“Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover !”
These were the lyrics to ‘Down Under’ by Men at Work that psychologically scarred the crew of the American yacht ‘Liberty’ throughout the America’s Cup. For on the 26th September 1983 at 5.21pm and against all odds, Australia II became the first challenger to win the America’s Cup, breaking a 132 year winning streak for the New York Yacht Club. It is still arguable the greatest team sports achievement in Australian history. It was also seen as an important enhancement of national pride and confidence. Australia’s Prime Minister, Bob Hawke summed up the national feeling well (in hindsight now a little embarrassing) by telling news reporters this, “I’ll tell you what: any boss who sacks a worker for not turning up today is a bum.”
The America’s Cup is the oldest unbroken awarded trophy in the world. It amazingly predates the American Civil War when the twin masted ship ‘America’ won the Royal Yacht Squadron’s regatta (race) around the Isle of Wight in 1851. The ‘One Hundred Sovereign Cup would be renamed the America’s Cup, and between 1851 and 1983, the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) would win every single race in defence of the trophy. It would go as far as bolting the cup to a stand in its trophy room in the insane belief that no one would ever wrestle the trophy from American shores.
In September 1983, Dennis Connor’s 12 metre yacht “Liberty” held a 3-1 lead over Australia II owned by entrepreneur Alan Bond. In the best of seven races, the NYYC had crates of champagne hauled on to the docks for all to see before the fifth race believing victory was assured at the end of the day. But the Australia II crew led by skipper John Bertrand had other plans and won the fifth race and subsequent sixth race to level the series 3-3. The Americans suddenly became very nervous and anxious. Everyone from the NYYC to the White house were stunned. (US President Ronald Reagan had told Dennis Connor that “Nancy and I are rooting for you.”) No one had ever dared to come so close and the final race showdown and circus act that followed would turn the 1983 America’s Cup into legend.
Alan Bond enjoys his ride upon Australia II
The NYYC had an ‘eleven hour’ meeting before the final race and almost decided to cancel the race in panic. By fair means or foul they had kept the cup for 132 years and it wasn’t about to lose it now! It dragged up again the controversy of the summer that had plagued the cup, that being Australia II’s secret keel and design.
At the time, the rules governing the cup required that each syndicate be designed by citizens of the country it represented. On seeing Australia II race in the challenger series, the NYYC sought to disqualify the yacht on the basis of this rule. But, Ben Lexcen, who was the yachts principal designer was indeed Australian, even though much of the development was performed in the Netherlands. There was even debate around the issue that Lexcen wasn’t the principal designer and that a gentleman named Peter van Oossanen had instead contributed heavily. None of this the NYYC could prove and Australia II was allowed to race.
The other key to the controversy that had engulfed the cup was that of the secret winged keel. The United States had been a world leader in technology for a long time, but the Australians came up with a psychological masterstroke by letting the yachting community know they had invented a revolutionary new keel. In secret testing in the Netherlands it had out-performed conventional keels and this had worried the NYYC greatly to the point that they sent out scuba divers on spying missions. They simply didn’t understand what they were racing up against which added to their paranoia. To add more insult to injury the Australian would throughout the campaign hoist on top of their mast (before and after races) a flag of the boxing kangaroo as a symbol of battle.
On the deciding day of the race, a light wind blew of about eight knots. Neither syndicate wanted to make a mistake, but after a false start from the Australians, Liberty won the start by eight seconds. The lead would change three times and on the penultimate leg Australia II passed Liberty and took the lead. With her kneel a significantly a factor in picking up more speed than Liberty, Australia II crossed the finish line 41 seconds ahead.
Australia II and Liberty battle it out !
Australia II at the Western Australian Maritime Museum
Early morning Australian time, the entire country had stopped to watch the race. A sense of euphoria sang out as Australia II crossed the finish line. On television screens Prime Minister Bob Hawke uttered his famous words and even more famously, Alan Bond ordered the yacht to be lifted out of the water to show the world the secret keel.
To this day the America’s Cup hasn’t returned to New York. Though, somewhat as a consolation, the cup did return back into American hands when Dennis Connor’s “Stars and Stripes” a representative of the San Diego Yacht Club beat Kookaburra III in Fremantle, Western Australia in 1987.
US Oracle Team and Emirates New Zealand Team battling it out at this year America’ Cup 2013.
Since then it has been won by other international and United States teams. The current 2013 event had amazingly concluded yesterday with the US Oracle team coming back from trailing 8-1 a week ago to win the cup 9-8 from the New Zealand Emirates team. Almost thirty years to the day it seems that sporting miracles do still happen! The key to the US victory were a handful of Australia’s greatest sailors including Skipper James Spithill, strategist Tom Slingsby, wing trimmer Kyle Langford, grinders Will McCarthy and Joe Newton and team coach Darren Bundock. Many of the rules of yesteryear including the 12 metre yachts of 1983 are long gone, as the Oracle and Emirates teams sailed around San Francisco Bay in a pair of unrecognizable carbon fibre catamarans, both with great sails as big as a Boeing 747 wing. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on these hi tech toys and teams. It is a far cry from the $12 a day the crew of Australia II received but in the end you can’t put a price on Australian sporting immortality, can you ?
All the significant figures in Australia II triumph, including entrepreneur Alan Bond, skipper John Bertrand and former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, will be in Sydney this week celebrating the 30th anniversary. Apparently on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, they will fly a giant version of their battle flag, the now iconic boxing kangaroo.
Photo credits: All images are in the public domain, except those courtesy of Getty Images embedding service. The header image from The Providence Journal, Rhode Island, USA, Frank Gerardi, August 23, 1983 is used under the rationale of fair use, to highlight the sheer panic or circus surrounding the secrecy and use of Australia II’s kneel.