Remember how it was when the U.S. hockey team beat the Russians at the 1980 Olympics and Americans who had never even seen a hockey game and who had given up saluting the flag after fifth grade were swept up overnight on a tidal wave of patriotic fervor? Multiply that ardor a hundredfold and you'll have some idea of what winning the America's Cup Monday meant to Australians. Forget the World Series and the Super Bowl. Those are games. This was history and nationhood and destiny all riding on the backs of 11 men and on designer Ben Lexcen's flying machine, Australia II.
No matter how Skipper John Bertrand and his crew had gone about winning the Cup, they'd have been heroes forever-more Down Under. But the fact that they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the best-of-seven series at 3-3 and then came back on Monday from way behind after the first four legs of one of the most thrilling yacht races ever sailed to beat Liberty and Dennis Conner, the best the U.S. had to offer, made them heroes to the world.
The day of the Race of the Century began for Australia II just as almost every day had for the last three months. The white-hulled 12-meter was lowered from her hoist, a towline from her tender, Black Swan, was attached to her bow, and as she slid from her berth at Newport Offshore boatyard, the amplified sound of the band Men at Work drifted back toward shore: "I 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." Then the Aussies went off to sea.
Out on the 24.3-mile course the wind, which had been blowing at barely six knots from the southwest for most of the morning, turned shifty and the first attempt to start the race as scheduled at 12:10 p.m. had to be abandoned. But at 1:05, with an eight-knot southwesterly breeze established, the chase was on. Liberty won the start by eight seconds, giving Bertrand the left side of the line. The boats started off upwind on opposite tacks, each skipper gambling that his side was favored. Conner was the first to tack back toward the center, and a minute later Bertrand did the same. Then Conner tacked away again, an indication that he was already behind. At the first crossing, 16 minutes up the course, Australia II was ahead by three or four lengths. The boats crossed again, Australia II still ahead, but this time by a little less. Conner had thrown a fake tack at Bertrand and the Aussie had fallen for it, tacking needlessly and losing about a length in the process. Perhaps shaken, Bertrand kept going toward the right side of the course, leaving Liberty uncovered for an inexplicably long time, considering that his boat is capable of tacking like a ballerina. Then the wind gods must have smiled on Conner. At the third crossing the two boats were dead even, but at the fourth Liberty was ahead. Bertrand had made two mistakes on this first leg and as a result, Liberty led by 29 seconds at the windward mark. The explosion of horns and sirens from her supporters signaled their assurance that the race was already won and that the remaining 20-odd miles were merely a formality.
Liberty kept Australia II on her stern for the next three legs, even gaining 34 seconds on the second windward leg, on which both boats played the wind shifts. Conner began the fifth leg with a 57-second advantage, but made a serious mistake as the boats headed downwind. Though Liberty was already at a disadvantage because of her greater weight—some 3,000 pounds—Conner jibed onto port tack, and instead of trying to stay between Australia II and the mark, as would be expected under the circumstances, he allowed his rival to sail off by herself on starboard. It was a disastrous decision. The Australians discovered a stronger breeze, and by the time the two boats jibed back toward each other after 3.5 miles of the 4.5-mile leg, Australia II had gained substantially. And when the two boats actually crossed moments later, Australia II was ahead. For good, as it turned out. She rounded the leeward mark with a 21-second lead, having made up an astounding 1:18 on Liberty.
The final, upwind leg of 4.5 miles was the scene of a tense and desperate tacking duel, Conner trying everything he could to alter his fate. But this time Bertrand kept Liberty tightly covered until finally, with the finish line coming up, Conner took off for the spectator fleet on the right side of the course, perhaps hoping that Bertrand would follow. Bertrand did pursue Liberty for several minutes, but only until he was certain he was on the lay line for the finish. Then he tacked onto starboard once more, and the America's Cup was won.
"Australia II was a better boat today and they beat us," said Conner, his voice breaking and his eyes filling with tears. "There are no excuses."
In Week 1, Conner had sailed Liberty to victory in the first two races, but Bertrand got onto the scoreboard with a whopping three-minute, 14-second win in light air on Sept. 18. Australia II then lost to Liberty on Sept. 20, in the first race of Week 2, when Conner sailed perfectly in 10-to 15-knot winds. In the last seconds of the prestart maneuvers, Bertrand mistimed his approach by some five seconds, and Conner, seizing the opportunity, went for the hole between Australia II's bow and the line like a running back. It was a daring move. The slightest miscalculation could have produced a foul because Conner was on port tack while Bertrand, on starboard, had the right of way. But Conner succeeded and wound up with a six-second lead and the favored right side as well. He played the wind shifts, guessing right every time, and by the first mark Liberty led by 36 seconds. By the finish he had increased that lead to 43 seconds.
"It takes two boats to tango," said Conner afterward. "I guess John wanted to tack more, but he tacks very well, and we thought it would be better to do as little tacking as possible with him and try to make him play our game."
"What happened was, we gave Liberty 10 or 15 feet at the start," said Bertrand. "The standard of racing is so tight now that you can't afford to throw 15 feet away, even at 24 miles."
With the Americans ahead 3-1, Alan Bond, the multimillionaire head of Australia II's syndicate, must have had visions of the Cup slipping from his grasp; he had already failed in three previous challenges. "How's it looking?" he said. "It's like looking down the barrel of a shotgun. We're just going to go out and sail the race tomorrow. There's nothing else we can do."
Race 5 the next day was a melodrama in three acts. The wind from the south was blowing around 20 knots, and the seas were heavy as the boats reached the course. Approximately an hour before the start, Liberty broke her left jumper strut, a shroud-bearing metal arm about 70 feet up the 80-foot mast that controls the bend in the mast's top section and provides its support. Calls for a spare jumper, seizing wire and a hacksaw were radioed to Liberty's shore base and to her nearby support vessels as two crewmen, pit man Tom Rich and bowman Scott Vogel, were hoisted up the mast in bosun's chairs. There they spent the next 35 minutes rocking as if attached to the arm of a giant metronome while they hacked away the old jumper and replaced it with the spare that had been delivered to Liberty from shore. Two minutes before the 10-minute gun, the repair job was finished. One of the crewmen was lowered to the deck, and with the other still up the mast, Liberty was towed to the starting line at a 12-knot clip. Two minutes into the prestart maneuvers, however, Liberty still did not have her jib up. Her foredeck crew had torn the luff tape, which connects the sail to the fore-stay, of the preferred genoa and had to go below and break out another slightly smaller sail. That was Act I.
Act II began with Liberty being forced toward the starting line by Australia II. Two minutes before the gun, it looked as if the Aussies would force Liberty across the line early. But with 45 seconds to go, Conner escaped the trap. He tacked down the line away from Australia II, leaving Bertrand jammed against the buoy end of the line with too much time and too little distance. As Australia II's bow slid across the line a few seconds early, Conner was off. Bertrand had to jibe around and start over with an apparently devastating 37-second deficit. The radio announcers broadcasting live to Australia from the press boat could scarcely believe what they were seeing. Bruce Stannard, reporting for the Australian Broadcasting Company, might have been describing the sinking of the Titanic. "My God!" he cried. "The race is over now. It is absolutely disastrous for Australia II. All the hopes and dreams of Australia sink with this start." Curtain.
Act III: Four minutes up the first leg, Liberty's jumper strut broke again. Rich went up the mast, but this time the repair had to be made with Kevlar sail ties and duct tape. Conner fared all right for the rest of the race on starboard tack, but the masthead fell off to leeward when Liberty was on port tack, and, because the top of the mast could have snapped, he had to be somewhat cautious. Thus, the Australians, wasting no sympathy, led by 23 seconds at the first mark, 1:11 at the fourth and 1:47 at the finish. Meanwhile, the Australian broadcasters, who had earlier been plunged to the depths of despair, now rose to dizzying heights of elation. "Wake the dog, wake the children!" one of them shouted to his weary audience back home, an audience that had stayed up all night to listen. "This is the greatest moment in the history of Australian sport! Australia II is the only Australian challenger to win two races in an America's Cup, and more than that is the way she has done it." The last time any challenger had won two races was in 1934, when Great Britain's Endeavour met Harold Vanderbilt's Rainbow.
Down 3-2 the Australians were not yet off the hook, but a subtle shift had occurred. Now the pressure was on Liberty. The Aussies had already scaled a significant peak in winning twice. Liberty, on the other hand, was facing failure of increasing dimension. She had already lost once by a larger margin than any defender had since the 12-meter era began in 1958. If she lost even one more race, she would have more defeats than any U.S. boat in the 132-year history of the America's Cup.
That kind of pressure may have told on Conner in Race 6. Again he beat Bertrand at the start, this time by seven seconds. But then, 18 minutes up the first leg, after crossing Australia II's bow and then tacking back to sit on her wind, Conner sailed off on a long tack to the right, allowing Australia II to proceed unattended on the left side of the course for eight minutes. During that time the wind shifted dramatically to the south, and a wind line came down the course from which Australia II, on the left, benefited and Liberty, on the right, didn't. When they crossed again, Australia II had a huge lead, and by the windward mark she was ahead by an astounding 2:29. "Yes, we were surprised," said Bertrand after the race, "but Dennis was obviously playing the wind shifts as we were, and he figured, I assume, that they were going to the right. We were happy to be going to the left from the signs we could see on the water."
As he approached the fourth mark at the end of the second windward leg and trailing by more than three minutes, Conner made a desperate move to save the day. With Australia II already around the mark and headed downwind on a spinnaker run and Liberty still beating to windward. Conner took off on starboard tack to intercept Australia II and possibly, since he had the right of way, force contact and foul her out of the race. But Bertrand saw Conner coming, changed course to avoid him and won by 3:25.
"In yacht racing," said Bond huffily, "there are things done and things not done. That isn't done in yacht racing as far as we're concerned."
"The only chance we had of beating them was to foul them out," said Tom Whidden, Liberty's tactician. "I have a feeling they thought that was illegal, but it's not, as long as you don't alter course to seek them out. There's a rule against that. In team-racing rules you can't go off the leg that you're on and go on another leg to get a guy. But in match racing or fleet racing you can do it."
Bond called for a lay day on Friday, which gave everybody a chance to savor the historic significance and high drama that would be the seventh and last race, scheduled for Saturday. Lexcen, meanwhile, was the Australian observer at the remeasuring of Liberty. The remeasuring was required because the brain trust of the Liberty syndicate decided to remove almost 1,000 pounds of her ballast in an effort to make the boat faster in the light air that was predicted for Saturday—and that is Australia II's favorite wind condition. "We decided to soup up a little for light air because we were hopelessly outdone by them in it," said Whidden.
Saturday dawned clear, breezy and almost cold. However, no sooner had the Twelves reached the America's Cup buoy, eight miles or so out into Rhode Island Sound, than the brisk northerly became a shifting, dying northerly, and at 1:50 p.m., with the wind around four knots, the racing was postponed until Sunday. Liberty then signaled for a lay day, putting the Race of the Century off until Monday when, of course, the Cup was lost.
The Australians celebrated the end of America's 132-year reign long into the night. "This isn't goodby to Newport," Bond said. "It's an open invitation to come to Perth and try to win it back."