On every occasion across the 132 years leading into the 1983 America’s Cup, no international team had successfully challenged the New York Yacht Club and taken the Cup home with them. However, the Australian syndicate representing the Royal Perth Yacht Club fielding the Australia II, skippered by Legend of Australian Sport, John Bertrand AO, fought back from a 3-races-to-1 deficit to not only end the United States’ domination of the racing series, but also snap the longest winning streak in sporting history.
Australia II was billed as one of the biggest threats to America’s dominance in the 12-metre class, however, the boat, designed by SAHOF Member Ben Lexcen AM, complete with the revolutionary ‘winged keel’, was subject to controversy from the outset of the challenger series after the New York Yacht Club alleged the keel wasn’t legal and that the boat hadn’t been “designed and constructed in country” as per America’s Cup rules. The boat was eventually ruled legal with her, and her crew allowed to participate, and they dominated the challenger series before entering the America’s Cup finals as the most promising contender to date.
In the finals, the US yacht Liberty won the first and second races by over a minute – due to Australia II suffering multiple setbacks, including equipment failure – before the Aussies returned fire in the third race, and then – after Liberty had won the fourth – the fifth and sixth, which took the series to a Cup-deciding seventh race – this was the first time the America’s Cup had been gone beyond five races. About 2000 boats turned out to watch the historic seventh race on September 24, however, disappointingly, it had to be abandoned due to unstable weather conditions.
The rescheduled final race was televised live in Australia during the early hours of September 27, 1983. The early stages of the race were cautious as neither team wanted to make a mistake that would result in a protest, and after the Australians started well, Liberty recovered and took the lead. At the start of the penultimate leg (a square run), it looked as though the Cup would stay in Newport yet again, however, two vital differences on this leg let Australia II regain the lead – her spinnaker was set and held better than Liberty, and she was able to find a few extra lifts of wind that eluded her rival. Australia II held on until both boats reached the starboard layline in amongst the spectator fleet and tacked several boat lengths ahead of Liberty before sailing to the finish to take the race by 41 seconds, thus becoming the first successful challenger in the 132 years since the schooner boat America won it in a race around England’s Isle of Wight.
It was just before dawn in Australia and, as Australians celebrated the victory in public venues across the country, Australia’s Prime Minister, Bob Hawke was interviewed at the celebration at Royal Perth YC when, after he had humorously fended off repeated questions from journalists wondering whether he would declare a public holiday, he joked that “any boss who sacks a worker for not turning up today is a bum!” which was met with rapturous laughter.
Australia II‘s win prompted US President, Ronald Regan to write to Mr Hawke to congratulate him. He wrote, “Dear Bob, if the America’s Cup had to leave the United States, I am delighted that its home will be in Australia – at least until the next race. All Australians must be justifiably proud of the extraordinary team effort, skill and sportsmanship that brought off this magnificent victory. I hope you will share with all those who had anything to do with Australia II’s success my congratulations and those of the American people.” He finished by stating that “One major consolation for us is that the next race will provide a large number of Americans the opportunity to enjoy the beauty and hospitality of Perth as they seek to bring home the Cup. Sincerely, Ronald Regan”
This victory by Australia II and her crew was a landmark event for the nation of Australia and one that transcended sailing to become the symbol of a time when Australia came of age and made our mark on the international stage.
Image: ABC/Larry Moran, Chicago