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."
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.