A weepy, funeral-like procession in midtown Manhattan and an empty champagne bottle turned upside down: two striking images from the day the US lost the America’s Cup for the first time after more than a century of dominance — exactly 38 years ago.
The New York Yacht Club in mourning might be the last place you’d expect a visiting Australian to try to gatecrash.
But that’s where I found myself on that fateful night: borrowing an oversized blue blazer, jumping in a yellow cab to West 44th Street and talking my way into the members’ only enclave.
And all because an elitist yachting competition had somehow captivated our entire nation.
It was on September 26, 1983, that Australia II completed an improbable comeback over US boat, Liberty, winning race seven at Newport, Rhode Island, for a 4-3 victory overall, having trailed 3-1.
Back in Australia, a nation celebrated, led by a champagne-soaked prime minister in Perth.
After a night of watching the drama on television, Bob Hawke effectively declared the following day — a Tuesday — a national public holiday, saying: “Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum.”
Three hundred kilometres south of the racing off Rhode Island, the New York Yacht Club was in a state of shock, unprepared for the end of a winning streak — the longest in sports — dating back to 1851.
There, more than anywhere else, at the club’s home since 1901, the impact of Australia II’s triumph was being felt. As uplifting as the result was for underdog Aussies 16,000 kilometres away, it was, in equal measure, devastating for those supporting the losing favourite.
This moment in history coincided with my first trip — a backpacker-style vacation — to the United States. I’d started the marathon journey from Sydney with Australia II headed for a noble defeat but arrived in New York City with John Bertrand’s crew pulling off the near impossible.
The America’s Cup was the last thing on my mind when air tickets were booked several months earlier.
In holiday mode, joining some fellow Australian journalists in a Manhattan bar, someone remarked what a great story it would be to sneak into the New York Yacht Club to see how the members were handling the shock of losing the cup.
Along with the world’s most dangerous and politically unstable hotspots of the time, the New York Yacht Club on that particular September evening might have been a place where all Australians would have been advised against travelling.
Two days before the races started, the club had unsuccessfully tried through the courts to ban Australia II’s controversial winged keel, effectively accusing the Royal Perth Yacht Club syndicate of cheating.
Cup transported by armoured vehicle
Precisely when I arrived at the club, its main doors opened and about a dozen members filed out towards a parked van. Half of them were carrying a large wooden box that looked like a coffin. It didn’t take long to work out the America’s Cup was inside.
The van was a Brinks armoured vehicle, ready to drive sailing’s most famous silverware up Interstate 95 to Newport for the official handover — to the enemy.
Funerals are often slow and measured affairs but this process was rapid and urgent. While the emotions flowed as they might alongside any cortege, there was also an air of chaos and confusion as a trophy representing 132 years of achievement was ingloriously yanked from the gentrified Beux-Arts landmark in less than 60 seconds.
Once the vehicle was out of sight, a few of the members lingered on the footpath, trying to make sense of what they had just witnessed, including a middle-aged man with red eyes.
Fortunately, the man did not throw punches in a fit of New York rage when approached by a journalist from Sydney interested in hearing his views. Instead, there was an invitation to join him and his wife for a complimentary dinner at the club.
So, the New York Yacht Club visitors’ book for the evening of September 26, 1983, registered one Australian guest.
‘Therapy session’ over steak dinner
In the heart of a city with the world’s highest concentration of psychiatrists, the meal with a gracious American host had the unfettered air of a therapy session. And, with the Cold War still in full swing, it was also a kind of entente cordiale: two potential adversaries breaking bread in the name of a higher cause.
That same day, Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov averted a possible nuclear war by correctly identifying a US missile attack warning in Moscow as a false alarm. On American soil, Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, who had risen to power three years earlier, was on a tense state visit to Washington DC.
During our dinner, the man opened up in a way one wouldn’t have imagined, speaking about his personal pain and sense of loss in saying goodbye to the Auld Mug. For him, the America’s Cup — the trophy — was like a close friend whose reassuring presence provided almost daily comfort within the exclusive confines of the club.
The man also shared an insider’s account of how the decisive seventh race of the series played out for him and the other members.
Club with no TV and ‘ship-at-sea echo’
In contrast to Manhattan’s rowdy sports bars, the New York Yacht Club had (in its own words) a “ship-at-sea echo”. Then, like now, it was a cosy and refined refuge where members could peacefully enjoy a drink, meal and thoughtful conversation without distraction.
So, with no television or radio on the premises, the only way to get updates on the racing was from an open telephone line to Newport.
Because retaining the America’s Cup was almost a formality, members hadn’t felt the need to closely follow each day’s racing. Most of the previous series were lopsided, with the defender rarely troubled. The US had lost only three of 39 races dating back to 1937, and had dropped just nine races since the America’s Cup began in 1851.
But, with the 1983 series tied at 3-3 going into race seven, one member, with a no-dial rotary telephone in hand, was given the job of relaying information from Newport to an increasingly concerned gathering within the club.
Under respected skipper Dennis Conner, Liberty started well and seemed on course for victory. But after surrendering the lead on the penultimate leg, the American yacht was unable to get it back, despite Conner tacking 47 times before the finish.
Australia II, expertly piloted by Olympic medallist Bertrand, crossed the line 41 seconds ahead to clinch the series, meaning the challenger had defied sudden death by taking the last three races to win.
After we had a magnificent steak dinner in the dining room, the man introduced me to other members, with an invitation to look around the club that had operated on that site since 1901. Walking through the various sections, the detail and quality of the many replica boats and ships on display in its trophy room was impressive.
Champagne bottle replaces missing cup
What stood out was the sizeable display case that had protected the America’s Cup until a few hours earlier.
Instead of showing off precious silverware, the structure now housed an empty champagne bottle, its spout pointing to the floor, symbolic of an institution whose world had been turned upside down.
After the man and his wife had gone home, I wrote my story by hand on New York Yacht Club letterhead in a quiet corner of the club. Then, in those early days of computers long before email, the article was dictated on a reverse-charges telephone call to a typist back at the Sydney Morning Herald for the next day’s edition.
Just after midnight, this Australian visitor was the second-last person to leave the club, let out the front door by the night security guard.
For someone who didn’t live through Australia’s unexpected success off the Rhode Island coast, it is difficult to explain four decades later the significance of winning — let’s face it — a relatively obscure sporting event.
But Bertrand’s unexpected success, powered by Ben Lexcen’s winged keel and Alan Bond’s cash, seemed to energise a nation down on its competitive luck.
Australia had won just nine medals at the ill-fated and partly boycotted 1980 Moscow Olympics and only five — with no gold — at the Montreal Games four years before that. Compare that to 46 medals, with 17 golds at the recent Tokyo Olympics.
Boxing Kangaroo flag galvanises a nation
The boxing Kangaroo flag that fluttered in the Rhode Island breeze off Australia II’s forestay became a symbol of its triumph. And it would epitomise our fighting spirit in decades of other sporting battles to come. Rather than the nagging feeling that we might not be good enough, sticking it to the Yanks in their own — ahem — waterways when all seemed lost, proved that anything was possible.
The triumph came just seven months into Bob Hawke’s first term as prime minister and remains one of his most endearing moments, setting the tone for his tenure. Wearing a gaudy Australian-branded sports coat, his euphoria bubbled over in the early hours amongst a packed crowd at the Royal Perth Yacht Club. Indeed, as a proud West Australian, this moment was even sweeter.
Years later, the America’s Cup would be voted by the readers of my old newspaper as the greatest day in Australian sports history, more significant than winning world cups in rugby and cricket and staging the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
It remains the only time Australia has actually won the America’s Cup. In a disastrous defence at Fremantle four years later, Kookaburra III was trounced 4-0 by Stars and Stripes 87, skippered by 1983 loser, Dennis Conner. Conner’s tale of redemption is featured in a 1992 film, Wind.
New Zealand is the current holder of the America’s Cup, having successfully defended the trophy in March — winning it for the fourth time — after Emirates Team New Zealand defeated Italy’s Luna Rossa by seven races to three off the coast of Auckland.
After leaving the New York Yacht Club on that autumn night in 1983, I took a reflective stroll back to my accommodation a few blocks away near Times Square.
I rounded a corner, past the open doors of a late-night bar whose house band was cranking out a raucous version of Who Can It Be Now? by Men At Work. The Melbourne group’s other big hit, Down Under, was the unofficial anthem of Australia II’s challenge, but I’d never heard US musicians covering Australian artists before.
In those pre-Crocodile Dundee days, the full brunt of Australia’s cultural awakening and transformation — and the resulting international invasion — was still a few years away.
But for a split second on that last Tuesday in September 1983, I caught a glimpse of the future.