The significance of Australia II’s successful challenge for the America’s Cup in 1983 can be seen in Bob Hawke’s famous declaration of an unofficial public holiday in the wake of unlikely victory. An extraordinary underdog tale, the victory was not just a sporting one but also a triumph for Aussie engineering, design and entrepreneurial spirit.
Having originally claimed the prize in 1851 after answering the Royal Yacht Squadron’s challenge to compete in a race around the Isle of Wight, the New York Yacht club had kept an iron grip on the trophy for 132-years. Originally known as the One Hundred Sovereign Cup, it was renamed the America’s Cup in honour of the twin masted ship that had won the original regatta. By 1983, they had successfully defended the Auld Mug 25 times through a combination of skill, daring and old fashioned cheating.
Ok, cheating might be a harsh characterisation but it is fair to say they were infamously fast and loose with the rules. Nothing illustrated this fact more than their efforts in attempting to have Australia II disqualified due to its cutting edge winged keel. Their belief of it’s illegality only coming after they failed to steal the plans to the keel and install it on their boat in contravention of the rules requiring a teams boat be designed in and by the country the team represented.
The NYYC’s response to Ben Lexcen’s radical keel design, as over the top as it might seem, was understandable given the advantage it offered. Without getting too technical, it reduced resistance and increased stability allowing Australia II to be as short and light as possible yet still carry enough sail. Not the kind of edge you want to surrender when you write and adjudicate on the rules of the contest.
None of this seemed to matter though when the NYYC had crates of champagne delivered to Newport ahead of the fifth race of the best of seven series with their Liberty crew leading Australia II 3-1. Despite his best endeavours, it seemed inevitable that Allan Bond would again leave empty handed after his fourth attempt to unbolt the Cup from the NYYC’s trophy cabinet.
John Bertrand and the Australia II crew refused to yield though. Their win in the fifth race put paid to the NYYC’s planned celebrations before their victory in the sixth saw them become just the second challenger to force a deciding race.
Despite 2000 boats on the water to watch events unfold, inclement weather on September 24th forced the deciding race to be postponed. The historic race would eventually commence two days later with Australia II taking an early lead before Liberty wrestled it back and settled into a comfortable position in front. Not content to sit back and miss their date with destiny, Bertrand and his crew took the race up to their opponent.
Taking full advantage of small changes in the wind, Australia II consistently forced Liberty into error as they closed the gap between the two boats. As they passed the final rounding mark and headed for home, the Aussie crew had claimed a 21 second advantage and forced Liberty to take desperate measures.
With the race entering it’s final stages, viewers across Australia watched on intently in the early hours of the morning as the American team’s prayers for a late gust of wind remain unanswered. In the end it would be Australia II that would benefit from the conditions down the final leg and crossed the line 41 seconds ahead of the defeated Liberty.
Just seven years after Australian sports darkest moment, leaving the Montreal Olympics without a single gold medal, it enjoyed one of its brightest. The largest unbroken winning streak in world sport had been brought to an end by Aussie spirit, willpower and know how. For this reason the day Australia II shocked the world will forever be one of the Greatest Moments in Australian Sport.