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Yacht Club

Every summer weekend, a couple dozen of the city's most successful men battle for big-boat supremacy in the waters from Manhattan to Newport. And though theirs is a genteel sport, today's skippers depend as much on designer software as on America's Cup talent.

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"Pressure?" Scott Dinhofer calls out expectantly from the wheel of his 44-foot racing yacht as it careens downwind just off Newport, Rhode Island. Though he is talking to a man standing less than twelve feet away on his $250,000 sailboat, Dinhofer never looks at him or lets his attention wander from the competing boats bobbing and rolling in the ocean swells just a few yards away.

Dinhofer waits impatiently for the answer as Tom Cagnina, his spinnaker trimmer and longtime sailing partner, struggles to maintain his balance. The spinnaker sheet -- an elaborately braided line that runs from his gloved hands around a two-speed winch mounted on the cabin top, then aft to the farthest corner of the boat's stern and finally forward to the edge of the 1,540-square-foot, balloonlike sail that flies in front of the yacht more like a kite -- exerts hundreds of pounds of pressure, pulling at Cagnina. With his neck craned so he can keep his eyes firmly set on the sail (which seems to be struggling to break free from the boat), and his ears cocked for Dinhofer's repeated demands, Cagnina could be forgiven a momentary lapse as the sail flutters.

"Dammit, Tom!" the tactician, Selig Berman, barks from his position behind Dinhofer. "Get that sail in!" Berman is the one man onboard following the whole of the action in the race; the rest are absorbed in making constant minute adjustments -- the boat has enough digital readouts strewn about the deck to shame a small airplane. The team's de facto coach, Berman is a Gentle Ben­like presence onshore, thoughtful and considerate; but afloat he is stridently competitive. The eleven other men around the deck can gauge the boat's position relative to its competitors by the degree of anger and impatience in Berman's voice.

Brown-eyed Girl, Dinhofer's ten-ton J/44, has just made her first downwind jibe in the 2000 J/44 North American Championships. It's Dinhofer's target race, the beginning of his career in a prestigious big-boat class since buying the boat just weeks before.

"Pressure?" Dinhofer asks again, trying to establish a working rhythm of call and response. His steering is dependent upon Cagnina's ability to fill the sail and increase the boat's lagging speed.

Suddenly, the spinnaker sags, then ripples, and pops open like a giant paper bag. For a breath-holding split second, Cagnina waits to see if the sail will rebel.

"Pressure rising," Cagnina says finally as the boat lurches over in a clear sign of acceleration. "Lots of pressure."

Scott Dinhofer makes his living as a Wall Street recruiter, feeding the insatiable needs of banking and brokerage houses for foot soldiers and lieutenants. A typical 36-year-old product of the boom years, he lives with his wife, Benna (who will introduce herself to some of the guys on the dock at Newport by saying, "I'm the brown-eyed girl"), and their toddler, Allyson, in a large move-up house they bought four years ago in Chappaqua. Their center-hall Colonial has a den with a big-screen TV and a large portrait over the fireplace of Scott and Benna from their wedding -- and a living room that is completely devoid of furniture.

Typical, except that Dinhofer is an avid, obsessive sailor who spends the greater part of his spare time thinking, e-mailing, and talking about sailing. Last year, he staked his claim as a racer to be reckoned with by buying the biggest boat he has ever owned, his fifth in the past fifteen years, and launching a racing "program" on Long Island Sound. Sailing requires Dinhofer to spend serious money to make his boat faster and more competitive, and to devote even more serious amounts of time to coordinating his crew. And, of course, he must take time away from his family to compete in races as far away as Newport and Block Island, and -- he hopes -- even in the granddaddy of local sailing expeditions, the 635-mile Newport-Bermuda Race.

"Let's just say," observes Benna, who indeed has brown eyes, and spiraling brown hair to match, "that it's a cause for discussion. I say, 'Just make sure you have money for everything else we need.' "

Possibly because of the tension between domestic life and Dinhofer's seafaring, this year he blew a hole through the back of the house -- before they'd furnished the living room but after the boat had been refitted with winches and other goodies -- in an ambitious renovation. Scott got his boat; Benna got a new kitchen and den.

Younger than the other owners by a good decade, Dinhofer devoted years to training in other vessels and participating in other "programs." But now he has the yacht of his dreams: a sleek racer-cruiser with all the creature comforts and bunks for ten -- not to mention one that's part of a thriving competitive class. "I took Benna to look at both the J/120 and the J/44," he says by way of explaining his decision not to buy the smaller J/120 he had initially budgeted for. "She went below on the J/44, saw how nice it was, and said, 'Buy the bigger boat!' "

On the lawn of the imposing brown mansion that now serves as the New York Yacht Club's outpost in Newport, a large tent has been set up on the first evening to house the skippers' meeting. The dryness of the pro forma event where the regatta's ground rules are reviewed and any last-minute changes announced is, mercifully, lubricated by two bars the club has installed in the tent.

"These weekends can seem like a long drinking bout interrupted by some sailing," Cagnina casually observes. Dinhofer, Berman, Cagnina, and the crew mingle among the white-haired men in blue blazers and Breton red chinos who serve as the race committee, as well as with sailors from around the country.

The din of conversation can barely obscure the chortles of laughter as friends jockey to retail their latest nautical war stories, but Dinhofer has to attend to some business. Jim Bishop is the president of the J/44 class, its official head and enlightened despot, and Dinhofer needs to introduce himself. Standing in a dwindling knot of knobby-kneed men in shorts, Bishop is wearing a piercing-yellow jacket (his crew's color scheme is yellow and blue) embroidered with his boat's name, Gold Digger (he made his money in mining), and he greets Dinhofer in the warm but distracted way politicians do.

"Good to see you," Bishop says. "Lookin' forward to some great racing."

Though technologically advanced, sailboats show their premodern roots in the inordinate amount of labor required to make them run. "Organizing a crew for a regatta," says Boston lawyer Jim Richardson, who heads the ultracompetitive and not-for-the-faint-of-checkbook Farr 40 class, is "like calling up your ten best friends and offering to pay for their vacations." Tony Reaper, who manages the sailing operations for Long Island ball-bearing manufacturer John Thomson, estimates that a major regatta can cost an owner $10,000 when all the room, board, and transportation costs are tallied up.


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