A Collision Course Down Under

The 12-meter world championship off Fremantle brought out a bright array of contenders for the '87 America's Cup
February 24, 1986

I've never been so wet or worked so hard in all my life on the bow of a boat. It's the toughest sailing I've done," said Robert Salthouse, a 22-year-old New Zealander. Salthouse was one of three crewmen washed overboard during the fifth race of the seven-race 12-meter world championship sailed over the past two weeks on the edge of the Indian Ocean off Fremantle. Western Australia. In the same race, as the wind reached 20-plus knots and the seas roiled with six-foot swells topped by three-foot wind waves, four $8,000 spinnakers blew out and a $100,000 mast snapped in two. "It's a stiff entry fee," said John Kolius, skipper of America II, "but it's a great way to test out what we've been learning."

For 14 gleaming 12-meter yachts from six countries and 10 America's Cup syndicates, the worlds were a dress rehearsal of sorts for the Cup trials, which will be contested eight months from now on the same stretch of water and in similar conditions. Not all the Cup entrants chose to participate, but it was time and money well spent for those who did. Clearly, avoiding disaster when possible and recovering from it quickly will play important parts in any successful Cup campaign off Fremantle. Some syndicates are even discussing retrieval methods should one of their boats sink.

The heavyweight syndicates fared best. Alan Bond's group, the winners in Newport in 1983 and folk heroes in Australia ever since, entered two boats. Australia II, known fondly Down Under as "the little white pointer," the boat that ended the U.S.'s 132-year grip on the Cup, won the fourth race, when the air was lightest, her kind of weather. Australia III, Ben Lexcen's newest variation on the theme of the winged keel and a boat specifically designed for Fremantle's heavy weather, won the third, fifth and sixth races. She flew when the wind blew hard and more than held her own even when it didn't. Colin Beashel, known as Beasho, a taciturn young man with a bushy blond mustache who has replaced John Bertrand as No. 1 helmsman in the Bond camp, allowed himself several small catlike grins of pleasure as his new boat pulled further and further ahead in the standings, handily winning with three firsts and a second-place finish. New Zealand wound up second, America II third, Australia II fourth and a French boat fifth.

America II, built by the syndicate formed around skipper Kolius by the New York Yacht Club immediately after the defeat of Dennis Conner's Liberty in '83, has spent far more time sailing in Fremantle than the other challengers. At this point its operation is the best heeled and best prepared of the six American efforts, but last week the crew was plagued with bad luck on the water and a bad press on land. A bungled jibe that mangled a spinnaker, a split mainsail and a man overboard made her race results worse than her sailing performance actually was. She led the last race until the final leg and in other heats she was able to close in on the leaders, but she couldn't pull out a win.

Her shoreside performance was another story. The America II syndicate, which has wrapped its efforts in secrecy from the beginning, just as Australia II did in '83, was unprepared for the scope of media attention the event attracted and wound up damaging its relatively successful campaign to distance itself from the villainous image the New York Yacht Club acquired during the last defense. Kolius, a boyish-looking Texan with a quick wit and a talent for easy banter, should be the syndicate's prime weapon in such a campaign, but his decision to attend only two postrace press conferences last week, on days of his own choosing, was a poor one. It contrasted sadly with the good-natured civility of every other syndicate present. And America II made no friends when some of its crew members were aggressively rude to bystanders during a spot check at the Royal Perth Yacht Club's measuring pen. They formed a wall of broad shoulders to block the view of the boat, jostled people from the dock and shouted "No pictures!" at photographers. The Australian, a national newspaper, headlined its report on the incident WHO THE HELL DO AMERICA II GUYS THINK THEY ARE?

The Deed of Gift that has governed the America's Cup calls for "friendly competition between foreign nations." Once when Conner was reminded of those words, he said, "Bull——. It's war." And war it surely is these days.

By this time next year, $300 million—give or take a fortune or two—will have been spent to determine whether a gaudy silver pitcher will remain in its glass case at the Royal Perth Yacht Club, a few miles up the Swan River from Fremantle, or whether it will hit the road again, heading for parts as yet unknown, possibly even returning to its old pedestal at the New York Yacht Club.

The beneficiary of a good portion of the money being thrown around is the town of Fremantle (pop. 25,000), which has made the transition from somnolent port to tourist mecca with remarkable speed. Hotels that were fleabags 12 months ago are being renovated to suit the tastes of jet-setting yachties from around the world. An antique steam engine hauls tourists up and down Marine Terrace past the syndicate compounds, and only the workmen sandblasting huge lobster boats in the yard at Fremantle Boatlifters seem oblivious to the changes going on around them.

A busy trade in T shirts got under way with the arrival of the French syndicate from the Société des Régates Rochelaises. Its boat, French Kiss, named for its sponsor, a French photo processing company called Kis, had to sail a preliminary race that preceded the main event identified only by its sail number, F7, while the rules-makers of international yachting decided whether the name was too crassly commercial a tie-in for a sport that still likes to think of itself as amateur. However, once permission to use the name was granted, French Kiss broke out its lipstick-red spinnaker—and its T shirts—and won the second and last races. Her upwind speed was astonishing and, for a first-timer, so was her fifth-place finish.

The real odds-scrambler, however, was New Zealand. The Kiwis had two identical new entries—both called New Zealand—built of fiberglass, a material used widely in other boats but never before in a 12-meter. When one of the "plastic fantastics" won the first race, beating America II, Australia II and Australia III, in that order, the fleet was shaken to its winged keels. The helmsman of the winner was Chris Dickson, 24. The tactician was Dickson's 54-year-old father, Roy. The boat had been in the water for only two weeks, and few aboard had any previous 12-meter experience. Throughout the series, this New Zealand was a strong contender. The other New Zealand fared poorly.

News has already begun to leak through the plastic curtain—mustang wings, diamond wings, delta wings, cigar wings. America II, competing at Fremantle, is the first of three new 12-meters that will represent the syndicate and has seven sets of wings that can be snapped on and off her keel at will. "We've probably imported more lead into Western Australia than anybody else," said Kolius.

As an indicator of things to come on the water, the world championship was more a bold reminder of the enormous energy being expended on America's Cup '87 than a provider of clues as to the potential winner. First, this was fleet racing, not match racing as the Cup will be. Second, most of the Twelves that did race will be replaced by newer boats by the time the trials begin. Finally, two major syndicates stayed away—Conner's Sail America and Taskforce '87, Bond's closest Australian rival, which chose to race its two Kookaburras against each other out on the horizon.

As a preview of coming attractions onshore, the event was both festive and ominous. The Italians, as has become customary in their brief association with the Cup, are doing things in lavish style, throwing the best parties, building the grandest quarters, designing the prettiest boats. And the Australians have wrought miracles, creating facilities for boats, media and tourists virtually overnight.

These, however, were the trimmings. Behind the festive facade tension is building, what with chain-link fences, plastic curtains and devices to foil prying underwater cameras. Time is running short, ever more money is frantically being sought and internal battles are breaking out within previously united syndicates. In short, the smell of war is in the air.

But, oh, what a lovely war it promises to be.

TWO PHOTOSDAN NERNEY/DOTNew Zealand was in the Cup chase for the first time, with two boats (above), but Australia III (right) ran off with the series. PHOTODAN NERNEY/DOTCrewmen grapple with a jib on Victory 83, an ex-British boat owned by an Italian group. PHOTODANIEL FORSTER/DUOMOAfter debating questions of commercialism and taste, officials okayed a Gallic gamine. PHOTOROBERT GARVEY/WHEELER PICTURESIn one race, Kolius (above right) had to have the spinnaker of America II cut free (right).
PHOTODAN NERNEY/DOT[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)