NEWPORT, R.I. -- Skipper John Kolius, the helmsman making Australians nervous, is toughening his crew with practice sessions far more grueling than the America's Cup races.
Whether practicing in the Indian Ocean off Western Australia or testing his latest 12-meter on Rhode Island Sound, Kolius is unrelenting in his insistence the men on his team focus on one goal -- bringing the coveted trophy back home.
Unrattled by the three new boats at his command or the $15 million budget of the New York Yacht Club's America II Syndicate, Kolius said he is concentrating on selecting the fastest yacht and then 'winning one race at a time.'
While Kolius' campaign has replaced Dennis Conner's Sail America group as the No. 1 challenger in the view of Australia III Syndicate head Alan Bond, deposing Dennis Conner as the skipper to beat isn't going to Kolius' head.
'It doesn't make any difference,' the 34-year-old Kolius said. 'We can't become distracted' by speculation.
'We still have to race against five other U.S. challengers' and boats representing Canada, Italy, France, England and New Zealand during four months of competition beginning Oct. 5. The winner of those challenger trials will face the Australian defender beginning Jan. 31, l987.
Kolius hasn't forgotten the dispair of three years ago when his 10-year-old yacht Courageous was eliminated from the running in favor of Conner's Liberty. The affable skipper who impressed the sailing world with his tremendous effort in an aged Twelve vowed he'd return with a new, swift boat matching the capabilities of the crew.
Kolius is back and determined to fulfill that pledge, confident he holds the essential combination of a technologically superior boat and expert seamanship.
Of Conner, Kolius said, 'There are some people you like to beat more than others.'
With the additional advantage of spending two Australian summers living and practicing in Fremantle, Kolius contends his two 11-man crews made the physical and psychological adjustment to the foreign terrain far ahead of the other contenders for the right to battle the Aussies for the Cup.
'For us, returning to Australia for our third season is like going back home,' Kolius said, taking a break from his 5:30 a.m. workout before another session in US-46, the NYYC's third and last l2-meter built for the challenge.
While other skippers contend practicing off Hawaii, the West Coast, in Lake Michigan or in foreign waters is just as taxing as the rough seas between Rottnest Island and the Western Australian shore, Kolius points out he has been racing his first new boats, US-42 and US-46, right on the course where the clash for the Cup will be decided.
With the Australians modifying the traditional, triangular six-leg course to eight, Kolius said this means more marks to round and less time to prepare for them, putting a premium on crew stamina.
Eight-hour days on the Australian waters in 20- to 25-knot winds in a rigorous program of boat testing, crew and race training have produced a 'powerful team,' the deeply tanned Kolius said, with nights spent scrutinizing video tapes of the day's efforts.
'I don't think anyone could put more pressure on us than we've put on ourselves,' Kolius said.
He is not overwhelmed by the mammoth fundraising effort or the high tech boat designs. 'It's a three-pronged attack,' Kolius said, 'but boats don't win races. You have to make them win.'
Kolius is teaming up again with John Bertrand, the San Francisco tactician he sailed with aboard Courageous, and the duo looks tougher than ever. 'I know what he (Kolius) is thinking even before he says it,' joked Bertrand.
'We're really psyched up,' Kolius said, noting he personally selected the crew from sailing enthusiasts he knew. 'I was looking for men I can win with.That's a person who can physically do the job, who doesn't get upset with criticism and won't stop trying no matter what.'
Comparing the three years of preparation to those of a competitor in the Olympics, Kolius said, 'The key is to make the practice harder than the race, and this training period has been extremely difficult.'
Kolius, a two-time J-24 World Champion, the 1976 Olympic silver medalist in soloing and the 1980 Champion of Champion winner, is also president of Ulmer-Kolius, a sailmaking firm in Norwalk, Conn.
Sail America and America II were the only challenging syndicates able to afford three new boats -- each the product of input from the military, aerospace and computer fields.
Conner, who lost the Cup to Australia in l983 after 132 years of U.S. domination, had been considered the top challenger by the Aussies. But Kolius's third place finish in the 12-Meter World championships following Australia III and New Zealand prompted Bond to drop non-participating Conner to second place.
'No matter what Dennis says, the seas off Hawaiiare not like those off Fremantle and his no-show at the championship could be a fatal mistake,' Bond said in his syndicate's latest newsletter.
While Kolius said the crew had hoped to do better in the February event, participating in the regatta was an opportunity to line up against the competition and go around the buoys with them, evaluate crew members in a pressured racing situation, test on-shore maintenance and support systems, and evaluate the durability of the boat and sails.
He has also raced Kookabura, the Australian entry representing the Taskforce '87 syndicate, French Kiss and Italy's Azzurra.
It's not the first time Kolius has been praised by the Australians. John Bertrand, the skipper who defeated Conner, described Kolius as a 'more naturally gifted yachtsman' and said he would have been more apprehensive about racing for the Cup against Kolius.
'I like Kolius's crew-oriented spirit,' added Bertrand, who is no relation to Kolius' tactician with the same name. 'He's a people's man on and off the water.'
Kolius' frankness and amiable disposition have helped polish the NYYC's tarnished image after the club tried unsuccessfully to expell the Australians from the 1983 contest. Although the spectators wearing T-shirts reading, 'I love New York. It's the yacht club I hate,' have not been forgotten, Kolius said he does not believe the negative perception persists.
'We all need to be on our best behavior,' Kolius said, 'in the same way an Olympic athlete feels representing his country.'
Kolius doesn't argue with those who downplay the time he has spent sailing in the Indian ocean.
'Water is water is water,' he said shrugging, 'but what makes the major difference is being away.'
'It's the little things that get to you, like not being able to get the football scores or basketball box scores. When you've got a bunch of guys as sports oriented as we are, that makes a difference.'
Then there's the general disorientation of being in a new place, Kolius said. 'We were really groping around at first.'
But the camaraderie of the group helped ease the transition. And the relative isolation of Fremantle has left him free to concentrate on his mission.
With a crew of veterans and newcomers to America's Cup competition, Kolius said, 'It's a terrific combination.'
'These new guys are something else. When those of us who've been around get discouraged, these guys are so up it's contagious.'
Devotion to Kolius is unanimous.
'We look up to him,' said David Calverly, 24, of Galveston Texas, in his first Cup bid. 'We know what he expects and we do it. But the fact that he's with us, even during early morning warmups, is something else.'
'He really knows how to motivate people,' said Charles Santry, 23, of Greenwich, Conn. 'He's low key and makes us feel comfortable. Maybe that's why we're so competitive.'
Kolius is excited about US-46, the outgrowth of a marine architectural firm collaborating with experts from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, McDonnell-Douglas and the Naval Ship Research and Development Center.
Once he decides which of the boats he'll race for the Cup, most likely US-46, the entry will be renamed America II.
Sticking to the campaign's penchant for secrecy, he won't even elaborate on the differences among the three Twelves.
'But this is the culmination of all the work we've done,' he said. 'We are extremely please with the results.'