6, and Ava, age 4.


Our funnest day was at Luna Park, an amusement park located in North Sydney near the Harbor Bridge. We had a great day riding all the rides and visiting the fun house.

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Here’s a shot of Helena, who is fearless, getting ready to ascend the super scary Waterfall of Death ride. That’s not its real name but it’s a pretty good description.


There was other cool stuff, too, like those funny mirrors amusement parks have and a whirly thing that kids love because it spins until everyone else falls off.

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There were two gals in pink polka dot costumes so naturally we had to get pictures of them with the kids.

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And finally, here’s a photo of the girls in the yard at the condo where we stayed. What a great trip. We need to do this again real soon!



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Discovering Cinque Terre, The Italian Riviera

We ended our Italian holiday with a 5 day visit to Cinque Terre — 5 historic villages clinging to the hillsides that rise up from the Mediterranean Sea on Italy’s west coast between Genoa and Rome. These ancient villages are colorful and charming, but they are also a testament to the indomitable spirit of mankind. The setting is truly a place where you would expect to find mountain goats, not people.

The beach at Monterosso

In the days before Italy was unified into one country, these five towns were independent territories. In French, Cinque Terre means “5 lands.” The French name stuck but the local pronunciation is most un-Gallic. In Italian, they are known collectively as CHINK wa TEAR uh. They are mostly inaccessible by car. In past centuries, communication with the outside world was mostly limited to walking paths cut into the steep sides of the mountains. Today, the towns are served by trains and coastal ships.

From south to north, the five villages are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. All share a similar architectural history and are especially scenic with their brightly colored buildings, narrow streets, and fleets of fishing boats nestled in quiet harbors. Monterosso is further divided into two sections — the Old Town and the more modern new section. We chose to stay in the newer part of Monterosso because that’s where the train station and the best beaches were located.

Monterosso Part I

The newer section of Monterosso is all about beaches. The seashore is lined with private clubs where visitors can rent an umbrella and a cabana for the day. At the northern end of town is a public beach. Above the beach is Il Gigante, a concrete sculpture set high atop a rocky outcropping. 80 years ago, the giant supported a dance floor that hung out over the water where revelers could dance under the stars. The dance floor is long gone, but Il Gigante still maintains his lonely vigil over the town below.

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Monterosso Part II

The old town of Monterosso is accessed by a tunnel. During WW II, the inhabitants took shelter in that tunnel during air raids. Our first visit occurred during a torrential rain storm that forced us to seek shelter in a local cafe where tourists and locals congregated to wait out the storm with a Caffe Americaine and a biscotti or two. The storm soon passed and we set off to explore the old part of town.

We returned to old Monterosso a few days later and climbed all the way to the top where there is an ancient monastery and burial vault. In more dangerous times, the people would hide in the monastery to avoid capture by Turkish pirates who roamed the Mediterranean. It was more than a 1,000 steps to the top and worth every huff and puff on the way up.

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One of the most photographed of all the 5 villages, Riomaggiore is a typical town in the area. It rises steeply from the shore to the hills above. It’s tiny harbor offers little protection to fishing boats, so they are hauled out and parked along the streets of town when stormy weather is expected.

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Just a mile north of Riomaggiore is the fishing village of Manarola. The casual visitor would have difficulty telling one from the other. Manarola has a picturesque harbor with many colorful small boats waiting to take those who make their living from the sea out onto the waters of the Mediterranean.

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We bypassed Corniglia, which sits high above the local railway station, to spend a day in Vernazza. We loved staying in Monterosso, but Vernazza was our favorite day trip while in Cinque Terre.

In 2011, severe storms caused major flooding that sent a wall of mud 12 feet deep cascading through the town. The ferocity of the storm dislodged homes in the valley above the town that had stood for centuries. The flood waters blasted a hole through the granite foundation of the town near the harbor.

Today, Vernazza has largely recovered but the damage is still there to be seen if you know where to look.

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We were sad to leave Cinque Terre, but our excursion had come to an end. We took the train back to Milan then a bus to the airport where we stayed overnight so we would be on time for our early morning flight home.

As we were leaving the hotel in the morning, we happened to glance out our window  to find that Italy had given us a goodbye gift. It was still dark where we were, but to the north, the tops of the Alps were bathed in sunlight from the coming dawn. It was a magnificent ending to our Italian holiday.

Thank you, Italy. Our journey was very special. We’ll see you again soon.




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In Which We Stumble Upon Lake Maggiore

From Lake Orta, we intended to go to Maranello to visit the home of Ferrari. The day before leaving, we sat down with Wanderio — a fabulous app that instantly reveals how to get from anywhere to somewhere else anywhere it the world — and discovered, much to our chagrin, that it was going to be a 9½ hour journey.

That didn’t sound very appealing, so we switched gears and decided to visit Lake Maggiore instead. Maggiore means “major” in Italian and it is all of that. Some 40 miles long, the northernmost part crosses the border into Switzerland. The best part is it was only 1½ hours by train from Orta.


Our tag along tour guide — Rick Steves — suggested we take the funicular from the shore of the lake to the top of the nearby Alps. Rick had never steered us wrong, so we followed his advice. What a ride! A combination of two cable cars whisked us 8,000 feet up into the sky, affording us a spectacular view of the lake below. Pay attention to those islands just offshore. We are going to visit them next.

Carolyn found us a room in a lake front hotel with a spectacular view. It was loaded with Old World charm. Here’s a photo of sunrise over the lake from our balcony the next morning. Stunning!

Remember those islands we saw from the cable car? There are three of them. Each is owned by the Borromeo family, one of Italy’s wealthiest and most powerful families. They built a palace on each one and surrounded it with magnificent gardens. Today, a fleet of boats shuttles tourists out to the islands from the town of Stresa. Here are some photos. Be prepared to be amazed.

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Inside one of the castles is a room where Napoleon stayed when he visited. He arrived unannounced and demanded his hosts immediately serve a meal for himself and the 30 people in his entourage.

A sign posted outside the room said Napoleon smelled like a wild bear, never bathed, and left the room in need of fumigation when he departed.

Stresa was proof that sometimes less planning can lead to delightful surprises. We didn’t know we were going there until the day before and it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. You can see Ferraris any time but Stresa and Lake Maggiore have to be seen to be believed.

Here is one of the many hotels arrayed along the waterfront of Stresa. (No, this is not where we stayed, although ours was very nice and quite comfortable.)


Is there any end to the scenic delights of Italy? Our experience suggests there is not. Next, it’s on to the Italian Riviera between Genoa and Pisa and a magical place called Cinque Terre — the five territories. It will prove to be one of the most spectacular places of all.


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Isola San Giulio

Just a few hundred yards offshore from Orta stands Isola San Giulio. Built as a monastery, it was once controlled by the diocese of Sardinia, back in the days before the unification of Italy. Today, it still houses an order of nuns but has also sprouted dozens of private homes owned by the wealthy.

Getting to the island involves a short boat ride from the waterfront of Orta. On average, a fleet of about 8 boats shuttle visitor to the island and back from sunrise to sunset. A walking tour of San Guilio takes about an hour or two, depending on how long you feel like spending in the magnificent cathedral and strolling between buildings that date back many centuries.

Let’s start with what the island looks like from the water.

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Now let’s go ashore. We will begin with the cathedral with its magnificent altars and painted ceilings, then continue on around and back to the boat landing.

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Finally,  a view of the town of Orta as seen from the water on the way back from Isola San Guilio. img_0561

Beneath that red awning on the left is a waterfront restaurant that has been in operation for hundreds of years. We dined there on our last evening in Orta with a full moon above and Isola San Giulio shimmering in the distance. It was one of the best meals we had on our journey, as much for the setting as the food.

Later, back home in Chepachet, we found our time in Orta was one of our most treasured memories. Up next, the mysterious case of the train station that wasn’t there!


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Magical Orta Steals Our Hearts Away

Isola San Guilio

We spent 10 days of our Italian idyll exploring the country’s Lakes Region. Much like the Finger Lakes in New York, the northwest corner of Italy near the Swiss border has a number of deep gashes in the landscape carved by the glaciers. Once the ice retreated, the lakes formed and remain today like jeweled slippers scattered at the feet of the Alps.

After sampling the tourist hot spots of Veranna and Bellagio on Lake Como, we headed to Lake Orta about 40 miles west. To get there, we needed to take the train south to Navarro and then take another train north to Orta. The station is about 2 miles from the old town, so a taxi ride was in order.

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Orta dates back to the 1500’s. Cars are excluded from its center, which is composed of many small passageways more suited to pedestrians and goats. We stayed at the Hotel Olina, which really isn’t a hotel at all. Instead, it is a collection of rooms scattered throughout the town. It has a dining room adjacent to the town square — the Piazza Motta — where a sumptuous breakfast is served every morning. It is also where guests can go to access the internet.

Like most Italian villages in this area, Orta is carved into the hillside above the lake. By local tradition, all the buildings have slate roofs, but not like the ones we are used to. Here, the slate is 2 to 3 inches thick and black as coal. Coming down from the train station above, the roofs are the first architectural feature a traveler notices.


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Once in town, the view is dominated by Isola San Guilio, an island just a few hundred yards offshore in the middle of the lake that has served as a monastery for many centuries. The view from the village is beyond stunning. San Guilio floats like a mirage on the water. It reminded me of the Emerald City in The Wizard Of Oz. I will take you on a guided tour of San Guilio in a separate post soon.

We lazed around in Orta for four days under bright sunshine and cloudless skies. It seemed as though summer in Italy would never end. We walked all the pathways and alleys. We even found a footpath that goes around the peninsular where the old town is located and went swimming at a public beach we chanced upon.

Our hotel room was on the second floor directly above the Piazza Motta. I have included a video of the intriguing walkway we needed to follow to get to it. There was entertainment every night that we could watch right from our window.

On our last day, we took a boat ride to a small city at the head of the lake called Omegna. It’s mostly modern apartment buildings, but has a core of older buildings dating back centuries. On Thursdays, the steamship company reduces its fares so locals can shop at the farmers market.

We had a gelato at a restaurant near the town dock and let all our cares slip away while we basked in the sun. On the boat ride home, we saw a house on the side of the lake miles from anywhere that had a real Alpine waterfall cascading into its back yard. Spectacular!

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We thought Orta was delightful. Little did we know there were other Italian treasures  that would be revealed to us as our trip continued. I promise to share all the adventures that followed with you. In the meantime, enjoy these photos from our time in Orta.

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A Day Trip To Varenna


Rick Steves is my guru. He has made himself into the go-to guy for travel information about most of the world’s top tourist destinations. Rick Steves is a brand. He has books, videos, a website, and a booking service. He also leads a few tours personally. I want to be Rick Steves when I grow up!

There’s a place on Lake Como that Steves says is the perfect place to sit and watch the world go round. It is the town of Varenna and it is about a 10 minute boat ride from Bellano where we have been staying while visiting the Lake Como area. Drenched in Italian sunlight, kissed by warm lake breezes, and nestled at the foot of the Alps, Varenna is dripping with Old World charm.

But you don’t want to hear me carry on about our day in Varenna. You want photographic evidence of its appeal. So let’s get right to it!

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As lovely as Varenna is, its crown jewel is the Villa Monastero a short walk outside of town. With gardens stocked with trees and flowers from around the world, it is a place of surpassing beauty.

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We agreed with Rick Steves that Varenna was a truly wonderful place. It was the highlight of our trip up until that point. Little did we know the wonders that awaited us later in our journey.

Don’t go away. It gets better!


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