Except for the fact that Fremantle has been introduced to that particularly American phenomenon gridlock, not much has changed in the little Western Australian port town on the Indian Ocean in the last month. For the price of a sack of chips you can still buy a picnic table at Cicerello's overlooking Fishing Boat Harbour, and the cappuccinos at Gino's and Papa Luigi's sidewalk cafes are still the best in the Antipodes.
Out on Gage Roads, a 15-mile-wide stretch of water between Fremantle and Rottnest Island, though, everything has changed. The America's Cup trials are finally under way. Long, anxious months of planning gave way to action on Oct. 5, and contrary to most predictions, the cream rose instantly to the top of both the challenger and defender fleets.
America II from the New York Yacht Club, Stars & Stripes from Dennis Conner's San Diego Yacht Club group, and New Zealand, the fiberglass surprise of last winter's 12-meter World Championships, finished the first challenger's round-robin tied at 11 wins and 1 loss, having beaten everybody except one another. Sharing fourth place at 8-4 were USA, the revolutionary front-ruddered design from San Francisco, and Britain's White Crusader. The remaining challengers—Eagle and Heart of America from the U.S., French Kiss and Challenge France from France, Azzurra and Italia from Italy, and Canada II—went back to the drawing board, the boatyard and, in some cases, the bank, to prepare for the second round of trials that began this week. (Courageous, the old lady of the fleet, became the first Cup dropout after finishing 1-11.)
As the challengers were winding down, the six Australian defenders moved out to sea on Oct. 18 for Series A of their 3½ months of trials. Until that first set of races no one on either side of the Pacific had seriously doubted that the first Australian defender of the America's Cup would come from Alan Bond's team of veteran Cup brawlers. America's Cup Defence 1987 Limited, as the Bond syndicate calls itself, had organizational experience earned in four Newport campaigns. It had Ben Lexcen, the self-taught genius who designed the wing-keeled Australia II, winner of the Cup in 1983; it had a nucleus of six crewmen left from the victorious '83 crew, including the skipper of Australia IV, Colin Beashel; it had the backing of Alan Bond's many millions; it had two daunting new boats in Australia III and Australia IV; and it had, in Warren Jones, Bond's tough right arm, the leader who had been credited with winning the America's Cup by manipulating the media and bamboozling the New York Yacht Club's America's Cup Committee in the winged-keel debacle. As the Aussies say, using a cricket metaphor, Bond's syndicate had runs on the board.
As of last week, however, Bond's were not the only runs on the America's Cup scoreboard, and taking note of that fact, Ladbrokes, the London bookmakers, quoted odds on Bond's syndicate winning the Cup at 5 to 1. Quoted at 3 to 1 was Bond's crosstown rival, the Task-force '87 syndicate of Kevin Parry. When Series A ended last week, Parry's Kookaburra III had a 9-1 record, Bond's Australia IV was 8-2, Parry's Kookaburra II was in third place at 7-3, while Australia III finished 4-6. (The two other defender candidates, South Australia and Steak 'N Kidney, had 2-8 and 0-10 records, respectively.) Australians, or at least those who occasionally took their eyes off cricket matches on the telly, were startled by the first-round results. Even Jones was somewhat taken aback. "There's no doubt the Kookaburras are fast," he said. "Even blind Freddy could see that."
The two golden-hulled Kookaburras, which in a certain light resemble two halves of the same banana, were so impressive in the early going that some Australian observers even hinted at the possibility of an all-Kookaburra final in the January defender showdown. One thing is certain, and it is bad news for the remaining 12 Cup challengers: The Australian boat that survives the defender series will have been toughened by combat in nearly four months of trials. Or as Lexcen, designer of the two Australias, put it, "Whoever beats Kookaburra III will win the America's Cup."
There's more to winning the America's Cup than winning, however, and that is Jones's department. Already the famous Jones psych has started. Speaking to Bruce Stannard of The Bulletin, an Australian newsweekly, Jones said of Iain Murray, skipper of Kookaburra III, "One way or another we will get him, and then he will learn what 12-meter campaigning is all about. It's not kindergarten playtime out here. It's not Amateur Hour."
If any sailor in Australia figures to be psych-proof, it is Murray. When the newest Kookaburra (III) beat the newest Australia (IV) by 43 seconds in their first encounter, Murray just smiled. "There's an old saying: 'When the bull——ends, the racing begins,' " he said.
Murray came of age on Sydney Harbour in the rough-and-tumble, blue-collar world of the 18-foot skiff class, where gambling and dirty tricks are endemic. Aside from sailboards, the "eye-deens" are the fastest monohulls in the world. Murray, now 28, has been world champion of the 18-footers six times, beginning when he was 17. Further, although he is not schooled as a naval architect, he has designed practically every boat he has sailed since he was 13. (Interestingly, Lexcen also worked his way to prominence as a designer through the skiff classes in Sydney Harbour. He was national champion in the Eighteens several times beginning in the mid-'60s.)
Murray's patron is Parry who, like Bond, is a self-made multimillionaire Perth businessman. Although it was surely not lost on the 52-year-old Parry that Bond's worth has increased considerably since he became involved in the America's Cup, Parry's initial motive for getting into Cup racing was at least partly patriotic. "When Alan came home from Newport, he said he was worried that if [Bond's syndicate] didn't get some competition it wouldn't be pushed to the limit to defend the Cup properly," Parry recalls. "About that time I was working on our next two-year corporate plan. I asked one of our directors who was a sailor what it took to mount a defense. He said he thought it would cost [close to $4 million], and I said, 'Yes, over three or four years, I reckon that would be a pretty good investment.' " Three years and $13 million later Parry has two viable contenders, and Bond has more competition than he bargained for.