1983 The real story

Editor-at-large Peter Campbell was at Newport, Rhode Island thirty years ago this September to experience the extraordinary drama and ultimate victory of Australia II in the 1983 America’s Cup Challenge Match.

Images Daniel Forster / Peter Campbell

September 26, 2013 will mark the 30th anniversary of the day the famous ‘wing-keeled wonder from Down Under’, Australia II, ended the longest winning streak in world sporting history, 132 years, when she defeated the New York Yacht Club’s Liberty to win the America’s Cup.

Not only that, it was the most drawn-out defence in the history of the America’s Cup, sailed off Newport, Rhode Island, with the seven races and other attempts to race spread from September 13 though to September 26.

The Cup was a grand joust between two of the world’s finest helmsmen, John Bertrand representing Royal Perth Yacht Club with Australia II, Dennis Conner skippering the New York Yacht Club’s Liberty. That was back in the grand days of the 12-metre class, so-called ‘lead mines’ designed and built within the metre rule.

Australia II designer Ben Lexcen, left, shares a moment with the formidable skipper of Liberty, Dennis Conner.

The ‘twelves’ were ideal for match racing. While Australia II and Liberty differed in concept, in reality there was little difference between them in boat speed, except when it came to running deep under spinnaker, where Australia II excelled. And that, plus fine tactics, accurate steering and fine trimming of a more stable spinnaker built for light airs, gave her the winning edge in race seven – and the America’s Cup.

From my observations as a daily newspaper reporter at Newport for several weeks before the Challenge Match, it was clear that Alan Bond had a potential Cup winner in Australia II, with Ben Lexcen not only creating the then-secret winged keeled, but also a beautiful underwater shape, keel, rudder and trim tab.

We almost lost, however, because of technical mishaps in the first two races, but the courage and tenacity of Bertrand and his fine crew of Aussies finally unbolted the seemingly immovable ‘Auld Mug’ from its pedestal in the New York Yacht Club.

Not only that, they made Men At Work’s Down Under an alternative sailing national anthem and the boxing kangaroo flag the international emblem for Australian sportsmen and women.

Patriotic fervour reaches fever pitch as Newport Rhode Island turned green and gold on that September day.

Most Aussies I know can recall where they were on the morning of September 26, 1983, when Australia II won that epic battle. As Alan Bond said at a 20th anniversary celebration: “People remember Hillary for climbing Mount Everest, and they will remember us for winning the Cup.”

Bond and Bertrand will join other members of the victorious crew and its support team at a special 30th anniversary luncheon at Sydney’s Hilton Hotel on September 26. A feature will be a discussion panel between Bond, Bertrand and other members of the crew.

“Looking back at 1983, Australia was coming out of a tough recession, we had been severely affected by bushfires and floods,” Bertrand said recently. “I think the way we were able to come back from 3-1 down, with our backs to the wall, to break the 132-year winning streak by the Americans captured the imagination of the Australian population, and in many ways that continues today.

“The campaign was the ultimate team performance, our team culture was of resilience. We came back from the dead to win,” he added.

A month before the 30th anniversary of the 1983 victory, Bertand and other crew members will gather once again, this time in San Francisco to experience the current America’s Cup.

The full version of this article in Sails magazine (print and digital editions) has an exclusive interview with John Bertrand, extracts from a fascinating Q&A session at Sydney Amateur Sailing Club with Australia II’s tactician Hugh Treharne, while I look back at that historic team at Newport, Rhode Island, culminating in the ‘race of the century.

Peter Campbell, who watched Australia II’s epic victory from a nearby press boat, recalls just how it went thirty years ago.

Alan Bond’s bid to win the America’s Cup became even more dedicated following the 1980 Challenge which saw Australia win one race against Dennis Conner’s diligence and professional hardness at the helm of the race-tuned US defender Freedom.

Bond felt the gap between the defender and challenger was gradually being whittled away and he announced immediately that he had commissioned two new designs from Ben Lexcen. He named as skipper of the 1983 challenger the Olympic bronze medallist in the Laser class, John Bertrand.

Encouraged by the narrowing of the gap and by the New York Yacht Club’s decision to set aside its draconian rule forbidding any yacht to use technology and equipment from any country but its own, clubs from all over the world sent in challenges. Australian clubs lodged four challengers and Great Britain two. France and Sweden entered again, along with Canada (challenging for the first time since 1881) while Italy entered with a syndicate headed by none other than the Aga Khan.

The NYYC, acknowledging the increased competitiveness of the foreign syndicates, began to make moves to protect their coveted Cup. Among these was a manoeuvre to have bendy masts, used so effectively by Australia in the 1980 America’s Cup campaign, outlawed and stipulated that all yachts had to be crewed by nationals only.

All the challengers planned long and meticulous campaigns. The assault on the Cup had never reached such extreme heights of intensity and fierce rivalry. Transferred to the water the hopes and dreams of the foreign contingent paled against the awesome determination of the Australians in the form of Australia II.

She soon won the two elimination series to become the official challenger with unnerving ease, confirming that Alan Bond had indeed produced a very remarkable boat. The secret winged keel was, of course, her most innovative feature but this was kept out of sight until she returned to her dock after winning the seventh and final race of the match for the America’s Cup.

The cloak of secrecy that surrounded the controversial keel allowed the Australian camp to keep the tension and pressure on the Americans at fever pitch.

The Australia II team ensured the infamous winged keel remained a mystery until after the Auld Mug was safely secured.

Well aware of Australia II’s potential and with much conjecture about the shape of the boat’s underwater hull and appendages, the New York Yacht Club launched an attack to declare the winged keel illegal and sink the challenger before it got into the water.

However, the Australian team had done their homework, and had prepared themselves for the inevitable confrontation with the NYYC committee. Bond’s syndicate had researched the legalities of a winged keel thoroughly and despite the NYYC’s final appeal to the International Measurements Committee, the Australian challenger was declared a legal International 12-metre Class yacht, meeting all the requirements as Challenger for the America’s Cup.

And so the greatest sailing contest in the history of the ‘Auld Mug’ began on Rhode Island Sound, off the historic port city of Newport, Rhode Island on Tuesday September 13, 1983. Aboard a spectator fleet estimated at between 1500 and 2000 boats, 30 coast guard vessels, at least 60 helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and the massive Goodyear blimp, thousands of onlookers waited with apprehension.

Australia II benefactor Alan Bond will revisit the 1983 America’s Cup triumph at a special anniversary event at the Sydney Hilton on September 26.

At precisely 12.10 on September 14, 1983, the NYYC Race Committee, aboard Black Knight, dressed in Brenton red trousers, black reefer jackets, white shirts and NYYC ties, hoisted the course signals in a light NNE breeze. But the wind shifted dramatically in direction for the next two hours, and at 2.08pm, the race was abandoned.

Supporters, mostly of NYYC, aboard one of the 2000 spectator boats.

The America’s Cup match race eventually began the following day and with it the most extraordinary yachting contest in history,

The first two races between John Bertrand, helming Australia II, and Liberty, steered by the experienced Dennis Conner, showed that while Australia II was a formidable opponent she was vulnerable in certain conditions. For example, she could not stay head to wind for long periods in luffing matches leading up to a race start.

While this marginally reduced Australia II’s competitive edge over Liberty at race starts, it was gear failure that very nearly brought her to her knees.

Australia II’s hopes were lifted early in race one when she rounded the first windward mark eight seconds ahead of Liberty amid the howls and whoops and horns from nearby Aussie spectators. It was the first time in the modern history of the America’s Cup that a challenger had led an American defender around the first mark of the course.

The race continued boat-for-boat with Liberty regaining the lead. Approaching the leeward mark for the last time, the two twelves were engaged in a fierce gybing duel when, in a moment of severe stress, one of Australia II’s underdeck pulleys linking the rudder to the wheel ripped out of its welded jacket. Without steering, Australia II went into a wild, out of control broach.

Tactician Hugh Treharne immediately dashed below to sort out the damage while helmsman John Bertrand regained control, steering the boat for ten minutes under trim tab alone. But the damage was already done and Liberty sailed away to windward to win race one by one minute and 10 seconds.

The second race was won comfortably by Liberty, but in fact the Australians had virtually lost it before it began. Six minutes before the start, while Australia II was gybing in a violent 24-knot gust, the uppermost of two specially hardened steel lugs used to secure the mainsail headboard at the masthead broke. The headboard dropped, ripping part of the mainsail and dropping the boom to deck level. Eventually, by adjusting the forestay, the crew was able to return some tension to the rig and Bertrand again took on Liberty in a tacking duel up the first leg. However, when on port tack Australia II looked like a pathetic white bird with a crippled wing.

In a courageous effort, mainsail trimmer Colin Beashel spent most of the two reaching legs in the bosun’s chair high above the deck of Australia II securing the damaged headboard. Clinging precariously to the mast he punched a hole in the aluminium flat reinforcing the headboard with a marlin spike, then threading Kevlar tape through the hole and securing it to the masthead.

In the end, Liberty had a comfortable win, by one minute and 13 seconds, again perhaps by default as a result of Australia II’s breakages.

With things looking rather desperate for the Australians going into the third race two down, Australia II stormed home to win by three minutes and 14 seconds, the largest winning margin by a challenger in the history of the Cup.

There was no doubt that Australia II had the ability to win the match, but Conner had shown that superior design needed the equivalent in sailing skills to draw the best performance out of the boat.

Australia II lost the start of race three badly, trailing by 37 seconds, but her eagle-eyed afterguard saw a slight wind shift on the waters of Rhode Island Sound. Bertrand steered Australia II into a 10-degree wind shift that put them in front of Liberty. Once ahead, Bertrand and his crew covered Liberty’s every move and pulled away to register an impressively resounding win.

In race four, Liberty won the start by six seconds, and the race by less than a minute. Conner sailed away, his tactician Tom Whidden picking virtually every wind shift. At the first mark Liberty was 36 seconds ahead. At the leeward mark at the end of the triangle the margin was 48 seconds. Australia II was never able to lower the margin, prompting John Bertrand’s comment back at the dock, “I’ll never endure a humiliation like that again!”

The tall Australian skipper was as good as his word. At 3-1 down, Australia II was about to earn its place in America’s Cup history.

After so many mechanical faults in the earlier races, there were those (Australia II supporters, of course) who thought it fitting and proper that the Americans have some of their own. An hour before the start of race five, Liberty, while tuning up with trial horse Freedom, bent the stainless steel ram that tensions the aluminium jumper struts.

The struts collapsed, and with them went effective control of the upper third of the US boat’s mast and along with it, control of the upper part of Liberty’s powerful mainsail.

A fast support boat dashed the 11 nautical miles back to Castle Hill at the entrance to Newport’s Narrangansett Bay to pick up spare jumpers. The replacement was passed to Liberty’s crew just two minutes before the ten minute warning gun sounded.

Minutes into the race, Liberty’s port jumper strut gave way again and Conner was forced to sail without proper mast tension on port tack. It was a severe disadvantage which Bertrand tried to capitalise on, and after a tense tacking duel Australia II rounded the top mark 23 seconds ahead, increasing to a winning margin of one minute and 47 seconds.

It was the first time in America’s Cup history that a 12-metre challenger had won two races in a Cup match. Gretel II finished first in two races in 1970 but was disqualified from one by what was then the NYYC’s own protest committee. This evoked Sir Frank Packer’s famous comment: “Protesting the New York Yacht Club is like complaining to your mother-in-law about your wife!

Thursday September 22 was an historic day for Australia II and the America’s Cup competition. With the score at 3-2, Dennis Conner needed just one more win to keep the historic silver trophy bolted to its base in the NYYC’s clubhouse in New York – for John Bertrand it was do or die.

For the third successive race, Bertrand misjudged the start of race six, giving Conner an early lead and command of the race tactics. However, the light breeze was patchy on the first windward leg and Australia II lifted into a favourable shift that took her to a huge lead of two minutes and 29 seconds.

In a desperate move, Conner seemingly attempted to force a foul (and possible disqualification of the Australians) by deliberately sailing close to Australia II, with Liberty close hauled on the right-of-way starboard tack and Australia II running downwind under spinnaker, comfortably in front. Bertrand anticipated the American’s move and hardened up, sailing a couple of boat lengths clear of the defender as they passed each other.

Australia II went on to win race six by three minutes and 25 seconds, the widest margin ever by a 12-metre, and thus becoming the first challenger in the history of the America’s Cup to square a match three-all.

Newport, Rhode Island erupted as Australia II sailed proudly back into Rhode Island Sound. News stories flashed around the world and the American population, most of whom had never before heard of an elite yachting event called the America’s Cup, began to take notice.

Americans in their thousands joined hundreds of Australians to stand twelve deep around the Australia II dock, cheering wildly as loudspeakers blasted the challenger’s anthem, ‘Down Under’.

After 21 years of trying with four challengers, Alan Bond, the tubby English-born one-time sign-writer who had become a multi-millionaire and yachting aficionado, looked to be on the brink of achieving his goal.

Bond called a lay day before the final and deciding race, giving his crew a day’s rest and time for yet another meticulous check of the boat by the shore team.

The first attempt by NYYC’s race committee to conduct the seventh and deciding race on September 24 was abandoned after two aborted attempts.

Another start was aborted on the morning of Monday September 26, but at 1.05pm, in a light breeze of 205 degrees, what was to be the race of century finally got under way in front of a huge spectator fleet, estimated at 2000 boats, while around the world millions viewed the showdown on television. In Australia it was well after midnight but in many a home and in yacht clubs, the lights burned until dawn.

Dennis Conner and the Liberty team in relaxed mood prior to the epic final race.

Dennis Conner again won the start after some cautious manoeuvres by both skippers. He immediately went looking for shifts that might compensate for Australia II’s phenomenal light air ability. Affectively covering Australia II, Liberty rounded the first windward mark 29 seconds ahead.

The Americans had picked up a further 16 seconds by the wing (gybe) mark. A 10-degree windshift had changed this first broad reach into a very tight one, but it also made the next leg to the leeward mark a square run, a point of sailing on which Australia II was clearly superior. She closed to just 23 seconds astern of Liberty at the bottom mark.

Conner sailed a magnificent next windward leg, covering Bertrand’s every move and increasing Liberty’s lead to 57 seconds. Aboard the press boat, Hell Cat, many media and other spectators claimed the race was over.

But Australia II’s incredible downwind speed was again to prove to be her trump card. Two-thirds of the way down the final downwind leg, Australia II, sailing deeply and with a new, more stable spinnaker, had run down Liberty and at the end of the leg she was 21 seconds in front.

Aboard Hell Cat, it was an awe-inspiring sight, watching the big white kite with its green and gold bars, slip past Liberty’s red, white and blue spinnaker.

Watching from the press boat Hell Cat (a very descriptive name) I thought at first that Conner had picked the more favourable gybe. Then, peering through binoculars from half a mile astern, I realised that Bertrand and his afterguard had decided there was no point in following Liberty. In fact, they felt there was more wind to the right.

They sailed into more pressure in the light to moderate breeze and when the two twelves came together in the leeward mark Australia II was in front, rounding 21 seconds ahead.

But there was still four and a half nautical miles to sail and Conner showed he would fight every inch of the way. The American did everything possible that all the years of hard professional yacht racing had instilled in him to break through, but Bertrand covered Liberty with all the intensity of a man within reach of greatness and glory.

In one last desperate attempt to outfox the challenger, Conner lured the Australians to the very edge of the spectator fleet on the starboard side of the layline in the hope that Australia II might get entangled in the confused sea and dirty air from the armada of spectator boats.

But Bertrand kept his cool and, with constant advice from tactician Hugh Treharne and navigator Grant Simmer, waited until he was certain Australia II would lay the finish line, he turned the 12-metre, leaving Liberty trailing in his wake.

As Australia II approached the committee boat, on starboard tack, her crew sat tense and silent, Bertrand gently moving the helm to maintain optimum speed in the light breeze. Even when they heard the gun and the white smoke drifted past there was a strange, stunned silence. Australia II had sensationally won the final race by 42 seconds and the America’s Cup, 4-3.

That moment of silence for the crew did not last long, as Alan Bond and Ben Lexcen came sweeping alongside in an inflatable to join those magnificent men on their sailing machine.

Aboard the spectator and media boats emotions ran high. We had been witness to an unprecedented event in world sport, an international challenge match never seen before.

Aboard Hell Cat, an emotional Aussie journalist roared into his microphone to a huge audience: “Stand up Australia, stand up Australia and gives these boys a cheer… Australia II has won the America’s Cup.”

The late Ben Lexcen (with glasses) basks in Australian yachting’s most famous victory, which Alan Bond (right) described as the “sporting triumph of the century.

Bruce Stannard, in a voice cracked with emotion, yelled into his microphone to a vast ABC radio audience: “We’ve won; we’ve won the America’s Cup!”

For newspaper reporters, back in those days before mobile phones and lap tops, our only communication from the water was to stand in a queue waiting for limited use of the marine radio phone. Filing our main stories by telex or very basic computer system (mine broke down at that crucial moment) had to wait until we returned to Newport, more than an hour later.

Most daily newspapers in Australia had extended their late edition deadlines, with the innovative Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial bringing out a special 7am Victory Edition with a huge image of the ‘Auld Mug’ and a green and gold banner headline with ‘It’s ours! Aussies sail into victory’ over my story, filed eventually from Newport, Rhode Island.

Wild celebrations continued through the late afternoon and evening as Australia II sailed sedately back into Newport Harbour and through a maze of small craft slid back into her berth. By this time, thousands of people had packed the outside of the compound, hopefully waiting to see the fantastic but until then, secretive, winged keel.

“Let’s see the keel… let’s see the keel” they chanted until eventually a beaming Alan Bond stood on the stern of the Australia II tender Black Swan and gave the signal like an orchestra conductor commanding a curtain rise.

Alan Bond stood on the stern of the Australia II tender Black Swan and gave the signal like an orchestra conductor commanding a curtain rise.

Bruce Stannard, editor of the book Australia II – The Official Record, wrote:

“Up, up, up it inched like a striptease artist, gradually revealing more and more of that white curved underbody that had remained hidden behind the green canvas skirts for so long. As it rose, there was a growing crescendo of cheers and applause, as first the keel’s radical forward sloping edge was revealed, then the short thick trunk, beautifully tapered in an aerodynamic curve, like a powerful glistening aircraft wing. Finally, the tips of the wings broke the surface, exposed to the world under the glare of arc lights and a thousand popping camera flash lights.

“The keel looked for all the world like a beautiful living thing, a sea creature from the very depths of the ocean, suddenly risen to see for itself what all the noise and fuss was about. It was a strange, almost irridescent blue and white, a camouflage of colours to mask its true shape from aerial photographers who might have captured an image of it on a clear day.

“All the hassles with the NYYC, all the intrigue of Canadian divers, all the accusations and innuendos about Dutch designers had created a aura about this winged keel that drew people forward and compelled them to reach out and touch it. They stroked it, kissed it and hugged it. One man paddled out on a surfboard, dressed in a tuxedo carrying a bottle of champagne and a glass. He plonked the bottle on the left hand wing and raised a glass in salute.”

Jubilant scenes greeted the sensational post-race unveiling of the winged keel.

Many more glasses were raised in Newport that night, but none of us had any concept of the nationwide elation and celebrations throughout Australia led by Prime Minister Bob Hawke. All I knew was the constant demand from my editor at the Sun- News Pictorial for “more copy…more copy” for a Victory feature.

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