Looking back: The 1983 America’s Cup win

By Natsumi Penberthy 26 September 2013
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Thirty years ago Australian yachties won the America’s Cup from the USA, a trophy they’d held for over a century.

“I’LL TELL YOU what: any boss who sacks a worker for not turning up today is a bum.” Australians tend to remember these words fondly coming from the mouth of then prime minister Bob Hawke after Australia II won the America’s Cup yacht race, breaking a 132-year winning streak for the USA.

“In many ways, really, he gave people permission to celebrate,” explains John Bertrand, who skippered the Royal Perth Yacht Club vessel to its win on 26 September 1983 UTC (27 September AEST).

The America’s Cup is the oldest continuously awarded trophy in the world. It predates the American Civil War. Between 1851 and 1983, the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) had won every race and cockily bolted the Cup to a stand in their trophy room.

But in the 1970s, Aussie entrepreneur Alan Bond came up with a plan to unseat it from NYYC’s altar, and enlisted the help of self-taught boat designer and Novacastrian Ben Lexcen. It took four attempts at the Cup, but Lexcen’s winged keel model eventually steered the team into history.

Yacht racings psychological battles

In May 1983, when the Australian crew arrived at the start of the cup in Newport, Rhode Island, the eyes of the media locked on the skirt drawn tightly around the keel.

The boat’s design was a closely guarded secret, but its reputation preceded it. As the American and Australian teams faced off across the race marinas, rock songs blared from speakers on opposing yacht decks and the green and gold boxing kangaroo flag, commissioned by Bond for the race, flapped from the Aussie mast.

In the end, the Cup – won by the best of seven races over several weeks – was tied at three-all at the final start line. Australia II‘s crew battled nerves after a false start, but after swapping the lead with the New York Yatch Club’s Liberty three times, the wonders from Down Under won by 41 seconds. Rather than joy, John says his first feeling was “absolute relief that we got the job done”.

Wild celebrations as Australia finally wins the America’s Cup

“I remember seeing a cannon go off on one of the New York Yacht Club boats, but heard no sound,” John says. “The harbour was so packed with boats you could walk across it. Then Alan Bond ordered the boat to be lifted out of the water to show people the keel. People were jumping into the water to touch [it], I remember one guy in there in his dinner suit.”

The Cup hasn’t returned to New York. The next race, in 1987, was won by the San Diego Yacht Club; since then it has been won by international and US teams.

The September 2013 Cup featured an almost unrecognisable pair of carbon-fibre catamarans, with sails bigger than a Boeing 747’s wing.

An Australian James Spithill skippered the American boat that won this year, proving the Aussies can still hold their own in this now, very-expensive race.

Syndicates today pour hundreds of millions of dollars into boats and teams, a far cry from the $12 daily stipend the 1983 Australian crew received.

Source: Australian Geographic, Issue 116 (Sep/Oct, 2013)