Wresting the Cup from the U.S. has given the Aussies a new sense of national pride—and a major challenge in preparing for their defense
In the dark of the night of Sept. 26, 1983, the America's Cup was removed from its home of 132 years with the New York Yacht Club, since the turn of the century on Manhattan's West 44th Street, and was transported by armored van to Newport. The next day, in a brief, sunstruck ceremony on the terrace of Marble House, a mansion formerly owned by the Vanderbilts, it was turned over to its new caretakers.
Today the address of the America's Cup is the Royal Perth Yacht Club, Pelican Point, Perth, Western Australia. It's a new home in a fresh new world where winter is summer and Australia II is more than just a boat with a funny keel. But Americans who were sad to see the Auld Mug go can rest assured that it has found a safe, if perhaps temporary, home in Perth. It resides in solitary splendor in a glass-fronted, red-upholstered case set into the east wall of the second-floor observation lounge of the club, where it's watched over by a security company, a set of alarms and Brian Gunn, the club manager. Gunn, a pleasant, soft-spoken man whose crisp white uniform alone would give a vandal pause, is proud to point out that more people have seen the Cup in the 16 months it has been in Australia than in its 132 years at the New York Yacht Club.
"Winning the Cup was a wonderful thing for the Cup itself," says Ben Lexcen, the designer of Australia II, laughing and letting his imagination run free. "It has been liberated. It feels like it's its own person, doesn't belong to a bunch of turkeys anymore. So the Cup is there, all shiny, saying, 'Come and get me, anybody who wants me.' Even though it's still the America's Cup, it no longer belongs to the Americans, it belongs to the world. It was a prisoner for 132 years and now it's out. Out and away."
February 11, 1985
As he speaks, Lexcen, Australia's home-grown hero-genius, sits on the veranda of his house high on a hill in the Sydney suburb of Seaforth, looking down on the clear blue water of Middle Harbour. The sun of the southern hemisphere summer shines on the flowers in his lush garden. Now and then a kookaburra cackles in a gum tree nearby.
"I didn't think anything could be so powerful as winning the Cup," he says. "People every day still come up to me in the street and shake my hand. That sort of thing doesn't happen with champion tennis players or cricket players. Those things are over in a week and forgotten. This had a profound effect on people."
"We're not a very nationalistic country like the U.S.," says Gail Stewart, a public relations woman in Sydney. "This did more for national pride than any other thing in our lifetime. Those guys are heroes."
"For a long time Australians had an image of themselves as good at sport, swimming and tennis particularly," says Andrew Green, a scientist from a suburb of Sydney. "But most of that had gone by the board. This was an opportunity to play again on the world stage."
There's universal agreement in Australia that nothing except the end of World War II has created a state of patriotic euphoria to equal Australia II's winning of the Cup. People still like to talk about where they were and what they were doing when it happened. "The most unusual story I heard," says Lexcen, "was about a group of people up in the mountains in Tibet, climbing around Mount Everest. They'd been there trekking for four weeks, and they came to a Sherpa village that was 20,000 feet up or something. They got there an hour or two after the final Cup race was finished, and the people there said, 'Oh, you're Australian. Congratulations! You won the America's Cup.' "
"A nation of zombies" was how Prime Minister Robert Hawke described his countrymen, who had sat in front of their television sets well into the night in a ritual of agony and elation as Lexcen's revolutionary 12-meter fought her way back from seemingly certain defeat at the hands of America's Dennis Conner and his red-hulled Liberty.
For the residents of Sydney, the Cup was won at 7:20 on the morning of Sept. 27. An hour later, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, usually choked with city-bound traffic at that time, was empty, as Sydneysiders stayed home by the thousands to watch the celebrations 12,000 miles and 14 hours away in Newport. Earlier, at Sydney International Airport, passengers arriving on Pan Am's Flight 811 from Honolulu had refused to leave their seats until they were assured that the radio broadcast of the race they'd been listening to on the plane could be heard in the transit lounge.
As the morning wore on, Sydneysiders stood on street corners singing Waltzing Matilda. The biggest Australian flag anybody had ever seen appeared on the Harbour Bridge as if by magic. By noon the city's hotels and restaurants were running out of champagne. A woman reported receiving a call from a Pennsylvanian who was telephoning Australians at random to congratulate them. A newspaper dealer delivered the morning paper to the American consulate with a sympathy card enclosed. And The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the city's power demand had been 200 megawatts higher than usual during the night.
When dawn lit the skyscrapers of Perth, 2,400 miles away across the vast emptiness of the island continent, the vigil had ended and the celebration was beginning at the Royal Perth. The modern white clubhouse on the banks of the Swan River was jammed, and more people were arriving. They danced and sang, shouted and cried, the same as everywhere else Down Under, but in Perth, the isolated western outpost, the victory was especially sweet.
The party was still in full swing a few hours later when Hawke, a Western Australian himself, came to join the fun. The celebrants sprayed him with champagne, and a big hand reached out of the crowd to tousle his silver hair. "Any boss who sacks anybody for not turning up today is a bum," said Hawke, a Labor man.
American visitors of a certain age find Perth reminiscent of the Los Angeles of 40 or 50 years ago. It's a clean, new, prosperous, growing city and the capital of Western Australia, which is three times the size of Texas, with a population density of 1.4 persons per square mile (as compared with Texas's density of 47.6). Its climate is spectacular; the dry, desert air is crystalline. The waters are clean—even the Swan River is swimmable—and the hundreds of miles of white sand beaches are virtually empty.
Until 20 years ago Perth was a sleepy backwater, a hick town to residents of Sydney and Melbourne. But in the 1960s major iron ore deposits were discovered in the northwest part of the state, and the Western Australian mineral boom was on. Since then, gold, diamonds, natural gas and a host of less glamorous resources have been added to the list, and as a result Perth has become one of Australia's richest cities.
If Perth was sleepy during the first half of the 20th century, its port, Fremantle, a town of 24,000 situated 10 miles downriver, where the Swan meets the sea, was dead to the world. Aptly described as Abilene on the Ocean because of the frontier Victorian style of its architecture—Fremantle's warehouses with their ornate facades and turreted roofs were built in the boom years of the Kalgoorlie gold rush at the turn of the century—it will be the center of activity two years from now during Australia's first defense of the Cup.
Fremantle has a lively ethnic mix, including Italians, Portuguese, Greeks, Yugoslavs and Anglo-Aussies, and has sprouted sidewalk cafes and open-air markets that give it the air of a Mediterranean fishing village. Cappuccino sells almost as fast as Swan Lager these days.
Summers (October through March) are hot in Perth and Fremantle. Temperatures frequently lurk around the 100° mark, and a fierce sun bakes the landscape. Almost daily, however, relief arrives in the form of a strong sea breeze from the southwest, known as the Fremantle Doctor. It is the Doctor that makes the sailing off Fremantle among the best anywhere. Seventeen knots of wind is about average, 25 knots is not unusual, and the seas are steep and sharp. The America's Cup races, both trials and finals, will be sailed about five miles offshore, between the beach town of Scarborough and Rottnest Island. On a clear day, which is the rule rather than the exception, with a good pair of binoculars it will be possible to watch at least part of the action from the shore.
Don Wieringa, the 42-year-old owner of Fremantle Boat Lifters, the largest, busiest and tidiest boatyard at Fishing Boat Harbour, is one of several citizens of Fremantle who stand to profit from the invasion of people, money and boats that has already begun in preparation for the Cup races. At present Wieringa is landlord to the America II syndicate of the New York Yacht Club because he was the first Fremantle businessman to see the potential for profit in the 12-meter onslaught. Before Australia II had even crossed the finish line in the seventh race in 1983, Wieringa had sent an associate to Newport to report back on how his facility, which services 700 lobster boats a year, could best be fitted out for yachts. When the Americans arrived in Fremantle in March 1984 looking for waterfront space, Wieringa was ready for them. He says he offered his facility to the local syndicate that owns Australia II first but was turned down. "Maybe they wanted it for nothing," he says. "But I didn't build a $5 million facility to give it away." (The local syndicate says Wieringa's place didn't meet its needs.) Other American syndicates, including Dennis Conner's group from the San Diego Yacht Club, tried to entice Wieringa away from the NYYC with offers to better what the club was paying, but by then Wieringa had become friends with the NYYC advance party, and the deal was done.
In Fremantle there are those who say that Wieringa doesn't sleep at night, that he puts his head on a pillow merely long enough to think up new ways of making money. In fact, Wieringa does lie awake—worrying. He worries about the $10 million marina the government is building to house eight challenging and defending syndicates. "They haven't got the expertise to do it. I've seen their plan. It's not going to work," he says. He worries about the Fremantle economy. "It's a sleepy hollow, never mind the historic buildings. Some people spending a lot of money now will make some, but what about after? There are not many people here. In a 200-mile radius of Newport there are 30 million people." And he worries about a man he calls the Grouch. The Grouch, known in Newport as Tuna, is Arthur Wullschleger, a 67-year-old textile manufacturer from Fort Lauderdale who's the advance man-operations manager for the America II syndicate. Wullschleger is a gruff but kind person who has been an NYYC member for 32 years. Wieringa, like all card-carrying Aussies, professes to hate the NYYC, but he is very fond of the Grouch. To accommodate his ambivalence, he places Wullschleger and the NYYC in separate mental compartments. "The Grouch reminds me so much of my father it bloody kills me," Wieringa says. "I'm afraid the old fellow won't be able to stand the pressure."
Wullschleger spent World War II setting up advance bases in the Aleutians and in the South Pacific for the U.S. Navy, and he has brought that experience to bear in Fremantle. His responsibility is the establishment and operation at Fremantle Boat Lifters of the shore facility for America II, the 12-meter designed by Sparkman & Stephens that John Kolius will steer.
"Ever see three years' worth of sandpaper?" asks Wullschleger, throwing open the door of a cabinet in one of the four shipping containers that now serve as machine shop, rigging shop and storage space. "We travel like a turtle. We take our own shells with us."
With half an acre of work space, a shed as big as an airplane hangar, plans to build a separate sail loft, one experimental 12-meter already in Australian waters, another in the works and a third budgeted if the knowledge gained from the first two indicates it's necessary, the NYYC challenge is, at this point, well ahead of the field.
"We've found out what the Australians have been up against all these years," says Tom Ehman, the young executive director of the America II syndicate, of the complexities of racing far from home. "The other syndicates have no idea. But this facility is better than anybody's ever had in Newport, and the people have been terrific. If you ask somebody for directions they'll say, 'Follow me, I'm going that way.' Of course, you know they're not."
Captain Beresford Noble is the executive director of the Western Australian government's America's Cup committee and previously was general manager of the Fremantle Port Authority. He's in charge of nudging 25 government departments and agencies involved in the staging of the Cup defense from planning into action. One of his first acts was to recommend that every department begin a day-by-day countdown to the beginning of the trials in October 1986. "What caught us unaware," says Noble, "was that people would start so early. We didn't realize they would need completed facilities in less than a year from the end of the last Cup."
More startling to the Australians than the speed with which the challengers began to arrive was their number. The congregation at Newport in 1983 of seven challengers, three prospective defenders, various trial horses and even several Twelves used as spectator boats constituted the largest 12-meter fleet ever assembled—21. By April of last year, 24 potential challengers from nine countries" had each deposited a non-refundable $12,000 entry fee with the Royal Perth. Several have since dropped out of the running, but current guesses as to how many will actually show up in Perth range from eight to 18 syndicates and many more boats than that. "The harbor will be overloaded, that's all there is to it," says Noble. "But we will try to minimize the inconvenience."
On the federal level the man in charge is John Brown, Australia's minister for sport, recreation and tourism. "The government has allotted 30 million Australian dollars over two years to smooth the way and create permanent facilities," says Brown. "There are also funds to upgrade the Perth airport, to improve the marina, etcetera, but not to sponsor any yacht. I don't think there would be a great deal of public support for that."
In Australia, as elsewhere, yachting is largely a rich man's sport. The average Australian will give the boys on Australia II a heartfelt cheer, but he does not care to pay for the boat. That's the rich man's burden. Localism is also a factor in the government's reluctance to commit money to individual syndicates. The six states and two territories that make up Australia are ferociously chauvinistic. Money spent on one state's effort would be vigorously opposed by the others. Therefore, the Australian syndicates, of which there are five active, are scrambling for corporate benefactors. Considerable resentment exists over the fact that the Royal Perth has already picked off six of the choicest companies in the country to help defray the cost of staging the Cup events, instead of helping pay for the actual defense.
The government hopes that a smooth Cup season will increase tourism significantly, especially from the States. Its recent TV ad campaign in 12 U.S. cities to promote the Wonder Down Under—the ad features one of Australia's favorite entertainers, Paul ("We'll slip another shrimp on the barbie for ya") Hogan—is intended to aid that cause.
Studies indicate that a million people will visit Perth in the 12 months beginning February 1986. "The America's Cup has created an awareness that never existed," says Dion Bromilow, an officer with the Western Australia Tourism Commission. "No amount of money could have bought that advertising. Now people say, 'Oh, yes. Perth. The America's Cup.' It was a tremendous shot in the arm that Western Australians never foresaw—except Alan Bond."
Bond, the feisty little head of the Australia II syndicate who finally put Perth on the world map after three unsuccessful previous challenges, is known in the Australian press as a "takeover merchant." Hardly a day passes without reports that he is acquiring, or threatening to acquire, yet another major Australian company. His interests range widely, from the Swan Brewery in Perth to diamond mines in the Kimberly region in the north of the state. "Bondy's hobby is business," says Lexcen. "He's good at it. He plays at it like a riverboat gambler playing poker. He's not boring. He risks."
Bond lives in a palatial establishment overlooking the Swan River in the Perth suburb of Dalkeith. He's said to own a great collection of French Impressionist paintings. Yet only 30 years ago Bond was a sign painter in Fremantle. An example of his early work can still be seen there—a large red dog on a white wall of the Great Southern Roller Flour Mills. It's an ad for the mills' Dingo brand flour.
Bond is involved in the Cup defense every day by phone and he drops in at the Fremantle headquarters of the syndicate .(now called America's Cup Defence 1987 Limited) once a month or so. Supervision of the operation is left to John Longley, a former schoolteacher known as Chink, and Skip Lissiman. Longley was a grinder and Lissiman a sail trimmer on Australia II in '83. Both are sandgropers, native Western Australians. "It's not a good nickname, sand-groper," Longley says. "It's not derogatory enough. South Australians are crow eaters. Crow eater is nice and derogatory." Longley's and Lissiman's domain is only a few hundred feet down Mews Road from the Americans at Fremantle Boat Lifters, and it's comparable in size and self-sufficiency.
"It's too good, really," says Newton Roberts, first mate on Black Swan, the tender that tows Australia II to practice races each morning. "We've got everything under one roof for once. In Newport, if you needed a crane it was always 'out in Middletown.' "
The Bond group has an arrangement with the South Australian syndicate headed by Sir James Hardy, the affable Adelaide winegrower who skippered three Australian challengers in Newport and was backup helmsman to John Bertrand in 1983. Gentleman Jim and his organization paid Bond $600,000 for Ben Lexcen's next 12-meter design (Lexcen has a contract with Bond's syndicate), for the temporary use of Australia II as training vessel and trial horse against the new Lexcen and for a full suit of sails designed by New Zealand's Tom Schnackenberg, who designed the sails for Australia II and is considered by many the best at his craft in the world. In addition to money, Bond gets use of the new boat for the first eight weeks after launching, which will be in March.
The arrangement is an ingenious one. South Australia gets the benefit of the talent that Bond has tied up, and Bond's syndicate gets a Lexcen boat to experiment with without having to pay for it.
Still another Lexcen 12-meter, Australia III, is scheduled to be delivered to Bond's syndicate in September 1985. It's the odds-on favorite to defend, even before it comes off the drawing board, but that's all right with Hardy. "If at the end of the day South Australia can be the defender, that's terrific, but I really think that Australia's only chance to keep the Cup is to engender the best competition we can," he says. "So in that way I want to stay as close as I can to [Bond's group] and push them and push them and push them over the top if I can."
Happy as they are to be home, some of the Australians miss Newport a little. "Yeah, I loved the place," says Roberts. "I have dear friends there." Damian Fewster, the bowman on Australia II, still wears an old green cap he bought at R.C. Hart, a Newport clothing store. He secures it with strings, tied under his chin, and he has added small white paper ears—"lamb's ears," he calls them—for effect.
Longley sees similarities between Newport and Fremantle. Each, he says, has seen hard economic times and come through them. Each has an architectural heritage that has been preserved. And each is a small town. "I think it would have been tragic," he says, "if the Cup had been won by a Sydney or Melbourne yacht, where it would have been swallowed up by the town and would be just another sporting event. Here in Fremantle it can relate to a town again."
Right now, the odds favor Fremantle to repeat as host in 1991. If Alan Bond's crew of merry bandits could win off in Newport, logic says they are an even better bet to do so at home. However, the America's Cup, an improbable, even slightly fantastic, sporting event, doesn't always lend itself to logical conclusions. Genius and frailty, ego and error invariably get into the act. Australia II's triumph was Act II, Scene 1 of the longest drama in the history of sport. Now the pace has quickened. New characters wait in the wings. And, as Lexcen says, "The Cup is there, all shiny, saying, 'Come and get me.' "